Sunday, 14 November 2010

Wednesday 10 November: Policing Demonstrations

The 50,000+ student/lecturer demonstration on Wednesday 10 November was marred publicity wise by the actions of a small group who decided to attack the Tory HQ on Millbank.

Policing demonstrations has always been difficult. There is a mixed history of when they disintegrate into violence. This can be due to police action. The 1887 Bloody Sunday battle was started by police charging demonstrators to stop them getting into Trafalgar Square. It was the actions of a police motor cyclist driving through the back of the crowd at the first anti-Vietnam War demonstration that triggered the fighting. Sometimes the violence is caused by a small group of demonstrators.

The duration of the resultant street fighting partly depends on how many of the wider group of demonstrators get caught up and the tactics used by the police.

On Wednesday the police clearly got their strategy and tactics wrong in not working out what the potential risks were and how to minimise and respond to them.

Originally the demonstration was to have ended with an event in Vauxhall Spring Gardens. NUS, the police and Lambeth Council had agreed. The Friends of Spring Gardens expressed concerns about whether the Gardens' capacity could cope with the under 10,000 then expected. Kennington Park was suggested as an alternative. Knowing the leading members I understood their concerns and advised them to get in touch with the Community/Police Consultative Group for Lambeth.

When I worked for it 1984-9 a previous NUS demonstration had erupted into problems. The Group analysed what happened and made a number of recommendations for the future policing of demonstrations, many of which were accepted. But as always with organisations Scotland Yard seems to have forgotten.
Wednesday's demonstration was in the hands of Scotland Yard not the Lambeth police. Finally the decision was taken not to end the demonstration at Spring Gardens. Why they chose instead to end it on Millbank opposite Tate Britain is a mystery which we might get to find out about in due course. But having chosen it the police should have assessed which buildings contained organisations and businesses that might have been seen as potential targets by some demonstrators.

Violence on demonstrations damages the causes through media coverage. It means people get unnecessarily hurt. It can lead to individual police officers behaving out of control which increases the likelihood of people being hurt. Many people caught up in the fighting will realise how frightening the experience actually is and be in two minds about supporting future demonstrations. And finally there are all those people who get arrested. If they are convicted they may be martyrs to some, but it costs money to pay fines, and those who get criminal records will have that held against them for years to come.

And even those arrested who were innocent can be wrongly convicted, like my friend a few years ago who was convicted of kneeing a policeman in the groin on a demonstration, when given their respective heights it was physically impossible. Not all magistrates are as enlightened as those who threw out the charge of refusing to obey police orders when another friend proved that he could not physically move given the number of police and other demonstrators around him.

Individual senior officers have enormous operational power and discretion. It can depend on their attitude whether they set the scene that could end in trouble. When I was negotiating the plan for an anti-cuts demonstration in Wandsworth in the early 1990s involving three feeder marches, the senior officer reaching agreement was not on duty on the night. His replacement tore up the agreement and kettled the 3,000 demonstrators into a side-street. It was touch and ago whether I could get him to change his mind before the first attempt to break out would begin. Fortunately he saw sense, but only just in time. The demonstration then continued without incident and the TV news coverage was very positive.

So when organisers are planning demonstrations in the future they need to take into consideration not only who might take part intent on violence, but how to ensure that the agreements reached are abided by.

Given my experience it seems that these are some of the things that need to be part of negotiated agreements.

Senior police officers who agree the route and other details must be on duty on the day - i.e. not be replaced by others who then to decide to tear up what has been agreed.

Copies of the agreement signed by the senior officers agreeing it should be given to organisers who can show them to other officers on the day in the event of problems arising.

All officers must wear their numbers and be properly briefed about their behaviour especially if taunted by some of the demonstrators.

The police must not kettle people as this only causes panic and tension.

Exit routes for the majority who want to get away from the fighting must be obvious and not blocked off.

Senior police officers and organisers must exchange mobile phone numbers so they can be in contact with each other.

In the event of trouble and arrests anywhere en route there must be agreed places of detention with organisers' volunteer observers present, and if it can be arranged members of the independent visitors scheme.

Photographers and TV camera crews must not be prevented from using their equipment.

Reporters must not be prevented from recording what they see.

Of course conspiracy theorists might argue that some senior police officers are just as angry with the ConDems over cuts as students and others. Did they want trouble to be able to say there will be more of this – you the Government cannot afford to cut us if there is going to be increasing disorder?

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