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The thin blue line: maintaining whose order?

In light of events in Clapham and Bristol, NICK WRIGHT looks at the policing of demonstrations, celebrations, protests, vigils and citizens' assemblies — and asks why the uniformed response varies so drastically and so dangerously

THE last word is never uttered on the vexed question of policing in 21st-century Britain.

We have a long history of riots, disturbances, insurrections and demonstrations in which the public discussion is continually diverted from the substantive issues at stake — the repeal of the Corn Laws, the demand for a People’s Charter of democratic rights, the right to strike, the right to a job, against nuclear weapons and imperialist wars, against the imposition of the poll tax, anger at deaths in the hands of the police and so on.

The temper of the crowd and the tactical disposition of the police are always factors in determining what happens on the day while the attempt by authority — always buttressed by an obedient and servile media — to frame the principal issue as one of public order is always present.

So, in the aftermath of a second weekend of police violence in Bristol — in which a chorus of idiot Labour MPs worried exclusively about what turned out to be non-existent injuries to police officers — no apologies for returning to this theme.

There is a striking symmetry between policing incidents over the past weeks. In each case — the vigil to the memory of Sarah Everard on Clapham Common and the “right to protest” sit-down demonstration outside Bristol’s Bridewell police station — the issues which animated these citizens’ assemblies were framed in terms of moral imperatives.

No-one remained unconscious of the fact that a male police officer was charged with Everard’s murder while the indisputable facts of male violence against women formed the overarching context in which the people gathering at the Clapham Common bandstand marked the death of this young woman.

The Bristol Bridewell manifestations are linked to these events precisely because the police actions in London, initiated by police command as dusk turned to night, transformed a sad and solemn vigil into a confrontation in which the police were prepared by training, formation and command — and the women not so.

As always, the justification from authority was that police officers endured great provocation before responding. In fact, shock and surprise greeted the pre-emptory command to disperse and abandon this location now symbolic of Everard’s martyrdom.

Anger replaced shock as the police responded with violence at this repudiation of their authority.

There is a broader context in which people generally understand the right to demonstrate and now there is a renewed attempt to make this right conditional.

The Police Federation, which long ago the state imposed on rank-and-file officers as a safe and corporate alternative to genuine trade union representation, was wheeled out to underline this.

From its local leadership we hear: “Policing by consent is a general principle not a duty.

“Peaceful protest is a qualified not absolute right, has limits when it infringes on rights of others. The law includes the current prohibition on public gatherings. And technically we are crown servants not public servants.”

This latter point might have more force if the police were paid from the royal wealth fund rather than a public precept.

But in these words we see an attempt to frame the rights of assembly, speech and demonstration as conditional in ways that begin to negate Article 11 of the 1998 Human Rights Act.

It is instructive that the framing of Article 11 sets these rights in the context of class struggle.

Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of their interests.

In this moment the police actions at Clapham Common and before Bristol’s Bridewell police station have decisively shaped the way people, especially young people, see the relationship between policing and protest.

And Bristol, where established authority was already shocked at the Black Lives Matter action which gave slave-holding a delayed but much-deserved dunking, is becoming a location that is symbolic of insurgent challenges to authority.

The term Bridewell has a particular symbolic meaning. The original Bridewell Palace, later prison, in the City of London was variously an orphanage and home for “wayward women.” The term Bridewell was adopted as the generic title for such places of detention throughout Britain and its colonies.

The Police Federation leader makes his stand on a literal understanding of the lockdown laws that fits uneasily with contemporary policing practice.

It is true that as talk of easing the lockdown began to adopt a more hopeful tone, especially as the vaccination rollout encompassed millions more people, there developed a certain laxity in the observance of the rules that supposedly and selectively govern assembly.

And the the participants in these events were substantially if not exclusively young — and in the case of the Clapham Common events, largely if not exclusively female.

In both cases the evenings’ events were initiated in relative tranquillity. Much less threatening to overall public order than, for example, than the various anti-vax, anti-lockdown protests and the football celebrations discussed by this column earlier.

The variable factor in all these events is the character of the police response.

As it happens, in the interregnum between these events I found myself in conversation with a now retired Metropolitan Police officer.

Over our cups of lockdown coffee, consumed with many others in open and now habitual breach of the coronavirus crisis injunction against collective assembly, we found that we were both present at the the Adams Road flashpoint during the fighting at Broadwater Farm estate on the night of October 6 1985.

Him in a shield unit under furious assault and me as head of the Haringey Council Police Research Unit charged with monitoring these events.

Naturally our perceptions of these events are at variance but it is not hard to find a common understanding about cause and effect where, in one week nearly three decades ago, the deaths of two black mothers at the hands of the police formed the context in which police authority was challenged in both Brixton and Tottenham.

Our shared understanding was that confrontations with the police never occur in a vacuums and we naturally turned to the role of Sir Kenneth Newman, the then commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

Newman’s distinctive contribution to the debate on policing centres on two questions. The role of “outside agitators” in challenges to public order and his notion of a “symbolic location.”

I was present when during the Broadwater Farm events Newman briefed journalists. His bid to frame the narrative as one in which outside groups “from within and outside of London, operating in areas of high ethnic concentration” was enthusiastically taken up by the Daily Mirror which dutifully echoed his words: “The Tottenham riot was ignited by well-prepared outsiders.”

The Daily Express concluded that “street fighting experts trained in Moscow and Libya were behind Britain’s worst violence” — this gave me a moment of anxiety as I was in both these places on behalf of Liberation, the Movement for Colonial Freedom.

Relief came a fortnight later when a Scotland Yard spokesman gently repudiated this urban myth: “We don’t believe that outside agitators were responsible for what happened in Tottenham.”

The second feature of Newman’s thinking was his conception of “symbolic location.” It is no surprise that this was entirely constituted around an antagonistic relationship with his areas of “areas of high ethnic concentration.”

In his thinking “symbolic locations” were seen as areas where challenges to police authority were combined with a high crime rate, drug dealing, unemployment and illegal drinking and gambling.

Newman had told his audience at a 1983 policing conference that such “symbolic locations symbolised the inability of the police to maintain law and order.”

And in a report that year to the Home Office, he referenced Broadwater Farm itself, the Notting Hill Carnival, Brixton’s Railton Road, All Saints Road in Notting Hill and the Stonebridge Estate in Harlesden.

Newman is long gone and his policing canon consigned to the fading memories of veterans on both sides of late 20th-century arguments about policing with consent.

In lining up with the government the Police Federation is treading dangerously.

Consider the tactical similarities. As dark fell in both Clapham and Bristol, the police, whether under orders or with an element of collective spontaneity, sought to assert their dominance over terrain which they perceive as as symbolic of their power. Not just place but people whose right to assembly and speech is thus seen as a challenge.

It is easy to mock the Police Federation as resembling more a protective guild than a trade union, but rank-and-file police officers have distinctive interests that are not best served by being corralled into a caste insulated from the rest of society or by a denial of their functions — and commensurate rights — as servants the public.

The police have functions in any developed society that are not reducible to their principal function as an instrument of the state’s monopoly of legally sanctioned force.

The point about class society is that the police are guardians of a public order that stands as a defence of a political order and of a system of property ownership.

To the extent that the political order is challenged the police are challenged — and all the other instruments of the state’s monopoly of coercion, secret police, military, intelligence and surveillance organisations are inevitably drawn into play.

Obscuring wide public recognition of the essentially coercive role of the police is the reason why so much effort is invested in the promotion of a myth that policing is mainly crime prevention.

It isn’t. Lockdown has substantially reduced crime but the proportion of crimes solved by police in England and Wales has fallen to the lowest level recorded, according to the Home Office.

In the 12 months to March 2019, 7.8 per cent of offences saw someone charged or summonsed. This was down from 9.1 per cent a year previously. 1,203,808 of these were violent crimes.

In London alone the police abandoned investigations into near a quarter of a million reported crimes within 24 hours of the crime being reported while total spending on policing in Britain in 2019-20 was £18.02 billion.

Whatever is being defended here it isn’t public safety or our property.

Nick Wright blogs at


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