Photo: Steve Eason

Photo: Steve Eason

The arrest on 10 December at Westfield London of seventy six people taking part in a solidarity action against police violence is the latest in a series of mass arrests that, on this occasion, was apparently motived by the incursion of protest into ‘corporate space’. However, the police tactic of arresting large numbers of people to gather intelligence on protesters, deliberately disrupt protest and ‘punish’ those who take part in them has been a growing concern for Netpol since 2012.

Hundreds of protesters had gathered in support of demonstrations in the US, called after the failure to prosecute the New York police officer who had choked Eric Garner to death during his arrest for unlawfully selling cigarettes. The decision to take the protest to a mall was understandable: the point of protesting is to get noticed by the public and at this time of year, there are few places as ‘public’ or as noticeable as Westfield’s vast White City shopping centre. Activists in the US had adopted a similar approach, with Ferguson protests deliberately targeting shopping centres on ‘Black Friday’. The point, one of them stated, was “to let the world know it is no longer ‘business as usual’”.

The corporate operators of shopping malls like Westfield are not, however, noted for their tolerance of protest. While they accept that the space they manage is ‘a community hub where people can come together to shop, relax and socialise’, that does not mean that all kinds of ‘community’ events are welcome. Protest, they say is ‘inappropriate’ in their space, as it has the potential to make the public, particularly ‘the elderly, vulnerable and children’ feel ‘intimidated and unsafe’. Both parliament and the European Court of Human Rights decided not to extend protest rights to ‘quasi-public’ areas, preferring to prioritise property rights over rights to expression and assembly.

It is not clear why shoppers in a private space would be more intimidated than shoppers in a town centre, where (unlike in a corporate retail space) there is an established right of protest. Nor is it clear why anyone should be ‘intimidated’ by people protesting against violence and discrimination and who are lying on the floor holding a ‘die-in’. Nevertheless, this was the claim trumpeted by the Daily Mail, who ranted that protesters who were ‘running around and chanting’ were ‘terrifying’ the shoppers.

Confrontations that did occur during the protest appear to result from police and private security attempting to remove protesters from Westfield and keep them out. Eye-witnesses have told Netpol of unnecessarily aggressive man-handling by security personnel and of plain-clothed security guards, who were initially indistinguishable from members of the public, attacking and punching protesters.

On the pretext of alleged assaults on security staff, police then ‘kettled’ a group of around fifty protesters just outside the Westfield centre. All of this particular group were arrested for alleged violent disorder. In total, seventy six were arrested for public order offences and taken to police stations on the outskirts of London, such as Sutton, which greatly increased the inconvenience of travelling home after they were released.

Mass arrest as a deliberate public order policing strategy was used against 186 Critical Mass cyclists on the eve of the London Olympics in 2012, on 286 anti-fascist protesters in September 2013 and 40 student demonstrators in December 2013. All were part of groups the police considered in some way ‘deviant’ – not keeping to conditions imposed on cycle routes or demonstrations, or behaving in a way considered to be ‘unruly’. However, the Westfield arrests represent the first time people have faced offences as serious as violent disorder (although students arrested in 2013 were held for affray, which is also a potentially serious charge).

Participating in a ‘deviant’ group never means, of course, that its members are automatically criminals because, as previous mass arrests have shown, only a tiny percentage of those detained were ultimately found guilty of any criminal offence. However, the tactic of mass arrest serves three valuable functions as far as the police are concerned. First, it allows them to ‘fish’ for any individuals within a ‘kettle’ who may be reasonably suspected of having committed offences – something which in law they have no powers to do.

Secondly, it feeds the current police obsession in collecting personal data of individuals involved in ‘suspect’ groups. On arrest, police have powers to take photographs, fingerprints and DNA. While there is no legal obligation to provide a name and address, those that refuse risk being denied bail. This is useful for police intelligence-gathering that places a high priority on gathering as much personal data about protesters as possible. Notably, where intelligence connects individuals with serious violence (as will probably be inferred from arrests for violent disorder), any personal details are likely to be retained for a longer period than other data, possibly for up to 12 years.

Thirdly, mass arrest has a disruptive and debilitating effect on protest. It not only brings one protest to an end but also impacts on all subsequent demonstrations, by increasing individuals’ reluctance to participate if they know there is a risk of spending hours held in a kettle, or a night in custody.

Pre-charge bail conditions, frequently used on previous mass arrests to restrict movement and association, were not imposed on those arrested at Westfield. Over the last six months, the government has announced plans to curb police bail – changes which may, if implemented, eventually prevent police keeping protesters on police bail for months without any real prospect of charge, let alone conviction. That no conditions were considered necessary for protesters accused of serious offences on 10 December – apparently a reaction to the threat of impending restrictions on pre-charge bail –  does rather highlight the arbitrary way police bail was used after previous mass arrests.

We have argued that further changes are still urgently needed – most obviously ending the current tactic of arresting large numbers of protesters to abruptly close down their protest, with little evidence that any have committed an offence and even less prospect of the overwhelming majority ever facing prosecution. This will happen only with an end to the obsession with large-scale ‘intelligence gathering’ about political protest, which is the driving force behind such invasive and coercive public order tactics.