Three police officers stand in line outside the ExCel Centre, where the DSEi arms fair was taking place in early September 2021
PHOTO: CAAT

Anti-militarism campaigners have condemned the Metropolitan Police’s handling of protests at DSEI (Defence & Security Equipment International), which was held in early September in Newham, east London.

Activists at the Stop the Arms Fair camp outside the ExCel, a huge exhibition centre in London’s Docklands where they were attempting to prevent the DSEI arms fair from going ahead, have reported instances of racist policing, repeated unjustifiable use of stop and search powers and multiple instances of violent policing. The most serious of the testimony given to Netpol included:

  • Activists facing strip searches at police stations after arrest
  • Officers used excessive force, including one instance where someone was hit by a moving police vehicle, multiple instances of officers physically assaulting activists, and one instance where they applied handcuffs tightly enough to break the skin
  • Racial profiling and racist police violence on the demonstration, and racial harassment from police officers
  • Discriminatory behaviour towards disabled protesters, with one partially sighted activist chased by police officers

Stop and search powers were used widely at this year’s protests. The Metropolitan Police has a controversial track record of using these powers, which most are commonly used to harass and target Black and Brown communities in London. Black people in the UK are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts.

There was testimony that the police were unlawfully using searches simply to seek identification: officers claiming they were looking for items likely to cause criminal damage tried to unlock mobile phones and read notebooks and papers and asked each other if they had found ID on campaigners who they were searching. One was searched for dressing up as a Dalek, a costume that ironically, given the focus of the protests, was “searched for weapons”. Some protesters were handcuffed while searches were undertaken, with no explanation given.

The treatment of disabled protesters is particularly alarming because of similar concerns raised during the Extinction Rebellion protests in London in 2019. Netpol’s report “Restricting The Rebellion” in the aftermath of these protests, which had led to condemnation from the Metropolitan Police’s own disability advisors, called for an urgent review of how the police facilitate disabled people’s right to protest and how disabled people are treated on arrest. It appears little, however, has changed in the last two years.

The Met also took the opportunity of the week of action against DSEI to train a new ‘cutting team’, a specialist team that remove protesters from ‘lock-on’ devices used in blockades. However, this resulted in dangerous decisions on removal that led to injuries. One activist also noted the general lack of police concern for the welfare of protesters, commenting:

After police had assessed and confirmed that 4 people were locked by the neck to parts of the blockade car, one blue-bibbed sergeant yanked open the door I was attached to, spraining my neck and injuring my shoulder. At the sound of my scream of pain, he shut the door and walked off giggling to himself. It was such a minor event in the context of what we are here to protest, but it was stark to see the gleeful sadism that flourishes when violent people are given power.”

Netpol is encouraging campaigners to make formal complaints about police misconduct and where necessary, to explore legal action against the Metropolitan Police. With London Mayor Sadiq Khan publicly condemning “trade in weapons to countries that abuse the human rights of their citizens [that] goes completely against our values“, it also seems appropriate for Khan to also question senior officers about abuses of human rights, particularly the right to freedom of assembly, rather closer to home.

The way the police use their already extensive powers at protests is currently under intense scrutiny because the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will if passed in its current form, dramatically expand them. The police claim that their role is to facilitate peaceful protest, but time and again reports from activists on the ground highlight police violence, harassment and unlawful behaviour.

It is precisely for this reason that Netpol is demanding a genuinely human rights-based approach to policing freedom of assembly and expression and why we launched the Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights earlier this year.

In the absence of any national guidelines for local forces on the policing of protests – a concern Netpol first campaigned on in collaboration with anti-fracking groups as far back as 2015 – the Charter sets out eleven guiding principles for protecting and facilitating the right to protest. It provides a means of demanding that the police justify their actions against international human rights standards and emphasises the kind of minimum and proportionate interventions that have sadly been lacking from the policing of protests for many years.

For further information on the Charter, see Netpol.org/charter.