The civil liberties organisation Liberty will provide their brand of legal observers on October 20 for the latest TUC organised march against the cuts. They will not only monitor the police, but also protesters – much like a special (volunteer) constable would. However, as experienced legal observers we can see three main problems with Liberty’s plans for this Saturday: their volunteers are not independent, they are monitoring protesters and they do not know what they are doing.
Liberty have a proud history of legal observing since the 1930s, but unfortunately it is just that – history. They no longer legal observe regularly, and have forgotten both how to do it and why it is needed. This is part of a wider trend in recent decades of Liberty moving further and further away from the grassroots organisation it was as the National Council for Civil Liberties. It undertakes a bunch of interesting liberal legal challenges, but it has lost all touch with what is happening on Britain’s streets. It has become lobby group for liberal lawyers, run by lawyers, and focusing on issues lawyers are interested in- not a grassroots civil rights movement.
Grassroots legal observing groups like Legal Defence & Monitoring Group, Green & Black Cross, Newham Monitoring Project and Haldane work closely together on the hundreds of other protests throughout the year which do not have the glamour of a national march. They support those unfairly targeted by police all year round. However Liberty seem to believe their high profile and history mean that they know more than these groups. They have repeatedly failed to communicate with other groups, who recognise the need to work together and will be running a large joint team of experienced legal observers on October 20.
Worse still, Liberty’s know it all attitude and ignorance of recent protests has meant they have been spectacularly co-opted by the police. On the last anti-cuts demo in March 2011, Liberty praised the police for their ‘proportionate and restrained’ behaviour, but had no bad words about either of the two major incidents on the day – the unprecedented mass arrest of 145 people inside Fortnum & Mason and the kettling of protesters in Trafalgar Square when night fell.
Liberty had someone in the police control room that day, and could have shone a vital light on the reasoning for the police’s aggressive actions. Instead they said nothing. This could be because they were focused almost totally on the TUC march, but also because their legal observers were all told to clock off at 5pm. Anyone with a modicum of experience of recent big protests knows the police usually become more aggressive when night falls and it is harder to film their actions. But by this time, Liberty had gone home.
Lastly, legal observers should monitor the police and only the police. The police are there to monitor the protesters and have enough resources. Legal observers are there to hold the police to account when they so often act aggressively and unlawfully. The independence of legal observers is also crucial, both for their credibility but also for their safety. Liberty’s legal observers reporting on protesters to the police, just like special constables, potentially puts all legal observers in danger.
It is a shame that an organisation with a history such as Liberty’s has lost its way. They need to stop collaborating with the police, regain their independence, and start talking to legal observing groups who understand police tactics and have practical experience. Liberty do not know what they are doing, and in their arrogant blundering are doing more harm than good.