You may have noticed that today is the day when the unions are marching against the cuts. News media coverage seems good, with BBC News and Sky News both giving fairly constant coverage to the march. Although organised by the TUC, there are many organisations on the march. A great number of people are in Hyde Park listening to speeches, but there are so many people that the march was still arriving at 4pm! Estimates of total numbers soared to 400 – 500 thousand people in attendance. Read Why I’m marching tomorrow by @kaygeeuk, Why I’m marching tomorrow by @stavvers or New Statesman – Why I’m marching today for an overview. The march has been widely reported as a carnival atmosphere. Music, bands, vuvuzelas and other fun things. Such as a Trojan Horse!
Ed Milliband spoke to the crowds in Hyde Park around about 2pm. Well, the ones that had arrived, anyway. March organisers have been criticised for having Milliband speak since he does not completely oppose the cuts, and many are disappointed that Caroline Lucas, leader of the Green party, was not invited to speak.
Also at 2pm, UK Uncut broke away from the march and went to Oxford Street to occupy shops. Unfortunately this was overshadowed by a group of approximately 150 people dressed in black and wearing masks, who threw paint and fireworks outside Topshop and Topman and then went on to vandalise the inside of HSBC at Cambridge Square. Metropolitan Police claimed that lightbulbs filled with ammonia were thrown at them, although we have seen no evidence of this.
Later a fire was lit at Oxford Circus as a trojan horse was apparently burnt.
While UK Uncut where inside Fortnum & Mason, some of the black-clad protesters who had earlier thrown paint and fireworks and sprayed graffiti, climbed onto the roof to hang banners and spray more graffiti. The BBC alleged that they were from the Socialist Worker Party among other groups.
Many people that could not make it to the march for reasons of illness or disability took part in a virtual protest. Their names, messages and occasionally photos were listed on a map set up by Disabled People Against Cuts. (Disclaimer, I helped out with putting the names up.)
A couple of weeks ago I made a big fuss about UK Uncut taking over Vodafone’s World of Difference blogs. I was very critical of it here on my blog – see UK Uncut triumph over the Vodafone website… but lose my support. (I have actually edited that now to remove a lot of my initial criticism.) For the reasons why I was so critical, have a look at what Tim Hardy said in his response at Beyond Clicktivism in Activism is Serious Business. The main cause of my reaction was the seriousness of the potential offence. Computer crime can have some fairly serious consequences.
But this leads me to an important question: How far can protesters go to make their point? All the famous protests in history, all the ones that made a difference, involved civil disobedience. The American Civil Rights Movement, the Suffragettes, and much that Gandhi achieved involved civil disobedience.
Several issues are raised:
How serious is the offence committed for the civil disobedience?
What is the threshold of injustice at which civil disobedience becomes justifiable?
Should civil disobedience target only unjust laws, or should protesters break other laws to make their point?
Can protesters break a law to argue for the imposition of another law?
One of my concerns is the severity of the law breaking. The actions of UK Uncut so far, in occupying shops and banks and refusing to leave, are civil disobedience. The protesters are trespassing once asked to leave by a shop manager. In England, trespass is largely a civil wrong not a criminal offence. To me, that makes it a less serious issue than damage to property or violence against people, which are criminal offences. Although seemingingly trivial, the unauthorised access to Vodafone’s blogs is potentially a breach of the computer misuse act, and therefore a more serious criminal offence. The difference is mainly academic in this case, but what about other more serious law-breaking? How far should it go? I don’t know.
What about deciding when to break the law for a cause? Is there a threshold at which it becomes ethically acceptable to break the law? In 1849 Henry Thoreau said in his essay, Civil Disobedience:
“All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. But almost all say that such is not the case now. ….. In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.”
Many people are opposed to speed limits; they could argue that their speeding is civil disobedience against speed limit laws. Is that acceptable? Some people do not pay their council tax in protest at bad service in emptying their bins. How about that? Should civil disobedience be restricted to protesting against loss of freedom, or only breaches of human rights?
It seems to me that civil disobedience becomes acceptable once a person has found a group of other people that accept it! The larger the group, the more acceptable, perhaps. Obviously there will always be a group of people opposed to these actions, otherwise it wouldn’t be disobedience. When Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a white man, you can bet that an awful lot of white people thought she was wrong.
Some would argue that the only laws that should be broken by the protesters should be the laws that they are protesting about. This would rule out occupations, refusing to obey police with a section 14 order, and all sorts of other protest methods. I have come to the conclusion that protesters must break other laws to make their point. Although the right to peaceful protest is enshrined in law, the government and the establishment work very hard to make it meaningless. An example being the current protest method allowed by the police: Arrive, march from A to B along routes checked by the police, getting in no ones way, then go home. All innocuous and quiet and not offensive in the slightest. And completely useless for achieving political aims, even when a million people attend. More is needed, but more may be illegal. And so laws must be broken to get results, or even to get noticed by those responsible for the injustice being protested against.
UK Uncut are arguing for a change in the law to clamp down on tax avoiders. Inherent in this argument is a respect for the law – how can anyone argue for large companies to obey a law on paying tax if they themselves do not respect the law? Civil disobedience can only make sense in this context if the laws broken in protest are carefully selected. Go too far, break the wrong law, and the argument will fall apart and public opinion will turn against the protesters.
And so, I have concluded that UK Uncut must break laws to achieve their aims. Since they are not directly protesting against specific unjust laws which they could break in protest, other laws must be broken instead. I think it is important to consider precisely which laws to break very carefully, or risk losing public support. But after much thought on the subject, and despite my initial reaction to their actions, they still have mine.
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.
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.
Once again police have used incapacitant spray against peaceful protesters. The police followed two protesters to Kings College in Cambridge following a protest. They were told by porters that they did not have permission to enter, but they did so anyway and proceeded to arrest the two protesters, one of whom was a sixth-form student. During this incident they are reported to have used incapacitant spray against a number of students. Commonly referred to as Pepper Spray, incapacitant spray used by UK police is most likely to be CS spray, although it could also be PAVA or capsicum.
This is an extremely serious matter. CS spray is classified as a prohibited weapon under the Firearms act 1968, and police officers are exempted from this legislation in order to do their jobs. As a such, the use of CS spray is discharge of a weapon and must be fully justified as a last resort to prevent imminent danger of physical harm. Not only that, the official ACPO guidance on incapacitant sprays specifically warns against the use of CS spray in crowd and protest situations. It is not clear in this instance why the spray was used but from watching the video, imminent physical danger seems unlikely. The question must be asked; is the use of CS spray against protesters simply the actions of one or two heavy handed police officers, or does this represent an official step towards more forceful policing?
It is also interesting to note that police are not normally allowed entry to the university without permission. Permission was explicitly and repeatedly denied them, and yet they entered anyway.
NOTE: Unfortunately since I wrote this the video of this event has been marked as private on Youtube. I can only speculate that this is for legal reasons. I will leave it embedded here in the hope that it will be made public again in the future.
We now have some more information on what happened during the UK Uncut protest on Saturday so this is an update post to gather more of it together. I will save the commentary for now in favour of presenting the data I have gathered.
We have some comments about the previous behaviour of Officer CW2440 on the 15th of January, from @johnnylil
Then some longer comments from @johnnylil, so I have strung them together for clarity.
“re CW2440 on jan 15th. Two protesters were trying to peacefully obstruct the entrance to topshop and police asked them to move as it was private property. Protesters requested to see deeds proving this, explaining that otherwise police could not accuse them of trespassing. CW2440 then pushed one of them violently so he fell into group of passerbys. Him or 2442 then later aggressively manhandled another protester for speaking up about his right. ALL VIOLENCE CAME FROM POLICE.”
“This is me this is about. This is not an accurate account of what happened. I was physically pulled up by one or more protesters trying to pull me away from the police, which hurt me. I don’t blame the police. Boots made up a ridiculous charge: I pushed leaflets through an open gap in the door! The police then had to do their job. Why did someone try to pull me away from the police? A ridiculous thing to do, which caused the trouble. I am sorry that anyone was injured trying to defend me, but I was not resisting arrest, and was treated fine by the police, so it was unneccessary and damaging. It was brilliant protest and I’m glad we got loads of coverage though :-)”
She later added:
“However, having now seen that video, I can confirm that the incident of the person being sprayed in that video is after I was pulled by the protester, when I had already been taken to the side alley by the police, and so that incident is not related to me attempted to be taken away from the police.”
For the sake of convenience I have gathered several videos here.
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 @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:
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.