There is a big march of protest coming up on the 26th of March, March for the alternative. It has been called by the TUC, but will be attended by many other groups opposed to our governments ideological choice of deficit reduction through savage cuts.
This march is looking to have at least two hundred thousand people attend, hopefully more. I encourage everyone reading this to go along. The less-mobile are well catered for too with special gathering points and a shorter route if required. You can even hire a scooter for the day.
There is an aspect that I am unhappy about though, and that is the way that the march is being policed. The guardian explains in its article Police prepare for more kettling at cuts protest.
First of all we learn that the police have designated a “Containment manager.” On the face of it, this is a positive move to make sure that the police are doing everything correctly. But actually, it’s a scary move. It shows that they expect to use containment (kettling) at these protests. Assistant Commissioner Lynne Owens is quoted as saying “Containment is only used where there had been violence or where there is imminent violence.” Is there anyone left that believes this line? Containment has been used on too many occasions in recent months, in inappropriate conditions, adults and children alike, and even on people that were obeying orders to leave. (The Westminster Bridge kettle, 9th December 2010) It has certainly not been used as a last resort unless the police had no other plans at all!
We also learn that the police are providing training to 2,800 TUC stewards on how to defuse conflicts to delay getting the police involved, and how cope with sit-down protests. Defusing conflict is a useful skill, but I am confused who they expect to use this skill on. Do they think protester will be fighting protester? Or are they expecting to defuse conflicts between protester and police? Because if a police officer is ordering someone to move, kettling someone, shoving someone away from a picket line or hitting someone with a baton, I’m fairly sure that neither protester nor police officer will be inclined to listen to a TUC steward.
As for coping with sit-down protests, what do they mean by cope? If the TUC aims to prevent such things from happening, I expect a lot of unhappy people. If trying to protest and make a point without being violent, sitting down and linking arms with others so as to avoid being moved is just about the only option left. The police seem to think they have a right to order protesters to move, and so it seem, do the stewards.
The police have also announced that they will once again hand out leaflets to “inform people of the official march route.” As we have seen before, deviating from the official route is seen as reason to introduce kettling. But why? The leaders that agreed the route do not speak for everyone. Many protesters do not want to simply march from A to B, or follow the route that they are ordered to. They may well want to spend time in an area where certain politicians are more likely to see them. What right have the police and the TUC got to order people to follow their route? What right have stewards, who have no power, got to tell people what to do?
The police have taken a small positive step in that the TUC and Liberty will both have representatives in the MET central operations room and Liberty will observe the event. Remember though, that policing at previous protests was considered flawed enough that there was an inquiry by a parliamentary joint committee on human rights. In the face of this, Hugh Orde, chief of the ACPO, wants to see “more extreme” policing, and Lynne Owens, assistant commissioner of the Met, promises to act “more robustly.” CS spray has been used at protests twice now. Section 14 notices have been used to arrest people that refuse to leave. The police have introduced “hyper kettling” where they actually reduce the space available to protesters until the are crammed so tightly that they cannot breathe. Their moves are authoritarian, continuing the chilling effect that policing is having on our right to protest. I have heard from many people who say that they will not go to protests and certainly will not take children, because of the actions of the police. If that isn’t a chilling effect, I don’t know what is.
Given that trouble mostly seems to flare up when the police make contact with the protesters, here’s my suggestion to them. Stay away. Don’t go near the protests unless there is some actual violence or vandalism that you need to address, and even then, go away again.
Try it. It might just work.