Throughout the course of 2009, the police have been forced to justify their public order tactics through media and governmental pressure, but also through militancy. From Fitwatchers blocking cameras to Gaza protesters ripping up the confines of their protest pen, people started refusing to accept repressive policing at ground level. Tactics, such as overt filming began to provoke the disorder they were designed to prevent, forcing the police, at times, to question the tactics utilised on the ground – either by not deploying cameras in the first place or by withdrawing.
Undeniably, the policing of the G20 and the death of Ian Tomlinson had the biggest impact on protest policing in 2009. Hyped out of all proportion by Superintendent David Hartshorn with his infamous “summer of rage” proclamations, the G20 was always going to bloody, but Tomlinson’s death and the police attempted cover-up combined with countless other stories of police violence led to blood on the hands of the police and investigations into public order policing.
However, up until a pesky banker gave The Guardian footage depicting the true circumstances behind Tomlinson’s death, the media were happy to buy into the Met’s “summer of rage” fallacy. Looped footage showed black clad people breaking through police lines. Film of those covered in blood was narrated as protester rather than police violence. The people fighting back were labelled as “troublemakers” and “rent-a-mob” when they should have been hailed for the courage and determination shown in rebelling against a repressive policing operation.
Whilst for those of us used to police violence and lies, the G20 was nothing new, for those who do not have regular contact with the police, the fabrication was truly shocking. For the rest of us, used to reading the fiction masquerading as fact in police notebooks, it confirmed a nasty suspicion.
Following the release of the video, the floodgates opened for stories of G20 police brutality from the clearing of the Climate Camp, to Nicole Fisher’s disservice to any males assaulted by the police by stating her treatment at the hands of former FIT officer Delory Smellie was worse because of her gender.
Fitwatch research and experience, both pre and post G20, has been at the heart of many media revelations in papers diverse as The Guardian and the Financial Times, and journalists such as Marc Vallee have done amazing work in ensuring these stories have been covered. Many of the stories focussed on the existence and scope of protester databases, and getting this information into the public domain has been a major achievement.
However, as good as some of these stories have been, the mainstream media has show reluctance endorsing the true source of these revelations – direct action. It has only been through the arrests of Fitwatchers for blocking cameras that we have been able to force the cops into court to justify their collection and retention of data. Through directly challenging their behaviour we have forced the police to account for themselves – something which would never have happened if we’d left this area to NGOs. Liberty chose a weak case to fight this issue and were happy to lap up the police lies in the civil courts. Liberty eventually won the Wood judgement, but only after Fitwatch revelations exposed the scope of data retention.
Personal stories made up another part of the media interest – The Guardian gave front page coverage to the story of two fitwatchers violently arrested and imprisoned for taking photographs of cops at the Kingsnorth Climate Camp. This story was picked up by national and local media, including Channel 4, The Daily Mail, and regional BBC.
2009 started with fear and paranoia with the advent of S76 making photographing police officers a terrorist offence. However, this was the year when photographers fought back, and groups such as I’m A Photographer Not a Terrorist have forced the police to admit the legislation is “unlikely to be used”, and have established a successful campaign not only against S76 but against the use of S44 stop and searches of photographers. This has now become a major issue with news stories regularly appearing covering the arrests and mistreatment of photographers.
Public order policing has undoubtedly changed throughout the course of 2009 in a way none of us would have predicted. Climate Camp at Blackheath saw a virtually non existent police presence – although it must be remembered that CCTV from a cherry picker monitored everything happening. Disarm DSEi protests, synonymous with repressive policing, were treated with this same light touch, with protesters allowed to gather and march without being kettled for the first time in ten years.
However, as welcome as these changes have been, they have not been universal. Animal rights protesters continue to face harassment and intimidation. Young Asian males are subject to harassment on all protests they attend. And, however much we hate the EDL, the systematic documenting of their demonstrations has to be recognised.
We have achieved a lot in 2009, but there is a long way to go. Whilst NETCU and the other extremist units have come under fire, they will continue their shadowy existence and FIT will still operate. Climate Camp and DSEi were policed overwhelmingly by FIT officers – and we need to examine how we tackle FIT when they are not shoving cameras in our faces.
Data gathering hasn’t gone away, but it has been exposed, and it is being challenged. Round two of the Fitwatch trials begin in March when the first case for obstruction comes to appeal. We have barely scratched the surface of the scope of data gathering, and hopefully these appeals will bring more clarity to the processes used to document protesters.
Already 2010 has seen the European Court in Strasbourg finding the use of Section 44 searches at DSEi in 2003 was in contravention of Article 8 right to privacy, and the police admitting an unspecified number of people were unlawfully stopped and searched at Kingsnorth. There is a real chance to change public order policing and we must keep up the pressure and continue to hold the police to account wherever we are – in the courts, the media, and on the streets.