Prophecy is always risky, but looking back at the policing of protest over the last few years offers some hints about what we can expect in the coming year. Here are seven educated guesses from Netpol for 2015:
2015 – The UK’s Year of the Protest?
In 2011, the uprisings of the Arab Spring and street demonstrations in Greece, Russia and the US famously led Time magazine to choose ‘The Protester’ as its ‘Person of the Year’. In the UK, however, that year is remembered more for summer riots: ferociously condemned, rather than celebrated, by the nation’s press. After almost five years of government austerity policies, the traditional tactic of the mass demonstration in Britain is increasingly becoming an endangered species. With the same speakers at the end of the same rigidly controlled routes, the absence of spontaneity may explain why politicians and the media largely ignore even a march of thousands of people – and why such marches are held more rarely than they once were.
Instead, protests that make the widest impact – on new issues like tax avoidance or the housing crisis, for example – have often been smaller and based around the use of direct action. In a year when mainstream party politics is liable to become narrower and even more inward looking in the months before the general election on 7 May, the case for taking campaign demands out onto the streets in new and imaginative ways becomes increasingly compelling.
In that event, we can expect protesters who are better prepared to record, film and monitor police behaviour, to actively resist surveillance by police photographers and FIT officers and who steer clear of the dubious intelligence gathering activities of ‘police liaison’ officers.
The increasing privatisation of protest policing
A reduction in police funding of £299 million for England and Wales in 2015/16 will increase pressure to offset the costs of policing protests, particularly to the private sector, by encouraging companies to take a more combative role towards protesters.
This could involve an upsurge, with the blessing of the police, in injunctions and civil claims for damages: there is already evidence that, in 2013, Nottinghamshire Police colluded with EDF against ‘No Dash for Gas’ by formally serving civil papers on activists and by sharing their personal data with the power company. We also expect far greater collaboration on intelligence gathering – police guidance on ‘fair processing’ allows considerable scope for sharing personal data with other organisations if this is ‘necessary for a policing purpose’
But no cuts in the ‘domestic extremism’ intelligence gatherers
We expect, however, that the secretive National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit (NDEDIU), which coordinates intelligence gathering on ‘domestic extremism’ and strategic public order issues, will remain immune to cost cutting. In part, this is because it is based within the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command – and anything associated with ‘fighting terrorism’ continues to receive government support and funding.
Whilst ‘domestic extremism’ supposedly applies only to “serious criminal activity motivated by a political or ideological viewpoint”, there is also considerable scope, as we pointed out last year, for labelling any form of popular direct action as a serious crime, especially if it targets powerful economic interests with government support. As long as there is no legal definition of ‘domestic extremism, the secretive NDEDIU can continue to write its own cheques and harvest data on people using a definition it interprets as broadly as it wants.
Increased targeting of anti-fracking campaigners
As we revealed last year in our report on the training of Gold Commanders, the police see opposition to fracking as the most significant public order issue in the coming year and are actively preparing for it. We also highlighted how the police are seeking to ensure the fracking industry shoulders far more of the financial burden for future protests. We therefore expect anti-fracking activists to face increasing efforts by companies like Cuadrilla, who are actively investing in security personnel, to disrupt their campaigning activities in the coming year.
However, at the end of 2014, we also saw one of the clearest examples of the flexibility of the police’s ‘domestic extremist’ label in response to opposition to fracking, with Kent Police asking Canterbury Christ Church University to hand over a list of attendees at a public debate on its campus. This incident illustrates what we expect will involve an increasingly intrusive level of police surveillance of anti-fracking campaigners in 2015, extending beyond a focus on the ‘protector camps’ to include local campaigners. The extreme energy industry is deeply worried about the prospects of direct action: this in itself casts suspicion on anyone concerned about fracking, including those holding village hall meetings and high street stalls.
Netpol is producing detailed guidance for anti-fracking campaigners on how to respond to oppressive surveillance, which we plan to publish in the next few months.
A continuing use of mass arrests
Somehow, despite the financial pressures that police complain about, resources are found to contain and arrest large numbers of people, often hundreds at a time, with little prospect that most will face any charge. The tactic is, however, an effective means of disrupting and ending a protest and a prime source of intelligence, particularly on new and emerging campaigns.
For those reasons alone, we expect the police to continue to pre-book the ‘private charter’ buses used in 2013 in Whitechapel and at December 2014’s Westfield protest.
The new social media battle ground
Monitoring social media by the police to gather ‘open source’ intelligence is now commonplace: it even has a name, the somewhat sinister-sounding SocMint. However, the experience of Brighton activist Beth Granter, who last year found that her Facebook posts led to intimidating phone calls by Sussex Police, points to a more proactive attitude towards individuals involved in protest.
Social media is recognised as an essential tool for organising protest but there are risks for a generation brought up with no qualms about sharing absolutely everything on Facebook and Twitter: an ill-considered post or tweet could result in your labeling as a ‘domestic extremist’, or like Beth receiving unwarranted police attention, or even arrest and conviction (particularly when imprisonment for ‘daydreaming’ radical opinions is now a reality).
Netpol is also producing guidance for campaigners on using social media, which we plan to publish shortly
Unlocking the secret files police hold on protesters
This is perhaps more a hope than a prediction, but in 2015, Netpol wants to see an end to prevarication and obstruction by the police about the personal data it holds on activists. The Metropolitan Police, which maintains NDEDIU data, has an appalling track record of excessive delays in replying to data protection ‘subject access requests’ and in providing incomplete information. This is an issue we have raised repeatedly with the Information Commissioner’s Office.
This year, we want the Information Commissioner to act. Until we know who the police retains intelligence about and what information is held, it remains impossible to challenge inaccuracies or inappropriate data gathering – or to test whether the term ‘domestic extremist’ is in fact as meaningless as we believe it to be.