“Protest,” said the journalist Robert Elms at London’s Bishopsgate Institute last Thursday, “is the lifeblood of London.” That may be so: the city has a long and rich history of protest and dissent. But how much longer can it remain an integral part of London life, when there is a fundamental disjunction between the police’s increasing tendency to brand demonstrators as ‘criminals’ and the desire of the protesters to genuinely influence change?
The cultural and literary centre near Liverpool Street has been running a series of events hosted by Elms under the banner London in Peril, which have explored the past, present and future threats facing the capital. Last week’s ‘Protesting London’ debate was ambitiously billed as an exploration of “the effectiveness of protest, the attempts at constraint, the impact on London and its communities and what the future of protest may hold” and without doubt, the inclusion on the panel of one of the Metropolitan Police’s most senior officers, Assistant Commissioner Lynne Owens, who has overall responsibility for public order, was the reason why tickets had sold-out well in advance.
That the debate failed to deliver, however, was perhaps inevitable. There was insufficient time to properly probe and question the speakers, who also included Stop the War Coalition convenor Lindsey German and the academic and writer Clive Bloom. More importantly, Assistant Commissioner Owens might have provided a certain novelty value, but no-one rises to such an elevated position in the Metropolitan Police without learning how deflect questions and say very little. Throughout, her message was resolutely upbeat, despite the audience’s awareness of the intense criticism the Met has faced after the G20 protests in April 2009 and subsequent demonstrations.
In her opening remarks, Owens steered clear of these controversies, focusing instead on the “public order successes” of the Notting Hill Carnival and the annual Gay Pride March, although both are now examples of corporate-sponsored street entertainment rather than protests. The Royal Wedding was also cited as an “example of peaceful protest,” which may come as a surprise to the small number of anti-monarchist protesters who were snatched in Soho Square and faced pre-emptive arrests that in all likelihood were unlawful.
However, it was evident that the Met is particularly pleased with the way it took hold of and controlled the narrative around the TUC’s demonstration in March this year. Owens was quick to praise the political cover provided by the human rights charity Liberty, who provided ‘official’ legal observers during the march itself, whilst contrasting the union protest with other events on the day. In attempting to do so and in response to a question about the arrests of UKUncut activists in Piccadilly, she quickly overreached by insisting, to the surprise of many of us, that “ the route of the march did not go past Fortnum & Mason” (a fact, for those who couldn’t make it on 26 March, that a glance at this steward’s route map [pdf] will confirm is nonsense).
It was a sign, perhaps, of the awkward position the Met continues to find itself in since its mass arrest of protesters who briefly (and peacefully) occupied the exclusive store. Back in March, when giving evidence to the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, Owens seemed to suggest that the Fortnum & Mason arrests were an intelligence gathering ‘fishing trip’, saying that “the fact that we arrested as many people as we did is so important to us because that obviously gives us some really important intelligence opportunities”. Last week, when asked about the prospect of increased use of baton rounds or water cannon on London streets, Owens was keen to point out that in recent protests in Greece, “it didn’t reduce the level of violence on the street” and to contrast this with the “value of intelligence gathering”. The experience of UKUncut campaigners and Owens’ own testimony suggests the Met’s idea of intelligence gathering can be just as indiscriminate and even more likely to result in the criminalisation of protesters (whether ‘violent’ or not) as the overwhelming use of force.
Owens did make one statement, however, that I am in complete agreement with – that senior officers have a “leadership responsibility to prevent a locker-room mentality” amongst their officers. If only this really meant something in practice. From G20 and the death of Ian Tomlinson to the Gaza protest and student demonstrations last year, senior officers have repeatedly failed to shoulder responsibility for the misconduct of their officers and in this respect, Assistant Commissioner Owens was no different from her colleagues. “What we have seen,” she said, “is ill-informed communication about our actions”, a message intended to suggest that confusion over police tactics, rather than outright police brutality, is the reason why the Metropolitan Police has faced criticism. She even claimed that the removal of epaulette ID numbers by riot officers, condemned by both the Chief Inspector of Constabulary and the Independent Police Complaints Commission, were simply “isolated incidents”.
The gulf in understanding between police and protesters, however, really emerged over the question of what makes an effective protest. Owens’ answer was straight-forward: “people coming peacefully and who don’t engage in violence”, adding that “the best of all worlds is a protest that is self-policed”. This is a perspective that sees ‘effectiveness’ simply in terms of the rigid containment of demonstrators by a combination of stewards or police officers and without reference to the impact that a protest hopes to make. It is also one that makes the attention given to the merits of the tactic of ‘kettling’ almost superfluous – the ideal protest, in the view of the Assistant Commissioner, Is one that is kettled from start to finish.
Unfortunately, neither Lindsey German and Clive Bloom were able to compelling draw out the counter-argument. German said that “every tactic” is important to ensure that a protest is effective but was keener to praise the huge numbers on the TUC demonstration as an indicator that “most protests are not violent”. However, it is questionable whether a march lacking any coherent strategy about what would happen after the marchers had listened to Ed Miliband make a poor speech and gone home was really any less of an ineffectual stroll through London than the post-2003 Stop the War Coalition marches, whatever the numbers who attended. Bloom, meanwhile, was too busy reining back from the faux-radical position he had begun the evening with, that “the only successful marches are the violent ones”, to offer anything more than a confused argument that ‘virtual protest’ means “you don’t have to be on the street any more”.
Both missed the chance to persuasively argue that a ‘contained’ protest and an effective one are almost always mutually exclusive – and that the police’s implacably rigid view of what constitutes ‘legitimate’ protest is by far the greatest threat to the future of effective protest in the capital.