Sussex Police wantonly attacked a peaceful political demonstration on 24th August 1996 in Brighton. The occasion was billed as a Reclaim The Streets. For the uninitiated, that’s a celebratory protest against car culture, which makes its mark with peaceful protestors physically standing in the road. It was intended to be a beach party. As far as I could tell, the word was to attend dressed for the seaside and be ready for beach games.
That morning I had a wisdom tooth extracted. Head full of anaesthetic and minus one large tooth, I strolled into town to join in with the fun. I was expecting a nice fluffy event and a rare break from my legal training. I had returned home to live with my parents so as to be able to afford my studies and this was exactly the sort of thing I imagined that they most feared – me apparently returning to old party driven lifestyle. Nowadays, I look back on the rock ‘n’ roll years of being a fire-eater and fondly call them The Soft Years. Back then, I was as keen as my folks were to see the back of them. All the same, I chose not to mention this protest party to them, lest they got the wrong idea.
When I arrived in Churchill Square, there was a rather tense atmosphere. There were a lot of police. Hundreds of them. There were also a few hundred people standing in a loose group some distance from the police. I asked someone what was happening. They explained that a couple of Legal Observers had just been arrested and the others had been warned that they would be arrested too. That resulted in all of them taking off their orange bibs and concealing them. One of them had apparently been arrested for handing out leaflets explaining a person’s rights on arrest. I didn’t like the sound of that.
Whilst I was digesting this information and wondering what to do about it, someone else told me that the people with the sand had been arrested in a pre-dawn raid. Their idea had been to arrive at the Clock Tower with a massive truck and tip a huge quantity of sand onto the road around it, so that we could have a genuine beach party. I was never all that convinced by the merits of this plan. It would have been a very dramatic form of defiance. It could easily have created dangerous road conditions in the wet. Drivers could hardly be expected to foresee slippery sand on this junction, on a hill or deal with it competently in busy traffic. Overall, although I could see that it would grab the headlines and probably get a photographs onto the front pages (we still read newspapers in those days), it was very provocative. Having sniffed the story out, the police were bound to come down hard on those they perceived responsible.
The sand boys had been frustrated but the police were probably wondering what other ideas were up which sleeves. Reclaim The Streets, Critical Mass and similar events were a direct response to legislative changes designed to curtail demonstrations. Since official organisers would get into serious trouble in so many scenarios, people just abandoned any attempt at official organisation for anything. The resulting chaos was and is much harder for the police to cope with. Like the original Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, it was a classic knee-jerk law-making; arguably it created more problems than it solved. These days, the police have become a little used to the idea that we do not trouble ourselves with organising committees. Back then, they found our new methodology simply incredible. Their view seemed to be that the organisation had gone underground: organisers had become conspirators. Instead, an idea was launched and people made their own arrangements around that.
The police and the protesters continued to eye each other nervously. I borrowed a Legal Observer’s bib. Various people, none of whom I knew, urged me not to put it on. I didn’t know anyone there. I crossed the physical space between the two groups and spoke to the police officer in charge: Chief Inspector Streeter. I told him my name and address. I told him that I was about to start the Bar Vocational Course at the Inns of Court School of Law and asked him why the Legal Observers had been arrested. He declined to comment. I said that in the absence of any explanation as to why a Legal Observer should be arrested, I intended to become one there and then. I explained that I had borrowed a bib from a stranger. I suggested that if he wanted to arrest me, perhaps he could let me know. He said, “So long as you don’t play any part in the demonstration, you won’t be arrested.” I put the bib on and walked back.
The police moved to the other side of Western Road. The crowd exhorted itself to get the show on the road. We collectively tiptoed after the police. Just as we got to the kerb, someone shouted, “They’re not going to stop us!” Suddenly beach balls were being thrown in the air, the traffic was blocked and there was partying on the road.
It was a short lived party. The police lined up into ranks and advanced. West Street seemed to have been closed off for our benefit. Looking back now, I wonder whether the people who shouted that we were being allowed to take over West Street were in fact undercover officers. We were corralled down West Street. As we did the police at the bottom advanced towards us. Then the police appeared on both sides of us. The police on all sides pushed and shoved us into an increasingly small rectangle until there was only just room to turn on the spot. I didn’t know to call it a kettle then.
People were shouting and asking for more room. It got very ugly, very quickly. Pleas to leave were ignored. Between us and the police was a thin strip of space. It was as wide as the length of a copper’s arm. Anyone straying into this region was attacked by the police, physically. Realising that this was not going to end well, I decided to ask a police officer if I could leave. Hands by my side, I asked the nearest officer. His neighbouring colleague drew his truncheon and stabbed it into my chest repeatedly.
The standard issue truncheon had just been replaced. He stabbed me four or five times and only stopped when I pushed the tip of his weapon away. I said, “There’s no need for that, I only asked to leave. You could just say no.” Whatever was going through that man’s mind is anyone’s guess. Perhaps he was worried about being obliged to defend himself from having to articulate a response with his extendible rod? He raised it and tried to beat the top of my head with it! I caught the end of it in my hand and said, “What do you think you’re doing? If you can’t talk, you could just ignore me. There’s no need to try to kill me. You must know the risk of death or serious injury involved in hitting someone on the head?” As I said those words, we played an absurd version of unbreakable crackers. He yanked his end of the truncheon and I pulled back at the offensive end. When I let go, he knew it was because I had chosen to. He looked sheepish and put his weapon away. I asked him again if I could leave and he ignored me, avoiding eye contact.
One of his colleagues ordered me to move away. “Where am I supposed to go? You’ve left me no room to move.” He could see my point. There were people standing directly behind me and people behind them. At this point I felt someone tap me on the shoulder from behind. I turned around. A large furry microphone was pushed in my face. Next to the boom operator was a man holding a large video camera. A woman asked me if I wouldn’t mind being interviewed for French television. “Sure, I don’t have anything else to do.“
She asked me if I was hurt. I said no. Then she mentioned that they had seen the police hitting me with his truncheon. I said something about him not wanting to let me leave and go home. She pressed her point and asked, more insistently, that it must have hurt me. Although not keen to help the police at this point, I didn’t want to lie either so I said, “Oh no, it was nothing.” Her face was incredulous, as if she was annoyed that I hadn’t immediately complained of maltreatment by the heavy hand of authority. She pressed again, saying that I looked really badly hurt and I replied that I wasn’t, that there was nothing to worry about. She pointed to the blood running down my chin. Wiping my chin, I discovered that I there was blood on it. I felt the back of my mouth. Realising that this wasn’t too hygienic, I pulled my hand out and wiped it on my hankerchief, which I then wiped my lips with. It turned from white to red. The interviewer said something like, “Look, you are bleeding quite badly! You are hurt!” My reply must have reinforced every cultural stereotype possible about the British stiff upper lip: “I’m telling you, this blood has got nothing to do with anything. I’m not hurt.” Her face was complete confusion.
I realised that I could use the blood as a means to escape the inevitable fracas. I approached the police again. I pointed out that I was bleeding, took off my bib and asked to be allowed to attend hospital. That worked. On the way home, the anaesthetic wore off and the pain kicked in. Sitting in my kitchen at home, my Mum asked me what I’d got up to that afternoon. “Nothing much“, I replied. Then she told me that one of our neighbours had seen me on BBC South Today in the middle of a riot. Oh dear. The neighbour had related the whole incident to her. “Better not tell your Father“, was all she said.
Now that’s my personal recollection of the events on the day. Luckily, there were people taking a proper record of what actually happened. I’m the Legal Observer mentioned at 14:50 at that link. The following day there were extensive press reports, focussing in particular on the exceptionally high arrest rate. The police broke the law repeatedly that day. The demonstrators did not. Although the Human Rights Act had not yet been drafted, the UK was a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights: it was the first country to sign it and the last to legislate. The legislation made remedial action swifter and clarified the relationship between the Convention and all our other laws to some extent but it didn’t actually introduce any new rights. The police broke those rights over and again. Let me be completely objective about this: the policing was a bloody disgrace.
I knew no-one at the protest. I went back to my studies. I kept my newly acquired bib. Since then I’ve moved house over sixty times. I’ve given away all my possessions, lost stuff, sold stuff and been separated from stuff. I’ve treasured the bib. When I was completing my barristerial training in London I sometimes turned up at events like Critical Mass. I put my bib on and watched the police very very carefully. I would hear people say things like, “Who’s he? The other observers don’t know him.” Other people would note that a few words from me and the police would change their behaviour. A little. Normally Legal Observers have training to ensure they remain in role. I never did. Effectively, I acted as a freelance observer. I’m not pretending to have saved any days but I did contribute to keeping the peace on a few occasions. I wish I could say the same for the police. I’ve observed them breaking whatever laws they want until they heard me recording everything into a time stamped dictaphone.
At Occupy London the police attacked us on the first night. However, a combination of events kept them at bay after their initial foray. One was the fact that the City of London Police had little experience at dealing with civil disobedience. Another factor was that man of the cloth turfing them off the Cathedral steps first thing in the morning, creating the possibility of a political crisis between the City and the Church of England. There are more factors than I care to name in this essay but one of them was the fact that they knew that right from the start we had an excellent legal team. Once more I had turned up on my own and put my legal head to work. On the first night I recruited John Cooper QC (to advise me on behalf of Occupy London). I suggested warning them via twitter that there were children asleep in the tents and that they ought to read the Children Act before piling in. The tweet went out. A moment later, their lines pulled back. It could have been a coincidence, of course.
The biggest factor was almost certainly their knowledge that no matter how much they filmed and photographed us, we were capturing their every movement and streaming it directly to the world. Probably with better cameras than them. The name Ian Tomlinson was doubtless on every officer’s mind. His death was a tragedy. It was also part of a pattern. The police have form for injuring and killing people at protests. People they are supposed to protect. Previously, they got away with murder because they could cover up the evidence and we couldn’t collect it ourselves. There’s no point stopping people handing out leaflets explaining your rights on arrest any more because everyone has a video camera.
Back to Brighton. Sussex Police have recently developed a new approach to policing protests. They deploy protest liaison officers. We first saw them used when they turned out in force at Brighton Uncut‘s Never Mind The Jubilee Street Party in Churchill Square. Elsewhere in the town, large numbers of officers kept a close eye on a day trip to the seaside by the EDL. Afterwards, Sussex Police made attempts to discuss this new form of engagement with people interested in the protests, by talking to them via twitter. Some of us, myself included, tried to engage with them. Others rejected the approach out of hand. Others still were indifferent. After all, the police have a lot to prove. It is them who have to win trust, not the people.
Although there is a long way to go before this new initiative could be described as a turning point in the relationship between the police and people protesting their rights and their political views, we have also come a long way since 1996. The Brighton Uncut street party was just as unlawful as the ‘beach’ party, yet the police did not just pile in, beat anyone who dared to speak to them and arrest as many people as their cells could hold. Instead they talked to us. That looked like an improvement to me.
Unfortunately, after that the new look protest policing faltered. The protest liaison officers were next deployed at a demonstration by the SmashEDO campaign, which protested against the possibility of war with Iran on 4th June 2012. Sussex Police have been coy about the behaviour of the protest liaison officers on this occasion. It has become clear that they tried to mingle with the protesters and only left the crowd when the protesters mocked them so much that their continuing presence had become inflammatory. Having already discussed the new strategy with the police via twitter, shortly after that protest I asked them whether those reports were true. Instead of replying that they were waiting for reports to be filed and would answer later or admitting it or denying it, instead the police tried to duck the question. (10th paragraph at that link & screenshots of conversation below it.)
These people work for us! They are public servants. I’ve paid tax. I’ve paid their wages. Why they think that they should treat any enquiry much as a politician treats a journalistic question is baffling. I fear it reveals much about police culture. Close ranks, cover up and kill the story. When will they understand that these old tactics won’t work? We have video. We own the internet. The more intelligent approach would be to get straight to the point and admit the truth. Then the merits of the facts could be discussed.
Let’s park the issue of Sussex Police being unable or unwilling to just confirm the facts on the ground. The decision to deploy officers charged with engaging with protesters uninvited inside the protesters’ ranks must be categorised under “Undiplomatic”. There is a deep seated suspicion amongst many political activists that these officers are simply on an intelligence gathering mission. For my part, I suspect that even the police would realise this technique would be an utter waste of resources. Last year’s half a million plus requests to snoop on our communications was much more likely to bear fruit than donning a uniform and walking amongst us. Film is more useful than individual personal recollection. Undercover agents who are still allowed to rape their way around the activist community will certainly acquire more information than watching people wave donuts on sticks at you. The average plod may not be the brightest soul in the force but surely those further up the chain of command cannot have really intended these particular officers to gather intelligence? It’s much more likely that the decision to deploy them like that was a bungled attempt at public relations and the slowness to withdraw them a reflection on the reflexes of the command structure. After being pinned down on this issue, Sussex Police later implied to me that their officers had as much right to the public space as anyone else. That’s true but it isn’t the way to develop new community relations. It’s like the landlord turning up at your birthday party and telling you he owns the house.
Many local political activists point to the officers wearing the liaison bibs being the same people employed on more pernicious tasks. There’s not much mileage in that point. These liaison officers are not a completely separate unit from the rest of the police. They’re just performing a role on the day. Performing different roles is a feature of professional life. Rather than picking on the people involved, we should point out the problems with the new role in the hope that they can be ironed out.
It is early days still. The gap of understanding between the two sides is wide. There is too much distrust on both sides. There will always be some political activists who view the police as a front line in their battle for regime change. There will always be some police who regard anyone who isn’t shopping for retail therapy to be a troublemaker. In between, there are many who would like to find a better approach. The problem is that the police have all the power. The ball is in their court. My guess is that they get a few more chances to serve us properly but only a few. If they fail to get those right, this new initiative will crash. They’ve come a long way from mindlessly attacking everyone in sight but that’s happened because we have empowered ourselves. As Marx argued, a change in technology has ushered in a change in the relationship between the powerful and the weak. Therefore, the police don’t get any credit for abating their traditional methods. They need to win credit by backing off.
At Occupy London the City of London police won much sympathy with the protestors by keeping their distance. Sure, they walked through our camp but only in ones and twos and even then only occasionally. They stood back. I knew when they followed me through the streets because they weren’t that clever about it. I expected them to anyway. Often they followed me and other conspicuous people whilst others took on more important tasks, online. These days we don’t talk to the people we’re standing next to by using our voices. We use direct messages on twitter, off the record encrypted channels, the tor project and various other methods.
Brighton & Hove is now officially a City. It is run by the Green Party, which openly welcomes citizens’ asserting their democratic rights to protest. The City Council has explicitly stated that everyone has the right to protest and they expect the police to facilitate those protests. Thus the EDL was allowed to march under the cover of the so-called “March for England“, even though every member of the local administration is deeply opposed to everything they stand for. That event was bound to carry big risks of trouble. There were people determined to disrupt the march, themselves exercising their lawful right to a static demonstration without advance permission. There was trouble. Bottles were thrown at the racist EDL. Some EDL supporters attacked local people (myself included). The police had a complicated job to do that day and on the whole they managed it very well, which is why I have not pursued a complaint against them for failing to arrest the man who attacked me. They probably didn’t deploy sufficient numbers to cope with the predictable stress lines across town that day. No doubt lessons are being learnt for next year.
The point the police have to grasp is that it is not for them to control demonstrations, let alone become involved in them to any extent. Their job is to maintain the peace. Nothing more, nothing less. If a protest group doesn’t want to engage with them, there’s nothing they can do about it. Without any threat of violence, there’s no need whatsoever for more than half a dozen police officers. Two at the front, two at the back and one walking along either side. If they want to park greater numbers around the corner, to be ready for spontaneous trouble, fine. Barging in on a political demonstration which they cannot support is not engagement, it is incitement. If the police don’t understand this, they need to take a long hard look at themselves and their role in our society. We all know what it should be – to keep the peace, not to keep control.
Rather than try to stop political protests, the police should allow people to make their point and, if necessary, use their power to arrest people for a breach of the peace. Peaceful activists will not resist that type of arrest. Activists will make more impact by getting arrested for civil disobedience than for fighting. The police need to make a judgment call on when such arrests are justified. We can have the arguments in court later, rather than on the ground. If an activist is released, they should be allowed to move freely again. If the police lack the resources to deal with large numbers of protestors in this way, then they have a political argument with the government.
People must be able to talk to any police officer, without fearing violence. If there is a role for specific protest liaison officers, the police need to spell out how it differs from all other police officers. Having justified that distinction, it must be maintained cogently. Bibs on bobbies is meaningless unless there’s a properly understood role. At the present time, the purpose of the new role is far from clear. I’d like to see Sussex Police complete their journey from their nasty behaviour in the nineties, to transform themselves from being political tools to being the protectors of the peace. To promote the chances of their success, several sections of the activist community are giving them the benefit of the doubt, for now. The next outing of the new protest liaison officers will be watched very closely indeed. The pressure is on the police to behave like concerned citizens, not control freaks.