On Saturday 1st June the police arrested 58 people who had been protesting against plans by the British National Party to march to the cenotaph in Westminster. Anti-fascist protesters had breached restrictions imposed on their protest, having refused to be contained within an area designated by the police. Police confronting them used considerable force – eye-witnesses have described officers punching protesters, and one woman was taken to hospital with a broken leg. The police then carried out ‘snatch squad’ style arrests until two buses had been filled with handcuffed people.
The 58 people were all arrested for breaching conditions imposed on an assembly. They were taken to police cells, but none were charged with any offence. Instead they were released on police bail with instructions to return in July to be told whether or not charges would follow. Most were also given highly restrictive bail conditions, banning them from any form of protest and excluding them from much of central and west London.
Netpol has repeatedly criticised the use of section 12 and 14 of the Public Order Act 1986. These powers give the police wide discretion to impose conditions on protest whenever they ‘reasonably believe’ a march or rally presents a certain level of threat, effectively criminalising protest. Section 14 can be used to dictate where a protest should take place, making it unlawful to protest outside a designated area. The result is that protesters are often forced to protest from inside protest ‘pens’, restricted areas constructed from crowd control barriers, or face arrest.
These conditions on protest are so frequently applied it has prompted the UN Special Rapporteur, in a recent report on freedom of
peaceful assembly and of association in the UK, to state that the threshold for the use of section 12/14 was ‘too low’ to protect rights of assembly and expression.
These rights are additionally undermined by the imposition of bail conditions, which for most of those arrested were:
“not to enter the city of Westminster and not to organise or take part in any protest or demonstrations”.
Anyone breaching these conditions risks being immediately re-arrested, handcuffed and detained in police custody.
These bail conditions can, and surely will, be challenged in the courts. Green and Black Cross has done remarkable work in making sure those arrested on Saturday have had access to good legal representation and support. Although it is worth remembering that much of this is dependent on legal aid – itself under threat.
This is not the first time the Met have imposed restrictive bail conditions on large numbers of people arrested for minor offenses, and it will probably not be the last. Bail conditions are an effective means of disrupting protest activity, especially when in this case, participating in or organising protest is expressly prohibited. They also enable the police to impose a direct and not insignificant punishment, restricting freedom of movement and potentially disrupting work, social life and access to family members. These measures are attractive for the police as they are cheap and easy, usually involving none of the expense and inconvenience of dealing with legal process. People can be kept on police bail for many months but still not be charged with any offence.
These are broad and authoritarian powers, which the police have repeatedly used irresponsibly. The police should not have the power to punish or remove fundamental rights from people who have not even been charged with an offence. Netpol will continue to work with its partners to end the use of police bail and conditions.