Police PR departments & protest
Police in Bristol have tonight arrested a number of people who they say were squatting a building in Stokescroft. There has been a long running squat on Cheltenham Road in Stokescroft protesting against a new Tesco which I understand finally opened on Friday. It seems that the police were attempting to evict this squat.
But things don’t seem to have gone quite to plan. Hundreds of local residents got out of bed as soon as they heard what was happening, and came out to protest against the evictions.
But this isn’t a post about what happened at Stokescroft – I’m not there. We’ll try and get one from someone who is there soon, so look out for that.
But what I have seen is the police press release on the matter:
Police last night (Thursday April 21) arrested four people following an operation in Cheltenham Road, Stokes Croft.
Acting on intelligence, officers detained offenders who had committed significant offences.
Officers rolled out well-rehearsed plans at 9.15pm to force entry into the building. They closed off Cheltenham Road to allow the operation to take place.
Police arrested three people on suspicion of public order offences and another person on suspicion of threats to cause criminal damage with intent to endanger life.
Police seized a number of items –including possible petrol bombs – from the property.
Supt Ian Wylie said: “There have been several significant incidents in this building during the past few days, which have caused serious concerns to police and local residents.
“The safety of the public is paramount in a situation of this kind and we took the decision to carry out a robust and swift operation, following intelligence received about the criminal intentions of those who were occupying the building,” said Supt Wylie.
“Following the operation, it is unfortunate a small minority gathered and began attacking officers with bottles and other items,” he added
There are 2 things in here that I think are particularly notable. Firstly, they say “officers detained offenders who had committed significant offences”.
In English law, famously, people are innocent until proven guilty. The police have no right to issue public statements declaring people to be guilty of a crime any more than I do. They can say that they are suspected of a crime, or that they are believed to have committed a crime. But by publicly stating that they are, they have defamed these people.
The second line is this:
“Police seized a number of items – including possible petrol bombs”.
Now, I’m not there. It is, in theory, possible that someone was making a petrol bomb. However, given my experience of the political community in Stokescroft, I’d be amazed. Like the rest of Britain’s contemporary progressive protest movements, I’m almost certain they have no record of bomb making. But, of course, this claim, unlike the last, is much harder to object to in legal terms. What is a possible petrol bomb? Well, I don’t know how you make one. But I imagine that it involves petrol, a bottle, and a rag. These are the sorts of things people may well have around a squat.
And of course, the intention of both of these statements is not to pass the facts to the media and so the wider community. It is to smear. If police PR teams were issuing press releases in the public interest, then they would state only the facts. But this release – like so much police press work before it – demonstrates clearly that there is a desire to smear these protesters before they have any chance to respond – even as they sit in police cells. By the time they are released, the media may well have moved on. They could well never get a chance to reply.
And of course, such smear campaigns are nothing new. After the Heathrow climate camp, the Met claimed there were large numbers of injuries among police officers – implying that protesters had caused these. Freedom of Information requests later revealed that these injuries were almost all from bee stings, sun stroke, officers tripping up, or similar.
Similarly, at the most recent climate camp, Lothian and Borders police issued a press release – receiving wide coverage – implying that climate campers had intentionally split oil on a main road. It later transpired that not only was there no evidence of climate campers doing this, there was not even any evidence that an oil spill had taken place. It seems the police invented an incident in order to smear the camp. And they knew that, by the time the refutation had got out, it would be too late – the story would have moved on.
And I think this is interesting. Because we are used to talking about how riot police treat protesters differently from other crowds. But we don’t often talk about the way that police forces intentionally seek to use the media to destroy protest movements. And, while the former is political policing, the latter is just political. It is not, in any way, the role of the police to smear protest movements, and it has nothing to do with dealing with any crime whatsoever. I’ll be submitting a complaint to the Independent Police Complaints Commission about this release (as though that’ll do much good). And I hope we can all remember to follow closely in future not just what they do, but also what they say.