Pepper spray used at peaceful protests 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.

More information

Varsity: Chaos on Kings Parade

The Cambridge Student: Police cause outrage as two students arrested inside King’s College

Cambridge Defend Education

Previous articles

More attacks on the right to protest: CS spray

More information about CS spray and UK Uncut

UK Uncut on Newsnight

Do we live in a police state?



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.


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.