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The Freedom to Protest?

Earlier this month, ten UK Uncut protests were found guilty of aggravated trespass for their part in a peaceful sit-in at London’s Fortnum and Mason luxury department store in March. They were protesting against the stores alleged tax-dodging practices, which they believed the government should be addressing as opposed to cutting public services. Those convicted released a statement saying that they had “been found guilty of taking part in a protest”.

There seems to be a growing culture of demonising political dissent and protest in this country. The courts are convicting protesters with tough sentences to act as a warning for others, and the police are engaged in a campaign to scare protesters off the streets.

During the student riots last year two controversial incidents put police actions in question. Alfie Meadows, a philosophy undergraduate, was hit on the head by a police baton and suffered major injuries, leading to him having emergency brain surgery that evening. The second major incident concerned Jody McIntyre, who was pulled from his wheelchair and dragged across a concrete street, after being struck by a police baton earlier on.

After the incident Jody was interviewed by the BBC. He was repeatedly accused of being a ‘revolutionary’, of provocatively rolling towards police lines, and was asked if he had shouted or thrown anything at the police. Jody replied “Do you really think a person with Cerebral Palsy, in a wheelchair, can pose a threat to a police officer who is armed with weapons? [Revolutionary] is a word, not a physical action that I have taken against a police officer.”

Before the most recent student protest, police issued warnings to protesters informing them that baton rounds, a mixture of plastic and rubber bullets, would be ready for use. This was clearly an effort to reduce the numbers of protesters prepared to turn out, for fear of being shot by the police.

Police actions on protests are not all that should be assessed, either. Recently it has come to light that undercover officers have infiltrated protest groups in order to gain information. Mark Kennedy, using an alias of Mark Stone, is most ‘infamous’ of these operatives. He didn’t only spy on non-violent leftist and environmental groups in the UK, but was also ‘loaned out’ by the National Police Order Intelligence Unit to forces from other countries in Europe. One of his most significant activities abroad was his intelligence passed to Danish police which aided their raid of the Youth House in Copenhagen, the base of a political groups for over a century.

The use of undercover police to spy on protest groups is currently subject to more than ten separate inquiries, with just some of them looking at the false testimonies of undercover officers in court and their sexual relationships with activists whilst deceiving the groups. Added to this excessive police surveillance infiltrating non-violent protest groups, which has cost millions, The Guardian reported in July that Westminster anti-terrorist police told the public “any information relating to anarchists should be reported to your local police”.

There are growing pressures being imposed upon protesters and political activists by the police. They are being faced with excessive violence or the threat of it on protests, whilst being spied on both by police surveillance officers, and, as the police are hoping, the public.

Brynmor Cochrane-Milne

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  • dan
    30 November 2011 at 13:49
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    I like this but you also have to ask why the police can do this. They are not a law-unto- themselves or a separate political organisation. They are an organ of the state, a state that increasingly only represents economy. They’ve been given political assurances and legal assent to act in a more aggressive manner. They hold the monopoly on legal violence. Aggression by anyone else is seen as an act against the state, against the rule of law, against property and against ‘our culture.’ So ask who the state represents?

    Locke and Hobbes have been reversed. Time to read some David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism.

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