On Friday 27th July, 182 cyclists were arrested by the Metropolitan police for straying too close to the Olympic venue. Netpol have been given a number of eye-witness accounts from participants in the Critical Mass which tell a highly disturbing story.
Those arrested were forced to tolerate poor conditions of detention, with some spending the entire night detained on a bus at Charing Cross, waiting to be booked into custody, without adequate access to water or toilet facilities. Some people were forced to spend an excessive amount of time in handcuffs, and access to legal representation and advice was patchy. All have also been subject to highly restrictive bail conditions, which in some cases have left people unable to work without breaching the conditions of their bail. Some have had to face a significant struggle to reclaim their own cycles.
But even more disturbing perhaps, was the disturbing ease by which the Metropolitan Police have felt able to carry out a strategy of mass arrest against a group of people whose primary offence appears to have been the act of cycling into East London. The police justification that the arrests were necessary to prevent ‘serious disruption’ to the community is, in our view, less than credible.
The Critical Mass, which takes place on the last Friday of every month, has been going for the past 18 years. The Mass is famous for having no pre-organised route or formal organisation. Those who turn up on the night decide where the ride is to go.
The police have claimed that they placed restrictions on the Mass on the 27th July in order to prevent ‘serious disruption’ to the community on the night of the Olympic opening ceremony, an event which has certainly caused a fair bit of disruption in its own right. They have not made public the nature of the ‘serious disruption’ that they feared. The conditions imposed on the Mass were enormously restrictive. They including a requirement not to go anywhere north of the river, to start and complete the ride within a set time framework, and to stay away from the Olympic Route Network.
The wider context to all this is that the Metropolitan Police has made previous attempts to restrict the Critical Mass to an agreed and pre-notified route. In 2005 they stated that the failure of the organisers of the Mass to provide six days’ notice of the proposed route made the event unlawful, and handed out notices threatening participants with prosecution. The resulting legal case made it all the way to the House of Lords, who held that the Critical Mass, as a regular and customary event, without organisers and without a pre-planned route, was entirely lawful and that the participants committed no crime.
The ruling, which runs counter to police policiies of prior ‘engagement’ was unlikely to have been well received by the Metropolitan police. Public order policing strategies, which are applied to all large gatherings whether protest related or not, invariably prioritise the capacity of the police to control and restrict freedom of movement.
The police routinely insist on extensive information before agreeing to a procession, including the personal details of organisers, the potential size, composition and intentions of the crowd, and the proposed route. They also demand that organisers provide official stewarding. Where this has not taken place, or where marches have not kept to the agreed route, police forces across the UK have demonstrated a highly intolerant attitude. In such circumstances the police have a history of imposing kettles and physical controls on movement, pre-emptive arrests and intrusive data gathering.
Given this context, Netpol are concerned that the actions of the Metropolitan Police were not only an opportunistic tactic to clamp down on the Critical Mass, but also an attempt to further curtail the ability of people to participate in spontaneous procession per se.
However, we also note that the mass arrests of 182 cyclists, perceived by the police to be hostile towards the Games, was advantageous to the police in terms of Olympics policing. The operation delivered to them 182 names and addresses to add to their intelligence databases; 182 potential ‘anti-Olympics’ demonstrators given bail conditions to stay away from Olympic venues; the chance to issue a clear message to anyone contemplating anything that may in any way be construed as an anti-Olympic protest.
The powers that the police used to arrest the 182 cyclists are limited ones. The have the right to make arrests under s12 of the Public Order Act only when they have a ‘reasonable belief’ that the procession could result in “serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community”. It is very hard to see how these conditions could possibly have been met.
Remarkably the police also subsequently arrested the Critical Mass detainees with the potentially serious common law offence of Public Nuisance. No justification for this has so far been forthcoming. But according to an eye-witness account given to Netpol, one officer carried out his arrest with the following words;
“Some corporation someone from somewhere has decided that you’re also to be arrested for public nuisance.”
It seems that even police officers themselves have a healthy cynicism of Olympic policing.
The Netpol lawyers group, which includes a number of firms representing Critical Mass arrestees, has issued the following statement;
“We are looking into the lawfulness of arrest of participants at Critical Mass on 27 July 2012. We are also considering challenging the onerous bail conditions that mean that suspects cannot go within 100 yards of an Olympic venue (or go into Newham on a bike at all). We are clearly concerned about aspects of the policing of the Olympics and will consider any challenges that may arisse.”