Writers Matt Foot and Morag Livingstone explore how four decades of collusion between the government and the police have slowly eroded our right to protest.

Writers Matt Foot and Morag Livingstone explore how four decades of collusion between the government and the police have slowly eroded our right to protest.

In 1887, the Met commissioner banned meetings in Trafalgar Square, where a protest was due to take place against unemployment. This did not deter protesters in their thousands. One man, Alfred Linnell, a legal clerk, was killed by a police horse stamping on his neck. His funeral was attended by 120,000  people, and the poet and textile designer William Morris gave a eulogy. Morris’s poem A Death Song was sold as a pamphlet to pay for the funeral costs and included the verse:

“Not one, not one, nor thousands must they slay, 

But one and all if they would dusk the day.” 

The movement won the right to protest at Trafalgar Square, which remains to this day. From 1910, hundreds of thousands of women were fighting for the right to vote. Initially, they were patronised and ignored. On 18 November 1910, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith removed suffrage from the parliamentary agenda. Some 300 suffragettes immediately attended the House of Commons in protest. The police intercepted them; ‘women were kicked, their arms were twisted, their noses were punched,  their breasts were gripped, and knees were thrust between their legs. After six hours of struggle, 115 women and four men had been arrested. On the following day, the charges against most of those arrested were withdrawn.’ It became known as Black Friday. During the near decade-long movement, a thousand suffragettes were imprisoned, but after the war, in 1918, the vote was finally extended to women. 

What protests and movements have done, over time, is bring a sense of unity, pride and strength to individuals when they act collectively. They have won many victories and concessions from the powerful. A consequence of this has been the increasing willingness of Police and Government to act outside of their power to suppress protest.   

In the early 1980s, the Home Office instigated and approved the creation of Public Order Manual of Tactical Options and Related Matters starting a long clandestine relationship between the Home Office and police focused on protests. The manual, and the public order tactics and methods within it fundamentally changed the policing of protests in this country for the worse. Throughout this time the public position of the state was that the police dealt with operational issues independently; however, behind the scenes, a strong collaboration developed between home secretaries and chief police officers to manage protests and evade scrutiny. In every protest we investigated the police and senior officers were supported by the Home Secretary despite controversial policing. 

Battle of the Beanfield, Peace Convoy, Stonehenge, Wiltshire, 1985

Despite numerous successful civil actions against the police for their handling of mass protests since 1983, the police have obtained a  vast array of powers against protesters through the Public Order  Act 1986 and the Criminal Justice Act 1994. Through the late nineties and noughties, Blair’s Labour did not repeal any of these draconian powers; instead, they brought in a criminal law for every day they were in office, including a law which outlawed unauthorised protests near Parliament. 

The media have supported the police to suppress protest through biased reporting. The worst example of this is the BBC,  reversing the order of the footage in order to blame the miners for causing the violence at Orgreave. In 1986, Rupert Murdoch’s business operations at Wapping were protected by the police – a move which led to the decline of independent media voices. The media maintained close relationships with police commissioners and promoted the commissioners’ negative views of protesters in advance of organised and planned demonstrations. 

Battle of the Beanfield, Peace Convoy, Stonehenge, Wiltshire, 1985

The controversial relationship between media and the police was examined by Lord Justice Leveson in his inquiry. The second part of his inquiry, which was due to further examine the close relationship, was cancelled.

The judiciary too has consistently supported the police in their interpretation of laws relating to protest and has exonerated them of culpability for their brutal policing. Judges have been only too keen to order injunctions and sequestration during protests and have defined more than six pickets as ‘intimidatory’ even in the face of vast numbers of police officers. 

The police, the government, the civil service, the media, corporations and the judiciary have combined to form an unofficial,  and often undemocratic, state. The clandestine way they have operated together since the introduction of the secret manual confirms that they are institutionally opposed to protest. The police force has carried out indiscriminate violence, kettled children, repeatedly lied to the public and had sexual relations with women protesters, even fathering children. They have conducted themselves with impunity for behaviour no one could have imagined of a police officer.

The Tinderbox, poll tax (Wikimedia commons – James Bourne/Creative Commons)

To some extent, it is arguable that following the student tuition fees demonstration of 2010 the state achieved its aim. Over the next decade, there was no mass protest on the same scale that involved a confrontation with the police. However, more recently,  mass movements have grown around wider social issues challenging the devastation of the environment, racism and sexism. The response of the police and the state to these movements has been no less significant in suppressing dissent. 

In February 2019, children unexpectedly left their classrooms to protest in city centres demanding that more be done about the climate emergency. In April 2019, Extinction Rebellion – a non-violent civil disobedience movement – arrived at Oxford Street in London with a pink boat escorted by hundreds of people.  They were joined by the Oscar-winning actor Emma Thompson. They occupied the crossroads for up to ten days until the police carried out mass arrests. Commissioner Cressida Dick confirmed, ‘I’ve been a police officer for 36 years. I have never known an operation, a single operation, in which over 700 people have been arrested’. This spectacular and disruptive protest raised the profile of climate change across a swathe of young people and in the media. 

When the Extinction Rebellion protesters returned in October  2019 for further peaceful sit-downs they were soon confronted with a blanket London-wide ban against any protest. Home  Secretary Priti Patel welcomed arrests against ‘unlawful’ protesters. Unfortunately, many of the arrests themselves were unlawful. In their rush to disperse peaceful protesters, the High  Court found that the blanket police ban was in clear breach of the law. 

Over the years police and government have often justified robust policing on the basis they were dealing with a violent minority – but by 2019, peaceful protests had become the subject of large-scale police operations. The strategy of undermining dissent reached a new peak with the alliance between Home Secretary Priti Patel and Commissioner Cressida Dick. In 2019 Dick wrote to Patel suggesting, ‘In light of the challenges posed by this year’s Extinction Rebellion protests, there are opportunities for much-needed legislative change to update the Public Order  Act 1986. My colleagues and I will continue to work constructively and positively with ministers and officials to take forward  these changes.’ In response, Kate Allen, director of Amnesty  International UK, commented, ‘It’s extremely worrying that the  Metropolitan Police is apparently still seeking to curtail the right  to peaceful protest.’ 

History shows us that when governments try to silence issues and dissenting voices, or to remove basic rights, it can galvanise people into pushing back. On 25 May 2020 in Minnesota, USA, a police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds, until he died. Floyd was a 46-year-old black man. A teenager filmed the arrest and Floyd can  be heard screaming, ‘I can’t breathe.’ The reaction to his death led to immediate protests in America and across the world. In the UK there were 260 demonstrations. The scale of the protests reflected a wider discontent with racist policing. In Britain, black people are more than twice as likely to die in police custody and nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. At the time of the Macpherson report in 1999 black people were five times more likely to be stopped 

In 2020, Met Commissioner Dick denied that there was ‘institutional racism’ in the police. On 6 June 2020, people gathered at a Black Lives Matter (BLM) assembly. Police sent horses into the young crowd, unprovoked and without warning. Just as they had done, in the same area, a decade earlier against students. A horse bolted and its officer fell off after colliding with a traffic light. A black student nurse was trampled by the horse; ‘I was told I was unconscious for a few seconds, I could just see a whole crowd around me – my sister crying over my shoulder. She was shaking me, trying to get me  up. I just screamed in pain. If I’d made one wrong move that  horse would have killed me.’ 

A Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) report into the policing of the BLM protests found ‘excessive use of force,  including baton charges, horse charges, pepper spray and violent arrest’. These aggressive tactics originated from the 1983 manual. The young black protesters were experiencing the same brutality meted out to printers at Warrington just six months after the manual had been approved. The complaints being made now are very similar to those made after mass protests over the last forty years involving miners, printers, travellers and anti-racists. 

Since 1983, the recurring tactics authorised at protests have often included mounted charges, baton charges and the use of  dogs. Police dogs bit at least two protesters at Orgreave, one at the G20 protest and more recently, in 2021, seven during protests in Bristol against the proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and  Courts Bill. 

During that same protest, officers used the side of their shields to hit protesters. Kevin Blowe of Netpol pointed out that ‘defensive shields’ were ‘apparently being used for offensive purposes’. The resulting head injuries left an ‘off-duty NHS  nurse traumatized … “I saw shields in front of me lifted and  chopped down on top of protesters[’] heads in a peaceful crowd  … in excess of 5 cm lacerations to the top of the skull.”’ 

Superintendent Mark Runacres, an officer of twenty-five years’  standing, said of shield strikes, “they’re an absolutely legitimate and trained tactic that officers are coached on in their public order training … approved by the College of Policing and if they can justify that act as a proportionate response then they are entitled to do it”. No one in Parliament would have known these tactics were approved. The culture in the police is such that new violent methods can be introduced without any consideration of the elected representatives. 

Another ‘approved’ tactic was applied against Katie McGoran,  a protester against the Police Bill. Four male police officers tricked their way into her house saying they were postal workers.  They did not identify themselves before handcuffing the entirely innocent, half-clad, twenty-one-year-old in her bedroom. Of the  ‘very traumatic’ arrest she said, ‘It was like a punishment because  I had been on the protest. It was revenge policing.’

A paranoia about protest has developed and is reflected in the decision of the South East Counter Terrorism Police to categorise a number of protest groups as potential terrorists to be reported.  They included the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Stand  Up to Racism, the Stop the War Coalition and Extinction Rebellion. The list had been shared with a number of police forces, Counter-Terrorism Headquarters, schools, the NHS and the Home Office. It appears that after The Guardian revealed the existence of the list it was recalled. 

Riot police clashed with protesters close to the Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland on Wednesday after a demonstration against Group of Eight (G8) leaders ended in chaos. Reuters/Russell Boyce

This state creep was followed by a move towards totalitarianism with the introduction in 2021 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, including sweeping provisions that can outlaw any assemblies and processions deemed ‘noisy’ or which might cause ‘serious unease, alarm or distress’. 

The Policing Bill’s intent was to protect organisations and the community from serious disruption. Extending these discretionary powers further can only mean more draconian policing. Sam Grant of Liberty commented, ‘This  bill has triggered mass protests and almost universal opposition –  including from ex-police chiefs who say it threatens democracy.  The fact that policing bodies weren’t even consulted shows how  determined those in power are to stifle dissent.’ 

The government even tried to extend police powers further by  unusually adding several amendments while the bill was being  reviewed by the House of Lords. These were voted out by the  Lords following a campaign. Just hours after the toppling of  the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol on 7 June  2020, Home Secretary Priti Patel demanded the police ‘make sure justice is taken’. She also called the local chief constable.  Nazir Afzal, a former chief prosecutor for north-west England,  commented, ‘It may be that she has overstepped the boundaries  … that we have had for nearly 200 years by getting involved in  police operational decisions.’ Four protesters were subsequently  charged with criminal damage to the statue, but were acquitted  by a jury at their trial in 2022. 

The long history of protest confirms that dissent always returns despite attempts by the state to suppress it. 

BLM demonstrations have shown how protest has the capacity to bring dramatic change. After highlighting the one-sided presentation of history, this movement has achieved cultural change, including an unofficial rewrite of many educational curricula in the absence of government-authorised change. BLM achieved more over a few single days than the government-sponsored diversity programme had managed over years. Journalist George  Monbiot places achievements such as this into context: ‘All the genuine progress, all the moves towards justice that we’ve ever seen in our society has come about through protest. It doesn’t  happen by itself.’

One of those leading the charge of a new generation of protesters against injustice was nineteen-year-old Venus Oghweh,  a care home worker from London, who in 2020 organised her first protest, for BLM. Within three days her team had recruited over 200 organisers. She reflects, ‘If that does not show you that a change needs to happen and that we all feel the same, I don’t know what else could. If we did a month of steady work, imagine what we could do. We are so focused on bringing a change.”

How the Police Try to Suppress Protest is out now on Verso Books.

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