More evidence of huge police pressure on organisers of protest marches

Photo: Squash

Photo: Squash

In February, we highlighted attempts by the police to impose ‘pay-to-protest’ conditions on organisers of marches in London and how a coalition of campaigning groups had come together to reject paying for traffic management and private security. Since then, we have received more evidence of efforts to impose prohibitively expensive conditions on marches, and of other attempts by police to tightly control any protest where organisers decide to liaise with them.

For example, on 31st January a ‘March for Homes’ organised by a coalition of tenant groups, trade unions and campaign organisations to protest about the housing crisis was held in London with two converging feeder marches meeting near London Bridge, before rallying outside City Hall. Around 5000 people took part, the march ran to schedule and there was no serious ‘disorder’.  The demonstration’s chief steward told us about the negotiations with police before the march:

I was asked if we would be applying for a road closure / traffic management notice. I replied that I had been advised that one would not be granted (the Transport for London representative confirmed this) and it was therefore a waste of time. I explained that we would be recruiting stewards and envisaged that this would be sufficient to maintain the overall progress of the demonstration, but I also suggested that ‘the authorities’ should provide some form of additional support, perhaps in the form of a ‘tape and cone’ operation of the kind I’ve been familiar with on previous events I’ve been involved with. 

I was slightly surprised to be told that this service was no longer available and that the only way of ensuring that marchers were kept separate from traffic was to employ a private events management firm at a cost of around £10,000. I replied that this wasn’t an option and we would proceed with self-stewarding and rely on the good sense of people taking part in the march. 

I stated, on several occasions prior to 31st January, that while we would do our best to ensure that the demonstration did not cause undue disruption, neither myself or the other organisers could or would be held responsible for the activities of everybody taking part, with the implication that if the police and others wanted to ensure that level of control, they would have to try to do it themselves.  We were not willing or able to provide a ‘policing’ role.

One increasingly common method used by police to encourage stewards to undertake this kind of more overt policing role is a signed ‘agreement’ called a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which is not legally binding but that protest organisers face considerable pressure to sign up to.

In early June, Bedfordshire Police presented Women for Refugee Women, who were planning to protest outside Yarlwood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedford, with an MOU (pdf_icon, 1 Mb) that not only set out how and when different stages of the protest would take place, but expected stewards to make sure that “all persons remain on the public right of way to ensure that adjacent crops or property are not damaged” and “in order to prevent any trespass offence”.

Women for Refugee Women were also asked to provide an advance list of all speakers at the rally at the start of the demonstration and to instruct stewards to point out ‘troublemakers’ by telling a Police Liaison Officer if “during the event they become aware of individuals who are not complying [with the terms of the agreement]”.

We understand that at least one police force – South Yorkshire – uses MOUs as standard practice for every protest. A draft template (pdf_icon, 925 kB) released under a Freedom of Information request shows that, rather intimidatingly, it emphasises provisions within the Terrorism Act 2000 and the Public Order Act 1986 “when considering any item of clothing worn, any flags flown or placards carried.

It is perhaps fortunate that the Yarlswood protest organisers refused to sign the MOU they were offered, as on the day itself demonstrators breached the detention centre’s outer perimeter fence and then continued their protest between the outer and inner security barriers.

Signed agreements represent one way of persuading demonstration organisers that they, rather than the police, bear overall responsibility for preventing any breach of the peace and therefore require the services of a professional events company. The apparent intention is to reduce policing costs by deploying fewer officers and relying instead on a mix of private security and small number of Police Liaison Officers.

The chief steward of the ‘March for Homes’ told us how initially cordial discussions with the police can quickly change to pressure and threats when protests fail to take place ‘smoothly’:

Stewarding the event proved to be a rather stressful experience!  We struggled to co-opt the number of stewards we’d hoped for on the east London leg and the numbers attending exceeded our expectations.  Given this, it was inevitable that the demonstration at times interfered with the flow of traffic, but as we had hoped and predicted, people were responsible and co-operative and no serious conflicts took place.  On the contrary, we found that most motorists and other members of the public were supportive of what we were doing.

After the event had finished, I was recovering over a cup of tea when I received a phone call from one of the Police Liaison Officers.  She asked if I was available to attend an immediate meeting with ‘Gold’ command [the senior officer in overall strategic charge of policing a protest].

We were driven to a large police surveillance building south of Lambeth Bridge and shown into a room where we were introduced to 6 – 8 officers, including the ‘Gold’ commander (someone I’d had previous and satisfactory dealings with).  Our attention was drawn to a screen showing live footage of a splinter demonstration from the March for Homes that had gone from the rallying point to stage a further protest at a council estate in south London.  My response was ‘What’s that got to do with me?’ 

I re-stated my previous position that I was not prepared to be held responsible for the actions of everyone taking part in the demonstration, particularly after it had finished! 

[It was] suggested that we had lost control of the demonstration and that this would be born in mind if we were planning to hold similar events in the future.

He also gave this warning to any protest organiser thinking of complying with ‘pay-to-protest’ conditions:

Although we were able to make sure the March for Homes took place in the way we wanted it to, there was a distinct threat that this might not have happened if we had succumbed to pressure to either employ a very expensive private stewarding firm or hold the event in a fashion that suited the police and authorities, neither of which we were prepared to do. 

There is clearly a danger that other forms of legitimate, peaceful protest could be restricted or intimidated by the kind of pressures we were exposed to.  

If you are planning a march and you are asked to pay for ‘traffic management’ or a private stewarding company, please let us know. Other campaigners have shown that it is possible to resist unreasonable protest conditions and force the police to back down. You can contact us here.