More attacks on the right to protest: CS spray

A protester hit with incapacitant spray
A protester hit with incapacitant spray

In yet another attack on our right to protest, police yesterday used incapacitant spray on peaceful protesters at Boots in Oxford Street, London. For an eyewitness account head over to F for Philistine where @dawnhfoster has written up what she saw, and includes some video.  You can also read about events from @bc_tmh‘s point of view at Beyond Clicktivism. Since those two blogs have covered things much better than I could, I though that I would show you how events looked to those of us following them at home via Twitter. Reports for the first hour or two were of a successful protest, of people enjoying themselves, talking to people on the street and the police and shop staff being friendly but things went wrong just before 3pm.

13:45 @stavvers: Police being brilliant. Hugh Orde would be a very sad panda #ukuncut

14:48 @UKuncut: Staff at Boots friendly & good natured – laughing and joking with protesters #Ukuncut

14:55 @stavvers: Police arresting and pepper spraying protesters #ukuncut

14:56 @MissEllieMae: Police just pepper sprayed a load of us. We’re calling an ambulance for someone #ukuncut

14:58 @MissEllieMae: People are being dragged away by the police. There is no violence. An ambulance is on its way. This is shameful #ukuncut

15:01 @chris_coltrane: FUCK. Police arrested someone. We shouted “shame”. POLICE PEPPER-SPRAYED PROTESTERS IN THE FACE. #ukuncut http://yfrog.com/h74b9hej

15:03 @chris_coltrane: The girl was arrested for “criminal damage”. Guess what she did? She put leaflets through the door of Boots. #ukuncut

15:04 @UKuncut: 1 person has been arrested in Ldn for pushing a piece paper between a door. The police then pepper sprayed those that helped her #ukuncut

15:04 @chris_coltrane: A dozen people with bright red eyes recovering on the street. The police have taken a peaceful protest, and turned it violent. #ukuncut

15:04 @dawnhfoster: Holy fuck, they just pepper-sprayed a load of people. Waiting for the ambulance. I’m shaking. #UKUncut

15:04 @MissEllieMae: Sitting next to my friend who was pepper sprayed. There was no violence. #ukuncut

15:05 @MissEllieMae: Loads of police here now, everyone is very angry with their behaviour #ukuncut

15:10 @dawnhfoster: Boots have taken victims in to treat them. Chatting to manager, who thinks it was CS gas not pepper spray. #UKUncut

15:12 @stavvers: Ben’s Cookies are providing free milk for protesters who have been hid with pepper spray. Big thanks to them #ukuncut

15:19 @UKuncut: Boots helped to treat protesters affected by pepper spray. Seems even they are disgusted by police behaviour. #ukuncut

15:24 @dawnhfoster: Seriously, where’s the ambulance? #ukuncut

15:27 @UKuncut: Ambulance has arrived to help protesters attacked by police. We <3 the NHS! #ukuncut http://twitpic.com/3uvxt0

15:27 @bengoldacre: When I went on #Ukuncut it was a really strikingly peaceful protest. Interested in justification for police pepperspraying ppl in face.

15:28 @MissEllieMae: Ambulance is here. NHS coming to the rescue… http://plixi.com/p/73581201

15:28 @dawnhfoster Medics treating three guys in ambulance now. Hope they’re ok. Policeman confirms it was CS not pepper spray #UKUncut

21:50 @UKuncut: This slightly dislodged rubber is the ‘criminal damage’ which resulted in police hospitalising 3 people. http://yfrog.com/h5oapkrj

Interestingly, I also saw this from a Boots twitter account:

@BootsMealDeal: We at Boots are disgusted by police behaviour today.

The account was deleted a short time later, along with another Boots account. There is some speculation that the accounts were either fake or were run by Boots staff without authorisation. It did cross my mind earlier that the account might be fake, and on looking back through its tweets I found what looked like a genuine but very unprofessional twitter account.

The aftermath

This video was taken in the immediate aftermath of the incident. Given that CS spray is supposed to be used just prior to restraining someone, and the victim must then be carefully monitored to ensure recovery, this video is fairly damning for the police.

More about CS spray

Officer CW2440 - who sprayed himself in the face as well as the protesters
Officer CW2440 - who sprayed himself in the face as well as the protesters

There was some confusion over what the police actually used on the protesters. Many people referred to Pepper Spray and others referred to CS Gas. What was used was actually CS Spray as confirmed in this Freedom Of Information request. [PDF] (A few police forces use PAVA spray instead.) A lot of people call it pepper spray even though it uses CS while pepper spray uses capsicum. CS spray contains the same active ingredient as CS gas, but dissolved in a solvent that can be sprayed instead of being a powder or being dispersed from a thermal grenade. CS Gas is actually banned for use in warfare according to the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. It might be illegal to us it on enemy soldiers, but it seems to be acceptable for the police to use it on civilians. When I tweeted this fact earlier, people seemed very worked up about it. As I write this, it has been retweeted 95 times!

The police document on such things is this Guidance on the Use of Incapacitant Spray [PDF] which is written by the ACPO. (Yes, them again.)

The guidelines are clear that CS spray is to be used only in defence to allow police to restrain someone who is a danger to others. From reading eye witness accounts it is obvious that the officer used the spray not to protect himself or others around him, but offensively when people did not do what he wanted. In 2000 the Police Complaints Authority carried out research in to how CS spray was being used by the police. They found that 38% of the time police were using the spray offensively, not defensively.  I do not have any figures to know if this has changed ten years later but I would hope that it has. The guidelines state that “Tactical training in the use of the spray should emphasise precautions in relation to self / cross contamination.” Perhaps officer CW2440 hasn’t had that training, because not only did he incapacitate ten people and cause problems for several others nearby, he also managed to spray himself in the face.

The guidelines also talk at length about caring for the incapacitated person after they have been sprayed and says this is of “utmost importance.” Details of recovery times are given and the guidelines state that particular attention must be given to monitoring breathing. They go on to say “A medical practitioner should examine those who cannot open their eyes or whose eyes are actively running beyond the normal recovery period. The expected period is 20 minutes after exposure.” In actual fact we can see from the tweets that it took nearly half an hour for an ambulance to arrive in a city where bikes and cars are used in addition to ambulances to make sure that paramedics get to the scene within 8 minutes and usually even less time. Questions should be asked about why it took so long for the ambulance to arrive. Protesters called the ambulance, did police interference cause the delay?

The ACPO guidance also has this to say about the use of CS spray in situations like this.

“2.5.13 Such action on the part of an officer may have a profound impact on crowd dynamics with obvious implications for public safety and public order. The spraying of incapacitants in these circumstances  may, particularly in the case of CS, lead to cross contamination causing panic or even hysteria. Similarly, the use of incapacitant spray, again primarily CS although PAVA in a more limited way, in crowded public areas may cause significant cross contamination and another use of force option may be more appropriate. The decision to use incapacitant spray against a person in these circumstances must be capable of subsequent justification and the closest scrutiny.”

From what witnesses and those involved have said to me I think it likely that the use of CS spray was simply the actions of one officer that acted alone, when he saw protesters trying to bar his way to prevent an arrest of someone that had merely posted a flier through a door.  Perhaps he panicked, or perhaps he was just itching for an excuse to exercise some power. Hopefully there will be an enquiry into this incident. More worryingly though, witnesses reported that police wearing a different uniform arrived on the scene shortly after the spraying, and those officers were carrying handguns. I can’t see any justification for sending armed police out to what had been a completely peaceful and friendly protest before the police got involved.

Other articles about this

Police use CS spray on tax protesters (Guardian)

Police pepper spray #ukuncut protesters (Indymedia)

Three in hospital as police use CS gas at UK Uncut protest (Liberal Conspiracy)

Police use CS gas on tax protesters (Telegraph)

CS spray used on UK uncut protest (BBC)

Facebook group calling for the prosecution of officer CW2440

Clamping down on UK Uncut (A personal account by Ellie Mae O’Hagan – New Left Project)

Police abusing our right to protest

Yesterday I wrote about section 14 of the public order act, and how it allowed the police to effectively order protesters to move or to leave. Today section 14 was used in Lewes and it was all caught on camera by @taboacid

The protesters that were arrested were drinking tea outside of Boots in Lewes. They were not preventing anyone from entering as far as I know, simply refusing to move away when ordered to. (Since writing this I have been told that people collecting prescriptions were all let through, others were discouraged but not stopped.) How the police issued their section 14 notice is not clear. The police officer in the video clearly used the line “You will be arrested in breach of conditions imposed under section 14 of the public order act. These officers will now arrest you.” Police action so far is legal, but as far as I am concerned it should not be in their power to order anyone to move in this situation.

Later in the video is a more incriminating moment. A protester is “de-arrested” by the police but only after having her details taken. Quoting the video:

“She’s been de-arrested. She’s provided her details and she’s been de-arrested. She’ll be out of the van in a couple of moments once my colleagues have got everything they need.”

De-arrest means that no central record is ever made of the arrest, only that in the notebook of the officer concerned. Requests for statistics on de-arrests have been rejected because of this. De-arrest is necessary in some situations but the context in which it is usually used now is to force people to give their name and address to the arresting officer, clearly in breach of the intent of the law. There is no legal obligation to give identifying information to the police unless arrested, so the police have established a routine of threatening to arrest people unless they give information, and if that does not work then they arrest the person, take their details, then de-arrest them. This means that the police now know the identity of the person, but have no record of the arrest. Not only that, but the information that they have unethically seized is not stored as an official police record and so is not subject to the same controls. For an example of the sort of thing that the police do with the information, see this Guardian story about spotter cards used by the police at protests, and this comment by Mark Thomas on the same.

In a previous situation similar to this, the police denied that there was even any database involved. I think it is clear that they are abusing the definition of database in order to avoid regulation of their data tracking. Extract from their reply to a complaint:

“The information obtained under section 50 is subsequently recorded electronically and weeded after seven years. The fact that your details have been recorded in such a way does not constitute any form of formal police record, and would not be disclosed externally.

This video footage and your personal details are not cross-referenced, and the database which you allude to does not exist.”

The police may be working within the law, but it is clear to me that that in the case of coercing protesters to give identity information and “de-arresting” they are abusing the intent of the law to keep records on people guilty of nothing except exercising their essential democratic right to protest, and in creating section 14 of the public order act MPs have given dangerous powers to the police that threaten our democracy.

Section 14: Police try to order you around

The Met police are once again printing a leaflet to distribute at anti-cuts protests. (Don’t click that link yet!)

Advice seen this morning suggests that it would be a bad idea for protesters to take and read one of these leaflets because it will legally bind protesters to a section 14 notice.

DO NOT accept any leaflets from the police on the protest unless you wish to be legally bound by a section14 notice. REPOST! #demo2011 #dayx

So what is this Section 14?

Section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986 gives police the power to order protesters to confine their protest to a certain place, keep the numbers down, and tell them when to stop. More information from freebeagles.org:

Does a Section 14 or 12 notice have to be in writing?

A Section 14 or notice only has to be in writing where it is issued in advance by the chief constable of police. It does not have to be in writing when it is issued at the time of the assembly by the most senior officer present.

Section 14 – Public Assemblies

As with Section 12, the senior officer may impose conditions on public assemblies, which he considers are reasonably necessary to prevent serious public disorder etc. But unlike Section 12, the conditions he may reasonably impose are in this case limited to specifying:
a) the numbers of people who may take part,
b) the location of the assembly, and
c) its maximum duration.

I find it outrageous that the police have been given this power in law. I do not believe it should ever be in the police’s power to issue orders to people, only to investigate crime and to make arrests to facilitate the trial of those that commit crimes. There is an argument that they can inform people of the law so that they are aware of what is a crime and what isn’t, but giving them extra powers to order people around and making it a crime to disobey is yet another marker on the way to a police state. (There is also the issue of restraining people in the interests of public safety. Discussion about police powers is for another day, however.) There is a way to avoid being prosecuted under section 14, however. In this case, ignorance is an excuse. Since a protesters must be aware of a section 14 notice to be found to contravene it, simply do not take or read any leaflets from the police, and do not listen to any announcements that they may try to give. More info again:

Can I be arrested if I have not been told about the conditions?

It is an offence knowingly to fail to comply with one of the Section 12 or 14 conditions. So it would be a defence to say that you had no actual knowledge of the conditions – eg because you had not been told or, in the case of a notice issued by the chief constable, there was no written notice.

The police sometimes use a megaphone to issue a Section 14 notice at the scene of an assembly, Activists arrested for breach of Section 14 are often subsequently acquitted because they simply could not hear what the police were saying and therefore had no knowledge that a Section 14 notice was in existence.

Do we live in a police state?

You may prefer to read a shorter version of this article.

The words “Police State” are thrown about a lot. People often say that we live in a police state. Others, myself included, would say that we are certainly headed that way. But what do the words actually mean? Well here is what the dictionary says about it:

Police State: A political unit characterized by repressive governmental control of political, economic, and social life usually by an arbitrary exercise of power by police and especially secret police in place of regular operation of administrative and judicial organs of the government according to publicly known legal procedures. (From the Merriam-Webster dictionary.)

So do we live in a police state? Lets look at some evidence. I made a long list of areas that the government, past and present, has been very authoritarian about. Some in particular stood out to me as indicative of a police state. Continue reading “Do we live in a police state?”