“Um…speicifically…I don’t know”. This was Assistant Commissioner Chris Allison’s response to being asked what happens to the data collected by the Forward Intelligence Teams on Panorama’s, “Whatever Happened to People Power?” Chris Allison has worked for the MET for twenty five years, and according to the Met Police’s website, has been “heavily involved” in the “policing of public order events ranging from football matches, small marches all the way to resolution of serious disorder”. If he, with his years of expertise and high ranking, doesn’t know, then who does?
Obviously Chris Allison knows what happens to the data, but he’s not going to admit that the details of thousands of protesters are being entered into a searchable database, and listed as possible extremists on Panorama. It’ll be interesting to see whether Superintendent Hartshorn, inventor of the summer of rage, will be more forthcoming under cross examination at upcoming Fitwatch trials, and whether he will be forced to reveal further information about the extent of data retention on UK protesters.
Allison was also somewhat flexible with the truth when asked about the role of the FIT. His description of a unit dedicated to keeping “people safe” and “engag[ing]” with “the public” seems in contradiction to Jacqui Smith’s comments on this being “harassment style policing.” To anyone who has experienced or witnessed FIT policing, it was either deeply offensive or just plain ludicrous.
It was good to see Allison squirming, unable to truthfully answer the questions about policing and protest, and ultimately ending up looking like a lying idiot. The programme was also good at exposing some of the tactics the police use against protesters, and showing the lengths they are prepared to go in dealing with people doing nothing more than getting involved in a local campaign.
However, whilst good, there was one flaw with the programme- there was a whiff of good protester/bad protester from the beginning. Although not overtly stated, the implication was that it was alright to use these tactics against the real “extremists”. This not only didn’t cover the rather obvious question of what defines domestic extremism and whether this is an acceptable definition – NETCU themselves agree there is no legal definition and basically infer it to mean anyone who engages in direct action – but whether this treatment of protesters is right regardless of their beliefs.
Fitwatch was started from a belief all protesters should be protected and that we have a right to defend ourselves from this kind of policing. It is great programmes such as Panorama are finally bringing these issues to a wider audience, but it is important this good/bad distinction is not made and is always challenged. Harassing, intimidating, assaulting and arbitrarily arresting people because of their beliefs rather than their actions is not acceptable, and people across the political and activist spectrum need to stand together to ensure any changes to public order policing applies across the board and not just to a select few.