Leicestershire police are once again operating ‘Operation Stay Safe’ to keep young people away from demonstrations in Leicester on the 4th February.

Demonstrations and assemblies are expected in the city in response to the presence of the right-wing English Defence League (EDL), who will also hold a rally. Leicestershire constabulary has promoted a strong ‘stay at home’ message, which has left young people feeling that they have no choice but to stay off the streets.

The police have published leaflets saying that, under Operation Stay Safe, they can take any person under the age of eighteen to a ‘safe place’ during the demonstrations if they feel that person is at risk of harm. Child and youth services will then be involved, and the young person will only be released into the care of a parent or carer. The police have not specified which situations they think might place someone ‘at risk of harm’, and campaigners say announcement has had the effect of deterring young people from taking part in demonstrations.

A similar strategy was used last time the EDL came to Leicester, in 2010. Two holding centres were set up to receive young people picked up by the police, but they were not used. The threat in itself, however, undoubtedly stopped people from attending. Alongside the ‘Stay Safe’ strategy, the police and council invested a lot of time in effort in pushing a stay at home message specifically to the local Muslim communities.

Operation Stay Safe makes use of powers granted to the police by Section 46 of the Children Act 1998. This allows the police to take into police protection children who are at risk of ‘significant harm’ due to a lack of parental care or control. The provisions are meant to apply in situations where children are putting themselves in positions where they could be exploited or abused. It was never intended to be used in relation to political protest.

Saqib Deshmukh, a campaigner and youth worker, said, “The police and council are trying to intimidate young people away from participating in lawful demonstration. We are not talking about young children here, but sixteen and seventeen year-olds, who have every right to demonstrate against racism on the streets of their city. Instead they are frightened that if they exercise their right to have their voices heard, they will be taken away by the police.”

33 arrests were made at the EDL demonstration in 2010, after EDL demonstrators fought with police trying to contain them. Some of the EDL broke away and damaged a fast food outlet. At the same time hundreds of local people gathered to express their opposition to the EDL at various mosques in the city, and at a Unite Against Fascism event held in the city centre, without violent incident.

Netpol have expressed concern that Leicester council and the police are making the same mistakes they made last time the EDL came to Leicester. Making a section of the community feel they cannot leave their homes is probably not the best way to deal with community tensions.

Leicester council was criticised for appeasing the EDL on their last demonstration in the city, by allowing them to drink heavily in city centre pubs, and then laying on buses to transfer them to their rally site. On 4th Feb this year, the anti-Islamic group will be permitted to march through the town centre.

Netpol published a major report last year on the policing of the EDL demonstration in Leicester in October 2010 Read the report here.