Opinion: We need a proper public debate on the future of protest policing in our country

Force is a physical power, and I fail to see what moral effect it can have. To yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will — at the most, an act of prudence. In what sense can it be a duty?’
J Jacques Rousseau

I don’t think I am the only one to have quoted the social contract over the G20 protests earlier this month. 350 years on from its writing, Rousseau’s work is still strikingly relevant. It is clear from the outcry following G20 that many are now questioning the role of state security forces (in this case the police) and their mandate in supporting and protecting democratic society .

Since April 1st the question of the social contract between the police and public has held particular significance for me. The police assault on non-violent protestors at climate camp and the tragic death of G20 bystander Ian Tomlinson has served to highlight tensions that have grown between the police and protestors over recent years. In some way the G20 was a tipping point, with the scale of the event, the birth of citizen journalism and the systematic excess of force shown across many aspects of the demonstration policing culminating in a tragic death and a media frenzy. However I believe problems have been growing for some time and go beyond the individual incidents displayed this April.

Issues of disproportionate force aside, it is increasingly clear political protestors are being targeted in other ways. Intrusive criminal justice bills, and far-reaching, illiberal anti-terrorism laws, are two key issues. More specifically, the recent allegations that police are bribing members of environmental groups to spy on each other, and that blatant ‘spinning’ by the communications arm of the Met was used to try and cover up the death of Ian Tomlinson, are worrying. It leaves those of us who actually have the passion to go out and protest about our beliefs (a rare thing in ‘apathy UK’) are doing so in a poisonous environment.

Defend Peaceful Protest, a new group formed in the aftermath of the G20, believe it is time a proper debate was held on the role of police at political protests. We believe there is a need for a fully independent, effective and impartial investigation into the tactics and methods employed by the police at and around the date of the G20 protests. This should be a review of both policy and practice, and where applicable legislation, to ensure that all methods and tactics employed by police reflect and promote the right to peaceful protest.

Without this reform, we fear there will be further violence and further resentment and radicalisation of members of the smaller protest groups. However much better our police our than our neighbours in Europe or elsewhere in the world, we should not be complacent. Our police and their political masters should set a higher standard, not point the finger at our neighbours and say how much worse it could be.

Defend Peaceful Protest have set our aims and objectives out at www.defendpeacefulprotest.org – we encourage people to contribute to the debate either here on LDV, or on our own forum.

* Andrew May works for a major human rights organisation. He is a former Lib Dem election agent and MP’s staff, and founding member of ‘Defend Peaceful Protest’ .

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3 Comments

  • rantersparadise 30th Apr '09 - 11:12pm

    Of course.

    We are truly mental the way we deal with the actual concept of true democracy.

  • Its not quite the “fully independent, effective and impartial investigation into the tactics and methods employed by the police at and around the date of the G20 protests” that Andrew and this new group is wishing to see, but after approving a motion tabled by one of the Liberal Democrat members of the Metropolitan Police Authority Dee Doocey yesterday, the Authority agreed to closely examine its policies and practices to ensure that good policing and the protection of the liberties of peaceful demonstrators are both fully upheld.

    Dee and Caroline Pidgeon, the other Lib Dem on the Police Authority, each made the point that without understanding the very real concerns people have about the way the G20 protests were policed, senior officers at the Met should expect to see an undermining of public confidence in them and their tactics if that has not already occurred.

    More at http://tinyurl.com/dc9vy5 or you watch the MPA full authority meeting at http://www.london.gov.uk/webcasts.jsp

  • Hi Nick, indeed its a very positive step. I was at the MPA meeting and got the opportunity to ask questions, was great to see how supportive many of the MPA members were and hope this will continue as the review goes on.

    I was less impressed by the chief police officers present. Although they did admit some culpability and are undertaking a review, they also tried to spin their way out of trouble much in the same way they did over Ian Tomlinson,

    More distrubingly, at the MPA meeting it came to Defend Peaceful Protests attention that one of the officers present, Chris Allison, was present in the operations room and therefore must have seen the incident in its entirety (if not live then almost immediately live by watching playbacks in the control room).

    Taking this statement into consideration why then did the Metropolitan Police issue a statement on April 1st at 23.36 stating that “The officers took the decision to move him as during this time a number of missiles – believed to be bottles – were being thrown at them?

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/may/01/g20-police-watchdog-investigation-protest

    David Howarth has covered the other inaccuracies in Police statements today in the link above

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