This was, according to the police, an entirely peaceful march, with no criminal offences taking place. It was predominantly a trade union march, upbeat and with plenty of colourful banners. Yet the police still insisted on imposing strict conditions on the route, refusing to allow the march anywhere near the Conservative Party conference which was the focus of the protests. These conditions were ‘robustly’ enforced with ten foot metal cordons, dogs and huge numbers of police officers.
When, towards the end of the march, some from the anarchist block decided to force the point and leave the authorised route, they were immediately ‘kettled’ – surrounded and held by police and dog units. The fifty or so in the kettle were pushed and shoved towards the car park where coaches were waiting, and were told they would be searched and released. Police cameramen carefully filmed each person as they were searched, getting close up shots of head and shoulders, clothing, shoes and ‘identifying features’. Police also demanded they give their name and address on film. The legality of all this is dubious – the Public Order Act (section 60) gives the police powers to search people for weapons but not, as they did here, to gather intelligence for their database while they are doing it.
When about half of the group objected to being filmed in this way, and refused to co-operate with the search while police cameras were present, the police response was to search them by force. At least one protester was left with severe bruising, another missing clumps of hair. None of the searches resulted in anything ‘untoward’ being found, there were no items seized and no arrests.
Generally the surveillance, while often discrete, was ever present. A large police mobile CCTV van (bearing the words Football Operations) was parked at the march start point. The National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), the unit that exists to keep tabs on ‘domestic extremists’ were there too, gathering their own ‘intel’. A very expensive police helicopter hovered above. And police cameramen took photographs from windows of a number of buildings lining the route (out of reach of Fitwatchers!).
Given the extent of surveillance of their members on this march, it is remarkable (though perhaps not surprising) that the unions don’t do more to question where the line is between ‘facilitating’ protest, and controlling political expression.