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Your rights on arrest - legal help and useful information   Public Order Policing
  A protestor's view

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by Merrick, Leeds 6, March 1999

The law is never enforced to the letter at all times. If it were we'd all of us be in court most of our lives. Discretion is used, but discretion is arbitrary. One person's 'discretion' is another person's 'bias'.

But more than this, the issue of discretion opens up another issue - the application of non-statutory law, or broader moral and commonsense principles. How can the police really punish people uprooting genetically modified crops that 80% of the public want banned?

How can the police convincingly defend assisting the export of Hawk jets to Indonesia and veal calves to Europe for purposes illegal in the UK?

Laws aren't carved in stone. I know that as a police officer you have to work with the law of the land, but there's a need to recognise that laws were simply made up by someone, and they're often repealed of superseded as society evolves.

And the evolution of ideas and morality in society is, obviously, always before its enshrinement in law. So it is that we find no laws to deal with things widely held to be intolerable, and so it is that we find anachronistic laws being enforced.

The wishes make the laws, and so we must focus on the morality of the wishes, rather than on the letter of the laws that resulted.

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Legality isn't Morality

There's a need to recognize that legality and morality aren't the same thing. All of us can imagine doing an action that's illegal yet morally justifiable, or one that's legal yet morally unjustifiable.

And so just because something's The Law doesn't mean I should obey it.

I realise that, as police officers, your whole professional lives are concerned with legality, and indeed many officers seem unable to distinguish between legality and morality.

I remember Keith Hellawell saying that prohibition of Ecstasy is not criminalisation of the users, rather the users criminalise themselves by using it. As if laws should dictate social ideas, and not the other way round.

Pretending police work can't be involved in the politics of the situation is ludicrous.

The very laws you enforce are nothing more than political opinions written down. There can be no 'balance' if you're dealing with people objecting to government actions when you're the government's hirelings.

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It's difficult to have faith in police behaviour when they're using dubious laws that are products of bigotry.

In this, I think especially of the Criminal Justice And Public Order Act 1994, with it's targeting of peaceful protest, criminalisation of trespass, encroachment on the right to silence, and perhaps most infamously, its section defining rave music as 'wholly or predominantly characterised by a succession of repetitive beats'.

At the time the Criminal Justice And Public Order Act 1994 came into force, I lived by Headingley cricket and rugby grounds. On a match day there were up to 20,000 people with all the attendant noise, litter, revelry and traffic chaos.

I've absolutely no interest in either of the sports, but I accept that if that many people want to do it they should be allowed to do it somewhere, even if it does sometimes cause inconvenience to others.

And really, what's the difference between that and a rave, or Stonehenge at Solstice (except that at least the latter don't happen in residential areas)?

Do you remember when there was the Pavarotti concert in Hyde Park with quarter of a million people there? If the same people had been in the same place at the same time with music at the same volume, it would've been an illegal rave set upon by police.

It's clearly just snobbery; opera is real music, techno isn't. It's as ludicrous as if they'd sent the police in to break up Beatles gigs in the 60s. Only in Britain to we make laws against the predominant youth culture.

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One person's precaution is another's preparation

There's a need to recognize that to bring tooled-up riot police into a situation is antagonistic and provocative; imagine if people at a peaceful demonstration were similarly clad and armed - how would the police react?

Similarly antagonistic is the common practice of riot police absolutely blanking anyone who tries to talk to them.

If you put riot police into any peaceful crowd situation to round people up, some dickhead would throw something. If you used that as the excuse to beat the people who just happened to be at the front, there would be outrage, panic, and a riot.

That's what I've seen happen at several demonstrations and Reclaim The Streets parties, and it could just as easily be done at a football match or in a shopping centre or in any public place, any time, anywhere.

There is an overwhelming need for last-resort tactics to be truly last-resort.

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The police officer is placed in a position of trust. Like any other person we trust, we only need to be betrayed once and the trust is lost along with its goodwill for a long time, perhaps forever.

And when you've seen police beating your friends, not once in the heat of a provoked moment, but on several occasions, en masse, in cold blood as part of a wilful strategy, it is impossible to have any faith or trust.

I've talked to people who were at Stonehenge in 1985 and they still have a lot of anger and hurting which continues to colour their attitudes to police and policing.

The few who pursued the police through the courts won their case, and then had their compensation swallowed by costs; the police officer in charge of the beatings and violence got promoted.

I don't want to argue the merits of this individual case, I just want to illustrate that such clear injustice with no avenue of redress makes wounds that don't heal. And the victims then spread their stories and attitudes. You won't cure this by new strategy.

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The need for believable redress

Not until there's a chance for those wronged to tell their stories in a way that'll be truly heard can you start to win the trust of the many people marginalised by a system of unaccountable policing.

And you must recognize that it's not just a few people who are marginalised; the abuse of police as political stormtroopers in the miners strike alienated trade unionists.

Add to these ravers (the dominant British youth culture of the 90s), those concerned with animal welfare (living in Sussex you know the breadth of support for the protests against live animal exports), football fans, the gay community, ethnic minorities, environmentalists (over a million people are members of environmental groups; Greenpeace has more British members than all of the UK political parties combined); you start to see that millions of people have first hand accounts of abuses of police power in public order situations.

These are the very community you're supposedly serving.

Above all things, I can see no real faith or trust in the police occurring until there is an effective, plausible, swift, powerful and absolutely independent complaints procedure. Anything less and you're just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

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This means the men who tortured and framed the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six must be taken from their cosy pensions and held to account. Likewise those who ordered and led the charges into the crowds at Hyde Park on 9th October 1994.

You must recognise that unaccountability causes problems on both sides.

When I've seen the police beating peaceful bystanders at demonstrations, I've been aware that the police are being paid and will go home to their families, and there's nothing I can do to have them punished.

Those in charge see a job well done and will continue to use such an effective strategy. Whether it's at a Reclaim The Streets party, Orgreave, Stonehenge, or in the innumerable smaller cases, the fact that the police can use arbitrary and disproportionate violence and get away with it actively encourages it to continue, both at strategic and individual levels.

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At the tree protest against the second runway at Manchester Airport the first evictions were led not by experienced and methodical bailiffs, but by violent Greater Manchester police in boilersuits with no numbers on.

They smashed their way into a precarious tunnel, they truncheoned the heads of anyone caught on the ground, including journalists. The whole thing was done in a furious frenzy in the dead of night.

The police denied it was even their officers and blamed truncheon injuries inflicted inside a tent on 'protesters throwing things from the trees'.

No officer was ever disciplined. Lives jeopardised, journalists hospitalised, police escape any condemnation; another job well done.

The bailiffs, in private, were really angry about it as the took the rap for it in the press.

Only those of us who were actually there know the truth. To prosecute we'd need identification of individual officers, evidence and tenacity; it was dark and they were beating heads, so it's impossible. Even if one could recognize them, no court would believe it against the word of numerous officers.

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The need for honest unfettered reporting

And it's not just the violence - the endemic and routine lying to the media does you no favours either. Police estimates of crowd sizes at protests are always laughably small to anyone who was there.

The fact that it happens every single time shows it's not accidental, but a deliberate and ongoing policy of lying.

And at the Reclaim The Streets in Leeds in May 98, the police tried to stop the party as it started with massive use of CS sprays. Aside from the fact that these are supposedly a 'last line of defence', rather than next thing after a raised voice, the police later denied to the media that they'd even had the sprays with them.

At the Reclaim The Streets party in Trafalgar Square in April 1997, people driving a truck towards police lines were arrested for Attempted Murder.

The were released without charge only four hours later, just after the newspapers copy deadlines, so the allegation was in all the papers the next day. Clearing areas of journalists, arresting non-participant photographers and other journalists must stop.

When you think how many people attend a demonstration of some sort where the police line to the media contains clearly deliberate lies, you're sowing a lot of disbelief for every future report that quotes you, even when you're telling the truth.

Even in situations where it's a genuine mistake, even when it's not politically volatile, there's still no admission of anything that may be detrimental to the police, and so no justice. South Yorkshire police have still not been held to account for the manslaughter of 96 people at Hillsborough ten years ago.

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To disagree is not necessarily to be a threat or a problem

And beyond the need for redress, the problem needs to be stopped at source.

There needs to be understanding, in all ranks, that a public order issue is not US & THEM; that never are people there for no good reason, (indeed they're putting their time and liberty on the line for a cause); that these people are citizens and they have a right to expect their interests to be served and protected by the police.

It should be recognised that all the protest groups are from a broad cross-section of society - Reclaim The Streets isn't separate from Friends of the Earth, Earth First! or whatever; in the same way you can be a police officer and be involved in the Labour Party or the RSPCA.

There's a need to stop pigeon-holing people, to see a difference between who they are and what they're doing.

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Masking up isn't a threat

There's a need for police to understand that when people 'mask-up' - cover their faces with a scarf or similar - it's not an indication that they're planning violence.

Many protesters are worried about their personal security, and not without reason; the Department of Transport pays a private detective agency (Bray's of Southampton) millions of pounds (of public money) to spy on road protesters, and nobody knows why - their evidence is rarely used in court.

The uprooting of a few Genetically Modified plants last year landed three (pretty much randomly chosen) protesters with a claim for over 600,000 of damage.

At the 'McLibel' trial it was established that at one point London Greenpeace (a group who do little more than hand out leaflets) had more police and private detective infiltrators than real members! Many people are fearful of the consequences of being recognised. Often it's the more reserved and mainstream people with respected jobs and so on who have the most to lose. Many more mask up to make a crowd effect so the few who are genuinely worried are not isolated. So don't fear violence from covered faces.

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Recognition of corporate crime

There is a problem with too much focus on individuals and small groups, and very little attention to the far greater realms of corporate crime.

For example, if you or I interfere with a badger sett or a kingfisher's nest we'd be arrested and charged under the Protection of Badgers Act or the Wildlife & Countryside Act, convicted, and the press would call us monsters.

Yet if Manchester Airport plc do it on a vast scale, we'd be arrested for trying to stop them. Individuals are penalised, vested interests are not. Crime is surely any antisocial behaviour and its facilitation, yet government and corporations commit crimes and are protected by the police.

This overtly political use of the police has always been integral to their role, but has been intensified since Thatcherisation. It is a trend that needs to be reversed. A police state is not one where everyone lives in fear of the police.

It is a place where anyone who contradicts the government's interests and will is in fear of the police, even those who do no harm to anyone or anything, and even those who are simply denied a fair hearing for legitimate opinion.

The use of the police in the events already mentioned - perhaps most starkly clear at Stonehenge - show us how we have drifted alarmingly close to this definition.

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Commonality of attitude The people at a protest are part of the community too. All of them are there for the same reasons that any good officer joined the police - they want to see our country be a better place for everyone and they realise that if that's the aim, then you have to do something about it.

Your life needn't have been too different for your motivation to have led you to be outside Hillgrove Farm with a scarf over your face.

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