“Overall our impression was that the police reacted proportionately”

So is the judgement of Liberty on the police’s handling of the events of the 26th of March. Liberty, an organisation who “for the best part of a century… have campaigned on an enormous range of issues, from fighting internment and abuse of police power, to protecting free speech, peaceful protest and equal rights for all”, were acting as neutral legal observers that day and released their report on those events yesterday.

I can’t say I’m impressed.

From the start the tone is clear, the police acted appropriately and with restraint, the trade unionists on the TUC march behaved themselves and everything was spoilt by a small group of violent protesters who continually broke away and melted back into the main demonstration.

The report makes numerous references to the violence of the protesters, often conflating damage to property with violence, but makes no reference to police violence.

They do tell us that “a handful of events reported by our observers [caused] us concern.” Might these events be the reports of police violence? or the mass arrest of peaceful activists in Fortnum and Mason? No. Confiscation of placards with offensive language. Now don’t get me wrong, police taking the details of people for carrying a placard “which contained the word ‘fuck’”, is entirely inappropriate, and, as Liberty point out, probably not lawful, but is that really the extent of the incidents which caused you concern? If it is, I suspect your closeness to the police and TUC may have left you rather less neutral than you like to claim.

For Liberty there was only one real problem with the police that day (and here we see the only really useful bit of the report, to my mind) the use, and threat, of kettling.

Liberty, aren’t keen on kettling, telling us “the tactic does appear seriously to undermine the relationship of trust and confidence between peaceful protesters and the police” and “has undoubtedly had a chilling effect on many people’s rights to freedom of expression and assembly”. I’d agree wholeheartedly with them here, which is why the Young Greens presented the MPA with a petition to end the use of kettling back in January. As our national committee member Zain Sardar said at the time “kettling is an infringement of the fundamental right to peaceful protest.”

Liberty’s report, though, doesn’t just condemn the kettling that happened, it tells us a little more about how this tactic was used back in March, which makes for interesting reading. We hear that “[a]t various points in the afternoon kettles were authorised by those in the SOR [Special Operations Room] in order to contain those responsible for damage to property, only for the authorisation to be withdrawn for practical reasons” and that “[t]he police … used a feigned, or threatened, containment to their advantage at times (for example to disperse a group).” The police are now using the threat of kettling to break up peaceful demonstrations. People have become so scared of the police’s response that just the threat of action can deter protest now.

Of course, most of the kettling that did occur, occurred not on the main TUC march, but well after and away from there. And on those events Liberty are silent. “As these occurred after our observation had concluded we are not in a position to provide any comment.”

Liberty decided their remit covered only the official march lasting for 5 hours from 11am. Despite the fact that it was quite clear that any serious confrontations between protesters and police were always likely to happen away from the march and that the situation was quickly deteriorating Liberty’s stewards went home around 5 (the last entry in their diary is timed at 4.50pm).

Liberty begin their report by declaring that “[o]ur chief aim was to protect the right to peaceful protest”, before immediately undermining that assertion by telling us that “[i]n order to preserve neutrality, our observers did not offer legal advice or intervene in the events which we witnessed”. If Liberty genuinely wanted to defend peaceful protest perhaps they could have started by hanging around a little longer in the day. Our civil liberties don’t end at 5, as those journalists like Laurie Penny, Sarah Morrison and Shiv Malik who stuck around all night to report on what was happening and check on those detained, or the useful legal observers of Green and Black Cross are aware.

If Liberty want to defend peaceful protest why is there no comment on the 138 people charged after Fortnum and Mason for an offense designed to stop hunt saboteurs and for which they were told they would not be arrested? And it’s not just in this report that there’s no comment, their statement issued two days after the arrests makes no mention of UK Uncut or Fortnum and Mason, but does talk about infiltration by violent elements, of course.

They might continue to support peaceful protest by helping activists to know exactly what rights they have, and what rights the police have, and don’t have. How educating the public detracts from your impartiality I’m not entirely sure. And since when do groups who stated aim is to protect civil liberties have to act as neutral brokers with the state they’re meant to be defend us against, anyway?

Liberty claim to have been fighting abuse of police power and protecting peaceful protest for the best part of a century. I think it might be time to retire.

About Alasdair Thompson

Alasdair co-founded Bright Green Scotland in 2009.