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A survey of campaigning groups conducted by Netpol shows overwhelming support for protesters retaining a right to have their privacy even when they are on the streets, along with a firm rejection of police treating civil disobedience and direct action that involves disruption and illegal acts as “violent”.

The online survey, conducted in October 2020, drew responses from 25 organisations, ranging from large national organisations to small, local grassroots campaigns. The results show a clear demand for increased protections for the right to protest and widespread concerns at the lack of safeguards against police surveillance. The overwhelming majority of groups are also worried that facial recognition technology able to pick out individuals on a ‘watchlist’ from a crowd could threaten the right to freedom of assembly.

In total, 23 out of 25 groups very strongly agreed that protesters have a right to have their privacy respected even when they are on the streets and 16 felt very strongly that there are insufficient safeguards on police surveillance, whilst 84% (21 groups) believe very strongly that campaigners should have a right to know if police hold information about them and to have access this personal data without obstruction.

The results of the survey have helped us to finalise a draft of a new Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights, which we announced our intention to develop back in September.

Restrictions on protests

Alarmingly, 65% of the groups said they had experienced restrictions on the place or duration of a protest that they considered unreasonable. In addition, 34% had also faced unexpected or last-minute changes to the meeting point, route or rally point justified by risks to protesters.

In total, 60% had equipment or banners confiscated during a protest, 47% the arrest of key organisers and 34% unjustifiable level of the use of stop and search powers during or after a protest. Additionally, 76% of respondents said they strongly believed the police tactic of kettling protesters for long periods amounts to a form of collective punishment.

Nineteen out of the 25 groups we spoke to strongly disagreed with the idea that “the police have every right to treat civil disobedience and direct action that involves disruption and illegal acts as ‘violent’” (see table 7 below).

Giving additional weight to the conclusions of our recent report on the policing of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, which found that black-led protests were more likely to face tougher interventions by the police, 76% of respondents said they felt very strongly that protesters from black and minority communities are more likely to face targeting by police for arrest or for the use of stop and search powers (see table 10 below).

In an indication of the growing use of civil injunctions against protests, 7 groups also told us they had faced one (or the threat of one) against their organisation or individual members.

Protest organisers

“I really feel like the police are looking for any excuses to limit our human rights. I used to feel quite ambivalent or positive towards police before I started helping coordinate demonstrations. But recently, one of my friends was arrested for using scissors to cut the strings we’d used to tie some banners to a fence when taking banners down – she was actually arrested for tidying up after ourselves. It’s really made me see cops as the enemy now, and I’m really reluctant to negotiate with them at all.”

Protest organisers who decide to give the police advance notice of an assembly or demonstration have faced a number of additional hurdles. Two organisers told us that in negotiations with the police, they had been asked to provide evidence of public liability insurance, whilst two were was asked to provide a traffic management plan. One told us, “Police Liaison Officers [PLOs] are often asking for a great amount of [advance] detail” about their forthcoming protest. Indeed, 64% of survey respondents feeling strongly or very strongly (see table 4 below) that PLOs, now seen as almost every demonstration wearing a distinctive blue bib, seemed more interested in gathering information about protesters than communication and dialogue.

Even more worryingly, seven organisations told us they had faced pressure to accept accountability for the actions of everyone on a protest and four spoke of further pressure to identify alleged “troublemakers”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly under the changing restrictions on gatherings since the start of the first coronavirus lockdown at the end of March, eight organisations (a third of survey respondents) said they were asked to provide evidence of a risk assessment.

A small number of groups (one in five of the respondents), who had chosen not to negotiate with the police prior to organising a protest, said they experienced a disproportionate numbers of police officers at their protests who were more aggressive and confrontational. These groups also told us about efforts by the police to contact perceived ‘leaders’ by email, post or social media and negative press briefings in advance of protests highlighting the possibility of violence or disruption.

We are now circulating our draft Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights for final comments and plan to launch it in the next few weeks. If you would like to comment, the draft Charter is available here.

ATTITUDES TO FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY RIGHTS

All the attitude questions in our survey asked respondents to indicate their rejection or support for the following statements on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 representing Strongly Disagree and 10 representing Strongly Agree.

Table 1 – Taking to the streets to protest is often the only power we have to make sure our voices are heard.

Table 2 – Protests expressing political messages need extra protection because individuals choosing to take to the streets in opposition to government policy or to defend human rights is a cornerstone of democracy.

Table 3 – Whilst the police may want to establish communication and dialogue with organisers before or during a protest, they should never insist on engagement.

Table 4 – Designated “police liaison officers” at protests have seemed more interested in gathering information about protesters than communication and dialogue.

Table 5 – The police should not limit or curtail a protest simply because of interference from other members of the public or because of the presence of counter-demonstrators.

Table 6 – The police should be allowed to restrict protests if they take place too often.

Table 7 – The police have every right to treat civil disobedience and direct action that involves disruption and illegal acts as “violent”.

Table 8 – A protest has no impact if it is out of sight of the institution or corporate interest its participants are demonstrating against.

Table 9 – Protesters from black and minority communities are more likely to face targeting by police for arrest or for the use of stop and search powers.

Table 10 – Kettling (containment) of protesters for long periods is a form of collective punishment.

Table 11 – Protesters have a right to have their privacy respected even when they are on the streets.

Table 12 – There is no reason for the police to routinely film protests apart from in short-term, justifiable circumstances (such as during arrests).

Table 13 – Facial recognition technology able to pick out individuals on a ‘watchlist’ from a crowd, without their knowledge and because they are “of interest to the police”, could threaten the right to freedom of assembly.

Table 14 – There are not enough safeguards on police surveillance to stop them from gathering and retaining personal information simply to build up profiles on political and social movements.

Table 15 – Campaigners should have a right to know if police hold information about them relating to their organising or participation in protests and to access this personal data without obstruction.

Table 16 – Police must not use the vulnerability of children or people with disabilities to justify restricting their rights to take part in a protest.

Table 17 – Independent legal observers monitoring the policing of protests are vital to the full enjoyment of freedom of assembly rights