The politicisation of the police

Most people, myself included, would say that in most respects, the police in Brighton and Hove, led by the dedicated and impressive Chief Superintendent Graham Bartlett, do a fine job. They are engaged with the community and responses to individual cases are good.

However, there is a growing unease about an aspect of policing that runs counter to that – the policing of political protest. Here there appears to be a different approach, and different leadership.

The policing of the Topshop / Topman protest, that led to the arrest and subsequent prosecution of nine protesters, is a case in point. The protesters were acquitted on most changes although five were found guilty of recklessly damaging two mannequins which had been knocked over as the protesters had entered a window display where they glued their hands to the window. All were cleared of damaging the windows.

Those found guilty were given a conditional discharge and ordered to pay £200 towards prosecution costs. The total cost, excluding the policing of the demonstration, is estimated to have been £100,000.

The protest, which was held on December 4th last year, was aimed at drawing attention to tax avoidance by the owners of Topshop / Topman and To cuts to public expenditure. The defence given was that of ‘lawful excuse’, the same defence used by Smash EDO demonstrators at a trial last year. They had been arrested for causing £187,000 damage at the EDO MBM factory in Brighton last year. The jury decided that they had acted, with an honest and reasonable belief, to prevent war crimes being committed in Gaza.

Caroline Lucas MP (Brighton Pavilion) gave evidence in support of the defendants. Hove MP Mike Weatherley condemned Ms Lucas for giving this evidence, as well as condemning the protesters. He told the Brighton Argus: “I don’t consider the prosecution was a waste of public money and condemn their actions. It is not helpful when protesters are sending a message to the world that people can take action such as this and get away with it on a technicality. They were there to cause trouble and disruption to the retail environment.”

It is important to remember that they were all found not guilty on the main charge of causing damage to the window. Their defence was accepted. And picking up on a technicality of Mr Weatherley’s own protest, much tax avoidance (not illegal itself as opposed to tax avoidance) is often based on a technicality identified by highly paid tax lawyers and accountants.

But going back to policing, Sussex Police seem to have no problem in heavy-handed policing of demonstrations including the ‘kettling’ of young teenagers on student fees and EMA (Education Maintenance Allowance) demonstrations, and on anti-EDL (English Defence League) counter-demonstrations. The contrast between day to day policing and the policing of demonstrations are so contrasting one has to ask whether Graham Bartlett, a very decent man in every way, is removed from authority on these occasions.

Policing has always been politicised, but rarely more so than when policing political demonstrations. I conclude with an anecdote told to me by a prominent member of the Brighton and Hove community who was in Brighton Station during one of the EDL demonstrations. He and a row of police officers saw an EDL member giving nazi salutes and shouting abuse at what appeared to be a couple of Japanese tourists who were apparently showing fear and distress. When challenged why the EDL member had not been arrested or even spoken to, one police officer, who had witnessed the incident, said of the EDL group: “They’ve been as good as gold. It’s the other ones who cause the trouble.” I suspect the Japanese couple might disagree and it is unlikely that they will return to Brighton.

As with most things, your reputation is often only as strong as your weakest link.

Doorstep Brighton: a round up of campaigning for the local elections

Between now and May 5th, I will be running a ‘Weekend Round Up” reporting on campaign activity in Brighton and Hove.  Please send in brief reports on what is happening in your ward or activities elsewhere.  Send details of turnout, trends on the doorstep, anecdotes, etc.  Either add them as comments to this post or email to brightonpoliticsblogger@googlemail.com. I will reproduce them faithfully except unfounded attacks on opponents.  This will allow readers to assess where momentum is.  This invitation is open to candidates of all parties other than the BNP and other neo-fascist parties.

Already this weekend there have been interesting reports on Labour activities, with Nancy Platts back in town reporting good response on the doorstep, and keen activity by Labour in Regency Ward.  Green candidates in Brunswick and Adelaide, Ollie Sykes and Phelim MacCafferty, report that they had met 2 former Lib Dem supporters who are outraged by this week’s cutting of Education Maintenance Allowance that they are voting Green for the first time in May. 

The Greens have announced their candidates in two of their key seats, Regency (which they hold) and Hollingdean and Stanmer (one of its key targets).  And inspired selections they are, too.  In Regency the Greens are going with Jason Kitcat, one of the best known and impressive ward councillors in the City.  Fellow councillor, Sven Rufus is moving to stand in Hollingdean and Stanmer, where he lives. The challenge for the Greens was to select a candidate who might one day match Jason in the name-recognition stakes.  And the Party has chosen someone by the name of ….. Kitcat.  Yes, Ania Kitcat, wife of Jason. They are up against Labour’s Dan Wilson and James Asser, nice guys but dull in comparison to the twin-pack Kitcat (sorry, that was pathetic).

In Hollingdean and Stanmer, in addition to Sven Rufus, the Greens have selected community activists Luke Walter and Christina Summers.  Both are well known and respected, and in Christina’s case, will reach residents that traditional activists might not reach.  I still believe there will be a split result in H&S, but with this selection I would predict that Jeane Lepper, Sven Rufus and Christina Summers will be elected.  Nothing against Luke, he will lose out because he will appear at the bottom of the ballot paper.

I suggest that those Tweeting should start using #doorstepbrighton.

The right and wrong way to demonstrate

Today we saw the best and worst aspects of protest.  Students from around the country descended on Westminster to protest against the decision to raise tuition fees, with particular anger focused on the Lib Dems, all of whose MPs pledged to oppose such an increase. 

It is many years since students were mobilised in such numbers, and a great deal of credit should go to the National Union of Students.  They had a serious, important point to make, and they were making it well until …..

….. an ill-disciplined group including non-student anarchists, occupied Millbank towers, which includes the offices of the Conservative Party.  One idiot, who I hope is identified and prosecuted, threw a fire extinguisher off the roof, missing a police officer by a matter of feet.  Swept up in this group were many very young protesters, probably school children who had joined the demonstration to protest against the cut to Education Maintenance Allowance.

Sadly, the demonstration will be characterised and remembered for the violent episode at Millbank.  One reassuring aspect, though, was the restraint demonstrated by the Metropolitan Police.  Of course they, too, are facing cuts.  They have also been stung by criticism of their handling of previous climate change demonstrations.

I would propose a demonstrators charter that protesters are required by organisers of demonstration to abide by otherwise they should be excluded from the demonstrations.  The charter could include:

  • No taunting of the police (some people come to demonstrations to have a pop at the police; the police are not the target of most protests)
  • No break-away groups (it allows the police to justify kettling)
  • No alcohol and drugs (protests need to be focused and disciplined)
  • Normally have live music (it raises spirits and sets a certain tone)
  • Walk in ordered rows and columns (a protest should not resemble an amble in the park)
  • Everyone should wear a common colour (green, red, black, etc.)
  • Protests should be safe for children and older citizens, so language should be appropriate.

In response, the police should be required to respect a disciplined protest and ensure that its command and conduct does not provoke or exacerbate the situation.

I imagine many people will think I’m barking, but if you have ever been on, or witnessed, serious and disciplined demonstrations (for example, republican demonstrations in Belfast or protests under Apartheid in South Africa), you will appreciate the importance of discipline and the power of such a protest.