Why do we persist in telling ourselves that in Europe, it’s the French and the Greeks who protest whilst the British are too apathetic to take their dissent out onto the streets? Marches and demonstrations have always been an important part of Britain’s political culture and there was little sign of any stereotypical indifference when students braved sub-zero temperatures and snow to march against rises in tuition fees at the end of last year.
There is widespread public support, too, for the principle that a healthy democracy depends upon on the basic right to protest. However, it’s a sad reflection of our lack of collective memory that, not long after criticism of the policing of the G20 summit protests and the death of Ian Tomlinson in 2009, so many people are apparently still shocked by the police tactics used against student protesters, especially ‘kettling’ or enforced containment.
Curbs on the right to protest have existed for as long as there have been governments to create them and over the last twenty years, the powers of the police to control and limit demonstrations, often by force, have grown increasingly broad and repressive. What the student protests therefore tell us, if anything, is that despite the pledges made by the Chief Inspector of Constabulary Denis O' Connor in a review into public order policing in 2009 after the G20 protests, very little has fundamentally changed.
In the coming months, this means that anti-cuts campaigners can expect a heavy police presence and a readiness by the police to use their powers extensively at any protest that isn’t firmly contained within a prescribed route – which in London usually means a low impact, ‘self kettled’ stroll through the streets from Embankment to Hyde Park. It’s the kind of restriction that we’d obviously want to avoid, but a risk of sustained police heavy-handedness is that, as Johann Hari suggested in the Independent in December, potential demonstrators may increasingly be frightened off from taking part in anti-cuts protests.
Cuts in police numbers might instead tempt senior officers to ban protests altogether. This was mooted by Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson after the tuition fees protests. One police officer, a Sergeant Dan Stoddart writing in the magazine Police Review, has gone as far as suggesting a limit on the size of protests, saying that “having tens of thousands on the streets seems to have become an expensive luxury” and questioning whether ‘modern pressure groups’ need to protest at all when “instantaneous global communications and media… puts any message into the palm of your hand”. If nothing else, this illiberal argument should hopefully provide a sobering warning to those who place such great emphasis on the value of online campaigning.
Then there are the lessons we can learn from the spate of undercover police officers who have recent been unmasked after infiltrating green activist groups. In his interview with the Daily Mail, former undercover officer Mark Kennedy acknowledges that the peaceful climate campaigners he spied upon “had no intention of violence.” However, they were still targeted in the kind of operation normally reserved for drug dealers and criminal gangs, presumably because their campaigns focus on disrupting major economic and business interests such as power stations and airports.
If activism grows against corporate tax-dodgers like Vodafone and Top Shop, which is difficult to police because it invariably involves nothing more than trespass (which is a civil, rather than a criminal offence), might groups like UKUncut start to face the same kind of surveillance and infiltration? It’s far cheaper than intensive public order policing and as I suggested in a short piece for Manchester Mule last year, the government may be persuaded of the benefits of "targeting potential troublemakers” through greater use of intelligence, as a cost-effective way of using reduced police resources.
Finally, those expecting a change in attitudes as, for the first time, the cuts hit the police too will almost certainly face disappointment. It’s important to remember that in general, the police do not institutionally share public perceptions of the importance of dissent. Protests are seen as a nuisance, a distraction from the maintenance of order and, as an episode of the Channel 4 series ‘Coppers’ showed in November 2010, demonstrators are often viewed with contempt. The naïve idea that the police can somehow be ‘shamed’ into better treatment of protesters by actively opposing cuts in their numbers – what one campaigner recently called ‘proving our moral superiority; – represents a failure to understand the deep-rooted prejudices against dissent that exist within the culture of the police.
Kevin Blowe is a community centre worker and activist in Newham, east London.