Earlier in March, a report on policing protests was published by HM Inspectorate of Police and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS). It comes at a time when the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is passing through parliament.
The report’s recommendations provide an insight into likely not-so-distant future policing. And it doesn’t bode well.
The HMICFRS report – titled Getting the balance right? An inspection of how effectively the police deal with protests – makes a number of recommendations.
One such recommendation concerns the banning of public assemblies (e.g. protests/demonstrations):
By 30 June 2021, the Home Office should consider laying before Parliament draft legislation (similar to section 13 of the Public Order Act 1986) that makes provision for the prohibition of public assemblies.
Earlier the report says:
We recognise that such a power [to ban assemblies] is likely to be used very infrequently. Nevertheless, our view is that it would be preferable to place it on the statute book so that it is there if and when it is needed.
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Or, once that ban is on the statute book, it can be misused.
Another recommendation is that police chiefs create a new criminal act – that of “aggravated activism”, which seeks:
to bring about political or social change but does so in a way that involves unlawful behaviour or criminality, has a negative impact upon community tensions, or causes an adverse economic impact to businesses
With regard to the last point, the Good Law Project’s Jolyon Maugham commented:
What does this mean for the right to protest against slavery in supply chains? Or against the polluters who are destroying the planet? Or, indeed, for the right to strike? How is humanity weighed in the balance against money?
According to the report, there are two kinds of aggravated activism. Low-level aggravated activism is described as:
activism which involves unlawful behaviour or criminality. This criminality is local or cross regional and potentially impacts on local community tensions
Whereas high-level aggravated activism is defined as:
activity using tactics to bring about social or political change involving criminality that has a significant impact on UK communities, or where the ideology driving the activity would result in harm to a significant proportion of the population.
Either definition appears intentionally vague and would be open to interpretation.
A new ‘spycops’ unit?
The report adds that:
Since the late 1990s, the police have made various arrangements for managing protest-related intelligence nationally. In recent years, this has fallen under the remit of Counter Terrorism Policing (CTP).
In January 2020, the NPCC decided to reallocate responsibilities. Low-level aggravated activism intelligence was transferred to the National Police Coordination Centre (NPoCC).
The NPoCC’s strategic intelligence and briefing team (NPoCC SIB) was created in April 2020. Its remit is to manage intelligence related to low-level aggravated activists and protests that have the potential to cause disorder or significant disruption on a national or cross-regional scale. It is also responsible for giving intelligence and assessments to police forces.
the return of the National Public Order Intelligence Unit, which employed the undercover officer Mark Kennedy whose unlawful activities helped to trigger the ongoing Undercover Policing Inquiry.
If this assessment is correct, it further exposes the work of that inquiry as a sham.
BLM and Extinction Rebellion targeted
intelligence managers from the forces we inspected gave some positive feedback on the NPoCC SIB’s work so far. We heard from several officers that it had provided good-quality and useful intelligence in relation to protest activity, including from Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion. One intelligence manager told us that, during the Black Lives Matter protests that took place throughout the country in summer 2020, the NPoCC SIB held national telephone conferences with forces to report on events and share information.
Meanwhile another report, by the National Police Chiefs Council and the College of Policing “appears to use a definition of unlawful protest activity that could include boycotting a shop or silently taking a knee”, according to the Guardian.
ban protests that block roads around Parliament. It also allows the police to impose conditions on one-person protests. And it will introduce a new offence, punishable by up to ten years in prison, of ‘public nuisance’ for actions that cause “serious distress”, “serious annoyance”, “serious inconvenience”.
Protests in response to the bill took place on 21 March, 23 March, and 26 March. Following the first night of disturbances in Bristol, The Canary reported on other #KillTheBill protests around the country: notably Birmingham, Brighton, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Cornwall, and Wales.
After the second night of disturbances, one BBC journalist deleted a tweet that said the protest was peaceful until the police arrived:
Here is a screenrecording of the deleted tweet and accompanying video by a BBC journalist who alleged that the protests in Bristol were peaceful tonight until police arrived. Very visibly agitated police dogs and police in riot gear: pic.twitter.com/BHpjATEfAL
— M (@rosaluxemburgs) March 24, 2021
Criminalisation of ‘activists’
The criminalisation of activists – ‘aggravated’ or otherwise – could apply to all forms of protests. This could even apply, as Maugham mentioned, to protests or other gatherings associated with industrial action (strikes) and the picketing of workplaces.
Interestingly, on 23 March, the appeal court implicitly criticised the police when it quashed verdicts of affray and unlawful assembly against striking building workers known as the Shrewsbury Pickets:
"It follows that under Ground 1, the convictions of all the appellants in Trials 1, 2 and 3 are unsafe. Their appeals are allowed and all the verdicts in relation to them are QUASHED" Read the full CoA judgement https://t.co/ty5qv8uZ1X
— Shrewsbury24Campaign (@Shrewsbury24C) March 23, 2021
This was despite evidence of aggressive policing and collusion in the prosecution by a prime minister, the media, and a spy agency. Furthermore, it took more than four decades for the pickets to be exonerated. It was blatant class warfare.
Indeed, Howard Beckett of Unite the Union has also referred to the policing reforms as an attack on picketing:
Shrewsbury 24, a win that speaks for millions & reminds us all that the path of history is long but leans towards justice.
Don’t let anyone tell you there are no more heroes. pic.twitter.com/x5MElT0ara
— Howard Beckett (@BeckettUnite) March 23, 2021
The HMICFRS recommendations, when combined with changes proposed by the Police Bill, arguably amount to a ban on all meaningful protests. In short, if a protest – whether static or otherwise – isn’t approved by the police or other state agencies, then those taking part – ‘aggravated’ or otherwise – could face lengthy jail sentences, and likely consequential blacklisting.
This could be the future of UK policing.
Or to paraphrase the words of George Orwell: if you want a picture of future policing, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.
Featured image via the Shoal Collective
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