Friday, 1 May 2009

*MPA meeting of 30th April: A protester's view

It was good to see a strong turnout of protesters filling the seats in the 2nd floor chamber at City Hall for the meeting of the Metropolitan Police Authority chaired by mayor Boris Johnson, the first since the policing of the G20. I am sure this helped add weight to some of the pro-protesters’ arguments put forward by MPA members grilling Tim Godwin, Acting Deputy Commissioner and Chris Allison, Temporary Assistant Police Commissioner – particularly the regular loud heckles and boos, as well as rounds of applause on occasion.

It was interesting to learn about the command structure of the policing of the G20 protests. The policing of the marches that converged on the Bank of England and Climate Camp, were managed by so-called ‘Bronze Commanders’ appointed by the more senior Silver Commander, Chief Superintendent Ian Thomas. These Bronze commanders apparently drew up their own tactical plans assisted by a number of so-called ‘sub-Bronzes’ where appropriate. According to a report by Chris Allison on behalf of the Commissioner, there were in excess of 70 Bronze posts deployed that day. Silver Commander then apparently checked these plans to ensure consistency and ensure they met strategic aims. The strategy itself was drawn up by Gold Commander Bob Broadhurst. It makes you wonder what the full strategy was and what tactics Silver approved. I think we are entitled to know.

We heard that police didn’t stop people and ask for ID which is strange as that is exactly what happened to me and my colleague Sarah Cope, the minute we stepped off our bus at Liverpool Street station. Three Met officers questioned us about why we were there, and asked for photo ID. One of them told us that they had stopped lots of people with “bricks and stuff” and that they wanted to protect us. Curiously, there was no mention of finding these “bricks and stuff” in the official account of events – just the discovery of fake police uniforms. We need to formally demand that names taken down like this are removed from police databases.

During the meeting Tim Godwin made reference to the need to consider what constitutes ‘lawful’ protest and the fact that they [the Met] had not had any discussion about the march and demonstration with the organisers. He added: “There was a concern that a minority of individuals could go on the rampage and commit criminal damage.”

I think this underlines the importance of the Met having an open discussion with protesters and civil liberties groups like Defend Peaceful Protest, in order to make the distinction between unlawful yet peaceful and unlawful and violent/a serious danger to others. Climate Camp was seen to be acting unlawfully by blocking the highway, but they did not at any time represent a serious danger to others. Green Assembly Member Jenny Jones said in the meeting that the Camp didn’t know they needed to move, until they bore the full force of officers from the Territorial Support Group (TSG), during which event many were injured as they raised their arms in the air shouting “this is not a riot”.

Chris Allison countered that officers were briefed to use appropriate force and those who didn’t should be held to account. Overall, however, it was “proportionate” he claimed. “Officers had been asked to clear the road. They need someone to liaise with and they didn’t have that on 1stApril.” Jenny Jones responded saying that dialogue needs to start early. She complained that she wasn’t allowed into the kettle at the Bank of England when she asked for entry.

The meeting showed just how much difference engagement with the Met prior to a protest can have on the type of policing. The benefit of dialogue before a demonstration was further underlined with the example given by Allison of the Stop the War demo at Trafalgar Square later on. He said that this example showed that by “working together events can pass off peacefully”. “Engagement [with the Met] is key with everyone. Getting the balance of human rights is a challenge.”

I noted a number of inconsistencies between claims made by Chris Allison on how protesters were managed by the police on April 1st. He said that the Bronze commander decides who (ie which protesters) to release from a cordon, adding that people had a choice on whether to get out and that water and toilets facilities were available. All the evidence, and my own experience, is that there were no “permeable cordons” as alleged by Kit Malthouse, MPA Vice Chairman, and no water or toilet facilities. Kettling on April 1st did not in my view represent “containment and controlled dispersal” as described by Chris Allison. Jenny Jones commented that the kettling was illegal, and those held should be entitled to compensation. This is a real possibility following the announcement that £85,000 has been paid out by Scotland Yard in damages to five people for assault and wrongful arrest outside the Mexican Embassy in 2006.

Concern was expressed about TSG officers, and how the fact that they were normally sent to deal with very volatile and confrontational situations suggested that they might be “battle hardened”. A review of using them was called for. Tim Godwin claimed that the vast majority of the TSG are “extremely competent, professional and lawful”, and “that only a few occasionally let us down”. He concluded that a transparent debate about TSG was needed. Boris added that the culture of TSG needs to be discussed.

When questioned about claims that tourists and other members of the public – as well as protesters had been told to delete photos, Chris Allison said “we accept that we are accountable and people have the right to film us”. But it’s not clear this message is being passed on to officers on the streets.

Joanne McCartney asked: “how do the police protect vulnerable people who are protesting peacefully?” Jeanette Arnold reiterated that the containment or ‘kettling’ was an “unlawful arrest” – to rounds of applause. “Kettling should not be a default tactic by the Met” she added.

Dee Doocey said that at the G20 protest the Met regarded all demonstrators as having criminal intent, and I am sure that that is a strongly held view among most of us who were there. As Dee Doocey rightly stated: “The right to demonstrate is a right in a democracy.” She went on: “We need to agree on a strategy to facilitate peaceful protest. The use of kettling is counter-productive, increases tension and the threat of violence. Kettling for hours is simply unjustifiable. If it was done to football fans there would be national outcry.”

From all of these discussions I think there is a real chance now to get a ban on the use of this dangerous and unlawful tactic against peaceful protesters. But it will mean that we have to keep the pressure up and engage in dialogue with the MPA who unanimously agreed to examine kettling and other public order police tactics in its civil liberties panel.

Anna Bragga
Haringey Green Party

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