Do we live in a police state? (Short version)

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.


A poster used in London in 2002

Social and economic interference

In addition to all the examples of government control of political life which I have already detailed, there are also the economic and social factors. Our government is very keen to change the way that the public behave through the use of tax. In particular they use this method on petrol and other fuels, on alcoholic drinks and cigarettes. They also plan to introduce a charge to couples that make use of the Child Support Agency when splitting up. Since there often is no choice but to go through the CSA this amounts to a tax on splitting up in the eyes of many and is seen as a government attempt to make people stay married. There has in the past been a married couples tax allowance which some see as doing a similar job. The government is also known to use Nudge Theory to try to change our behaviour. They also want to censor our internet connections by default to remove pornography. (Extreme pornography was made illegal in 2009.) Some of these things are specific to a Conservative government, but most of them apply to all governments that we have had.

When I wrote down this list I was staggered by the length of it. I had expected a few minor items, not this many. The examples on this list add up to our rights being systematically abused and removed for the benefit of those in power and those who chose to serve them, and to force on all a moral code accepted by only some. Surprisingly, in light of all that I have detailed here I do not think that we have a police state yet, but we do have a highly authoritarian legacy of laws from the last government and the current government does not look to be changing much of it.

So what does a full-blown police state actually look like if we don’t have one? Belarus is probably the most horrific example from recent months. When Lukashenko appeared to have won the last election the people were not happy. There were riots outside parliament. The police shot and beat up rioters. Then they arrested all of the opposition leaders and all the protesters. They tracked down people that were there by taking location information from the mobile phone networks. Even the children of opposition leaders were not safe and one child was taken away from family by the government. That is how bad a police state can get. More info: Link 1 Link 2 Link 3

We are not in a situation like that of Belarus, nor is it likely to happen any time soon. Nevertheless, we should be wary of this slow-but-increasing erosion of our rights and civil liberties. Through the last decade the public has been encouraged to be afraid of “terrorists” so that governments may pass whatever laws they want for their own convenience. This masks the cancellation, selling off and privatisation of our public services. It seems that many people in our society actually want this level of authoritarian control from their government and with the level of governmental and police control, we could very easily cross the line into a police state. We must stamp it out now before that happens.

This article is also available in a longer version.

Shame the police – by supporting them

I have been very vocal in condemning the police for their actions at the series of protests against tuition fees last year. I wrote in some detail about police violence and about their alleged use of an old van as bait to incite violence and provide an excuse for harsher policing. It was obviously a popular view, since those posts on my personal blog got some 14,000 views in a few days and are still more than half of my traffic.

It may surprise you to know, then, that if and when members of the police go on strike and march in protest against budget cuts and loss of jobs, I think those of us in the anti-cuts movement should be protesting alongside them.

The police do an important job in our society. They aren’t all that effective, they aren’t without their defects, but I believe that many police joined up to help people. Yes, some police are violent thugs, some go looking for violence. Since violence is what sells the news, that gets talked about, but most police aren’t like that.

Some police procedures are unjust and illiberal. Apart from kettling and stifling the right to protest, they also have Forward Intelligence Teams taking photographs of innocent people for unofficial police records. They arrest people for the sole reason of taking their details which they would not otherwise be allowed to do, then “de-arrest” them but keep the details. They keep DNA and fingerprints of those cleared of crimes. I think it likely that those procedures are a result of orders from the top, and to counter them needs a change in the attitudes of police administration, or perhaps simply a change of those at the top.

The few nasty police, the ones that like violence, they are likely to be the ones doing things like hassling photographers when they have no right to and making up laws on the spot to support their way of thinking and intimidate. Those are the bullies. Those are the ones that we want out, but right now our fight is elsewhere.

I think what happened at the protests on the 9th of December last year is a typical escalation of violence between two sides that cannot back down. Petty little things turn in to stubborn commands and refusal to comply, which is met with increasing anger on both sides. Eventually the police are hitting people and some elements of the crowd are giving a typical reaction of a young person perceiving injustice against them or their friends, and fighting back. It’s built in to both sides. In this situation neither side can see that backing off would cool things down. It’s the typical response seen in family feuds (“He said she said”) and wars between tribes, or countries. (“They slaughtered us!” “They massacred us first!”) Ultimately I believe that apart from a few violent idiots and bullies on both sides, the rest of the police involved in violence at the protests were caught up in this self-feeding loop of stubbornness and tribal defensiveness.

I have witnessed this effect still in action even now when talking to various people that were involved. Some activists are of the opinion that police marches against job losses should be countered with protests against police violence to “shame the police” and that the police should be kettled in retaliation for what they did.

I offer the counter argument that the anti-cuts movement should march and protest in support of the police. Those police are ordinary people with families and rents and mortgages. At previous protests the crowd have shouted “Your jobs are next!” to try and gain police support. Well now their jobs are next, and it’s time to do for them what they wouldn’t do for us.

#solidarity

Why can’t we trust the police?

Police officers are people, just like us. They are friends, parents, aunts and uncles, and other relatives. I am sure that the great majority of police want to help and to serve. Here are just two examples of sympathetic police:

It was also clear from a number of conversations with officers that many of the frontline did not approve of this strategy either. Several told me they sympathised and blamed their senior officers. Source

As we left, subdued, a police officer (one of many) was saying ‘£40,000, that’s basically a mortgage, how is that fair?’. He looked me in the eye – ‘We’re with you’. Source

Given that, why is it that those people that are out on the streets protesting trust the police about as far as they can throw them?

During the protests on the 24th of November a great many people were contained or “kettled” by the police for the first time. Being in such a kettle is a hugely unpleasant experience, as you can see from these quotes:

On the other side of the square, myself and a large crowd remained huddled in the cold for seven hours, with no food, no water, no toilets, no access to medical attention and with minors unable to get home. For 15-year-olds in T-shirts, and older people (I saw at least two men in their late 60s and early 70s) this is no joke. Source

This is the most important part of a kettle, when it’s gone on for too long and you’re cold and frightened and just want to go home. Trap people in the open with no water or toilets or space to sit down and it takes a shockingly short time to reduce ordinary kids to a state of primitive physical need. This is savage enough when it’s done on a warm summer day to people who thought to bring blankets, food and first aid. It’s unspeakably cruel when it’s done on the coldest night of the year, in sub-zero temperatures, to minors, some of whom don’t even have a jumper on. Source

The main topic on every protesters mind yesterday was avoiding being kettled. Reports abound of phrases like “Don’t want to get kettled” and “don’t go that way, we’ll get kettled” and comments on twitter were frequently about avoiding places where the police were gathering in case of kettling. And that is the problem. Every time the crowd saw a line of police forming across a road, they assumed it was to kettle them. It doesn’t matter if the police were simply trying to direct the crowd along their preferred route, if the police gathered and formed a line, thoughts turned to kettling and the crowd moved in a different direction. The police have simply shattered any trust held in them by an entire generation.

Eventually, the police had blocked every available route and had formed barriers across the path where the protesters wanted to go. This is an unfortunate tactic, since in a crowd of twenty-five thousand people the people at the back don’t know that the people of the front can’t go on. The crowd kept moving forward regardless. As more people arrived the ones at the front were pushed up against the police lines. The police response to that is bizzarre to say the least; they start shouting at the protesters to “get back” and when they don’t move (they can’t) batons come out and the police start hitting the crowd. At this point it’s not relevant if the protesters wanted violence or not. They can’t go back, and the police in front of them are hitting them with heavy sticks. They get angry. The kettle boils.

I’m not saying there was no one there intent on violence. It was obvious that there were a couple of hundred people, at least, that went with face coverings and weapons and wanted a fight. Those were the ones later shown attacking the treasury building and hurling rocks at the police. I would have every sympathy with the police if they had targetted those people. What they actually did was beat protesters indiscriminately with batons, and charge them with horses. There were countless injuries, some extremely serious. Reports of injury are widespread online, but strangely absent on some TV news channels.

Some of the damage done by police

Dragged a wheelchair using protester from his chair, not once, but twice.
#dayx3 police dragged a man from his wheelchair in par sq 5 m... on Twitpic#dayx3 #demo2010 #ell wheelchair left empty on Twitpic

Hit someone that was trying to leave so hard that he suffered bleeding on the brain and required brain surgery.

Caused Guardian journalist Shiv Malik to require 5 stitches to his head, and refused to help him leave for medical attention.

Kicked a protester as he went down.

Announce that people could leave but then charged at them with horses and batons.

Held several thousand people on Westminster bridge until near midnight, all the while telling them that it was a temporary containment and wouldn’t last long. These were the people that had tried to leave as instructed.
Riots in Westminster! on Twitpic

I also find it galling that David Cameron announced on national television that protesters had dragged a police rider from his horse and beaten him. Here is a video clip from Sky news that shows that officer falling from his very frightened horse, then ending up under the horses hooves before being dragged to safety by his colleagues. No protester involvement.

Finally, even former Met police commander Brian Paddick said during an interview that containment did not appear to work and peaceful protesters were caught up by it and wound up themselves. Source: Channel 4 news.

If you want to be truly scared, think about this. On Radio 4 this morning the Met police commissioner praised the restraint of firearms officers for not opening fire at protesters that attacked the prince of wales’ car. Armed police are on our streets, and shooting people was a possibility. Source: Jack of kent

I would love to be able to trust the police. Unfortunately we have been given every reason to stay as far as possible from the police, and that is not an attitude that will change any time soon. It doesn’t matter if most of those police are good people. It doesn’t matter if some disagree with their orders. They have broken our trust in them. The protests against fees and cuts will continue, and I suspect they are going to be bloody.

The right to protest, even if it’s inconvenient

This is a quote from a conversation I had today. I hope the other participant will forgive me for reproducing it here.

“Although the right to protest is enshrined in law, the money spent policing these demos will have to be found somewhere and as there is only a finite amount of money someone somewhere will suffer…having to find money to police protests will affect the poorest.”

I had to stop to think about it. It’s true, of course, to a certain extent. Protests on the scale of those against the tuition fee increases will be attended by the police, and like most of our public services, they are extremely inefficient and will run up a horrendous bill in the process.

Whose fault is that though? That the police see it as their job to be present at every protest in vast numbers is not the fault of the protesters. Oh, they will argue that they must be present in case there is any violence but many protesters will argue back – quite convincingly – that it is the police that aggravate the situation and often directly cause problems.

What about the result of finding that money? Assuming that the police aren’t simply left to find the money from within their existing budgets, the current government will have no qualms about taking the money by cutting public services and benefits. To be honest, they’re going to do that anyway because, well, I don’t know what the thinking is there. My MP told me yesterday “Well I guess I won’t persuade you, but I see something completely different, with the vulnerable protected.” I can only conclude that conservatives see different things to what liberals and socialists see.

So will protesting cost money? Yes. But it will cost more than it should because the police seem to feel that it is their job to clamp down on protests.

Will that money come from public services that affect the poor? Absolutely. But that money would be taken away anyway.

Should this stop anyone from protesting? HELL NO! The right to protest is absolute and we cannot have a democracy without it. These protests against tuition fees, tax avoiders and government cuts are making a difference! MP’s have resigned, have changed their minds, have gone in to a panic over this. Keep protesting. Your country needs you.

Nothing to hide? I pity you.

“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”

If there is anything that you need to fear, then that famous statement is it. Everyone has something to hide. For a start, people want to hide financial and security information. Their bank balance, salary and passwords. People want to hide embarrasing things about themselves, such as personality traits, sexual preferences (and not just gay or straight) and their body. People want to hide little habits that are perfectly innocuous but make sense only to themselves. People want to hide their hidden insecurities, their weaknesses and their flaws. People want to hide secrets that have been told to them in confidence. How often have you asked someone “Can you keep a secret?”

People want to hide things just because it’s none of anyone else’s business.

Think about passing through an airport. The security guard picks you to search. How do you feel as he goes through your bag? As he touches your toiletries, handles your underwear, looks through the book you are reading. Do you feel happy? Comfortable? Or, more likely, slightly embarrassed and resigned to it happening? Worse, you might be selected for a pat-down, or if you’re in America and really unlucky, one of the new TSA open-handed pat-downs.

The truth is, we have everything to hide. Take the aftermath of the case of Paul Chambers and his famous tweet about an airport. Now that it has been found ‘menacing’ by a judge, I catch myself thinking every time I write anything, could this be misinterpreted? Could some bureaucrat see this and decide to question me on it? My friends and I have little joke conversations about taking over the world. About blowing things up. About getting revenge of some kind. And that’s all they are. Jokes. But now there is the risk that I will have to explain those conversations to some government official that just doesn’t get it. It’s not their fault, their mind is just not on the same wavelength as me and my friends, but the result could be that they decide we really are planning to install an evil overlord with a white fluffy cat and sharks with frikken laser beams and hold the world to ransom until they promise to stop being stupid. And that, I really don’t want to have to explain to the police. (Clever me, putting all this on a blog post, eh?)

The famous “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” is insidious. It opens the way for gentle intrusions in to our privacy in the name of protecting us from the bad people. But it leaves us at the top of a treacherous slope and the climb back is not easy. Once we give away our right to privacy we live in a different world, once every bit as bad as any totalitarian state that you might have read about or seen in films.

Police vs protesters Benny Hill style!

Just in case anyone hasn’t seen it yet, here is the video I made after the 30th November student fees / anti-cuts protests.  My sister and I fell of our chairs laughing after seeing this live on TV, and I just had to add Benny Hill music to it.

I was going to make a more complex video with more footage, people going the other way and more cutting between police and protesters, but I have been told that it is good that it is as simple as it is. Just as well, because I am not very good at video editing.

The mystery van part 2

Following the completely unexpected popularity of my blog post about the van at the 24/11/2010 London protests, I need to clear up a few points.

I think these things are clear. I saw the sequence of events on live TV and it could be verified if anyone can get hold of a recording.

  • The police started blocking the route several minutes before the van arrived.
  • The van was driven in to the back of the crowd, (relatively thin at this point) pushing protesters out of the way. Some got angry at being driven in to or made to jump away, and pushed or hit, or sprayed graffiti on the van.
  • The police abandoned the van.
  • The bulk of the protesters arrived to find their route blocked and an already slightly graffitied van in the middle of the crowd.
  • Some (very few) people started smashing the van in spite of attempts to stop them.
  • The police justified their use of containment (kettling) by citing the attacks on the van, which happened after they started kettling.
  • The police claim that the van was following protesters to gather information on where they were going. They knew full well where they were going, since they had already blocked the route! There is a possibility that the van was in use by FIT (Forward Intelligence Team, explanation here)  to take photographs of protesters.
  • The police claim that the officers in the van abandoned it because they “felt vulnerable and decided the best course of action was to leave the van” (Source: The Guardian)

I have received information from a few people that have changed my mind on some of my original points.

  • It has no number plates
    • Actually the van did have number plates on arrival, although there are no clear photographs or videos of it. The best I have seen is this one from ITN.
  • It is painted in the OLD livery of the Metropolitan police.
    • I am told that the police routinely use vans of this age.
  • It has been out of service long enough to get rusty.
    • Several of their vans are rusty, and in fact you can see on this picture that it was rusty even in 2008. We should probably be concerned at the lack of preventative maintenance there.
  • It has a POLICE AWARE sticker on it, that has been there a while.
    • This one was true. Some people have suggested that the sticker was placed there as a joke by a police officer, or that it was placed there to mark the van for attention by a mechanic. I’m not sure I buy that.

I still believe that this van was planted as bait to incite vandalism and provide an excuse for kettling. The only alternative theory I can think of is that the police are really, really stupid. It could be that I suppose.

Via @a6ruled
Sky news video shows van accessible, police standing near it and crowd all calm. Busted!

The mystery van

Bait Van
Illustration by Maria Bovor

—UPDATE 26/11/2010—

Reposted here because hundreds of people are reading this but still not clicking through to my update post

I have received information from a few people that have changed my mind on some of my original points. I really don’t consider myself a conspiracy theorist, I just want to correct an injustice and set the record straight.

  • It has no number plates
    • Actually the van did have number plates on arrival, although there are no clear photographs or videos of it. The best I have seen is this one from ITN.
  • It is painted in the OLD livery of the Metropolitan police.
    • I am told that the police routinely use vans of this age.
  • It has been out of service long enough to get rusty.
    • Several of their vans are rusty, and in fact you can see on this picture that it was rusty even in 2008. We should probably be concerned at the lack of preventative maintenance there.
  • It has a POLICE AWARE sticker on it, that has been there a while.
    • This one was true. Some people have suggested that the sticker was placed there as a joke by a police officer, or that it was placed there to mark the van for attention by a mechanic. I’m not sure I buy that.

I still believe that this van was planted as bait to incite vandalism and provide an excuse for kettling. The only alternative theory I can think of is that the police are really, really stupid. It could be that I suppose.


—Sky news video busts police claims—

Via @a6ruled
Sky news video shows van accessible, police standing near it and crowd all calm. Busted!


ORIGINAL POST

PLEASE NOTE
I am not a journalist. I have simply gathered some observations that looked odd to me, and some of them have been refuted. Please read all of the article and the comments and then weigh up the evidence before you decide.

During the protests in London today the police stated that they had started “containing” the crowds after they violently attacked a police van.  I contend that the van was deliberately planted in order to provide an excuse.

At around 12:30 I started watching BBC News which as showing live footage of the protests from a helicopter. The police were already blocking the route of the planned march with a huge amount of vehicles and offices. I watched that van be driven through the crowd from behind, angering all the people that had to jump out of the way. It was quickly surrounded by furious protesters and forced to stop. A little later, a few (unknown) people started to attack the van, trying to break the windows, roll the van over and paint graffiti on it. Some brave kids tried to stop the attacks, but were eventually pushed aside.

The moment it started:

And some more brave people:

Alternative photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/blinkofaneye/5204774374/in/photostream/

But there is something really interesting about this van.

  • It has no number plates
  • It is painted in the OLD livery of the Metropolitan police.
  • It has been out of service long enough to get rusty.

Jump to 28 seconds in to this video to see what I mean. Look just under the windows.

The rust:

And thanks to @psweetman for spotting this. Does that say “police aware” ?

Front of police van showing Police Aware notice

Draw your own conclusions from that.

Despite all this, the protests were mostly peaceful.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/nov/24/student-protest-largely-peaceful

In response to Rob W, here is the ITN video. There is a number plate visible at 6 seconds in, although not clear enough to identify a number.

This picture shows “POLICE AWARE” sticker is aged and has been there a while. (Thanks to Harry Watko for these.)

I think these things are clear. I saw the sequence of events on live TV and it could be verified if anyone can get hold of a recording.

  • The police started kettling several minutes before the van arrived.
  • The van was driven in to the back of the crowd, (relatively thin at this point) pushing protesters out of the way. Some got angry at being driven in to or made to jump away, and pushed or hit, or sprayed graffiti on the van.
  • The police abandoned the van.
  • The bulk of the protesters arrived to find their route blocked and an already slightly gratified van in the middle of the crowd.
  • Some (very few) people started smashing the van in spite of attempts to stop them.
  • The police justified their use of kettling by citing the attacks on the van, which happened after they started kettling.