Dealing with dissent - The view from the authorities

How is dissent understood in the UK by those tasked with its “facilitation”? Several sources have emerged in the last month which give an indication of the contradictory environment in which public order policing is evolving.

Neirin Llafar
22 February 2011

How is dissent understood by those tasked with its “facilitation”? Several sources have emerged in the last month which give an indication of the contradictory environment in which public order policing is evolving: Policing Public Order (a report by HMIC), an interview with ACPO President, Hugh Orde and a debate on “The Rise of Street Extremism” at the right-wing think tank, Policy Exchange (which can be viewed in full here).


Reconfiguring Dissent

Firstly, they recognise the organisation of dissent is changing. HMIC place great emphasis on the way in which public order situations are “evolving in terms of: the numbers involved; spread across the country; associated sporadic violence; disruption caused; short notice or no-notice events, and swift changes in protest tactics”. Hugh Orde talks of how social media adds “a whole new dimension to public order”. “I would call into question the role of Twitter” says Henry Robinson, claiming that it allows activists to “outmanoeuvre the police”.

In reality, claims of Twitter’s tactical viability in protest situations have always been overstated, with limits to the spread of necessary technology. Although this is changing, with innovations such as Sukey contesting the police’s monopoly over real-time information, Twitter remains primarily a facilitator of democratic practice and rapid organisation – not, as Robinson seems to suggest, a threat to an institution of the state. Social media speeds up and levels out organisation: it creates a loose network, which crystallises in traditional modes of action. So far, the “outmanoeuvring” occurs during the creation, rather than at the site, of protest.

Political Policing

Policy Exchange introduce their event under the aegis that there are “increasing signs that significant sections of the extreme left have little intention of confining their opposition to Coalition policies to peaceful, democratic protest.”

What does this mean in real terms? Whilst the HMIC report finds that, far from any left-wing activity, the English Defence League has proved the most draining organisation in terms of resources deployed, they are clearly not the focus of concern. The EDL are almost entirely absent from the Policy Exchange discussion – only briefly mentioned after a prompt from an audience member – likewise, UK Uncut actions and recent student demonstrations in November and December form the basis of the Hugh Orde interview.

The most cynical analysis would be that whilst the student demonstrations have mostly targeted property, and UK Uncut have threatened commerce; the EDL only target communities and this is deemed less significant in an age of neoliberalism. The Policy Exchange event is particularly dubious on this account, especially since many of the contributors are keen to brand UK Uncut as an extremist organisation. For HMIC’s purposes however, the most likely reason is that the EDL tactics still conform to a comparatively familiar model of homogenous protests which occasionally degenerate into conflict.

Terrorism and Protest

One of the most striking claims of the Policy Exchange event is the implication that UK Uncut are potentially an embryonic terrorist group. Henry Robinson draws comparisons from his experience of Northern Ireland, stating that "when I see extremism developing like I see it developing in London through some of these protests, I think it requires a response to try and stop it in its infancy".

After noting how the Real IRA added banks to their target list some time after a protest group flashmobbed Irish banks (he doesn’t explain how tangible the link is), he asks of UK Uncut “what the real motives and agenda is here, by drawing other young people into these protests who may genuinely, and are genuinely opposed to the cuts, I worry where this is actually going to lead.” Robinson then asserts that UK Uncut is “a significant threat to democracy”, a “small group of extreme hard-left”, that he doesn’t believe “are really concerned about some of the issues – I think their overall objective is actually to cause upheaval, and civil disobedience and violence”.

Peter Clarke, former Head of the Counter Terrorism Command, picks up on the theme in relation to the student protests. “I watched the events of December 9th and the thin blue line that kept the mob out of parliament, and it struck me that, actually, the potential impact of that was not very far removed from the things which preoccupied me for so many years in my police career, which was terrorism.” Invoking his memory of the Brighton Grand Hotel bombing in October 1984, Clarke suggests that there are “parallel ambitions between organised protest and terrorism”, clarifying that “it’s not so much the intent that is different but the response, the national response, to those events”.

These speculations are not, remember, the absurd ravings of a right-wing journalist: but the former Head of the Counter Terrorism Command. They are delivered in a context where climate campaigners are subjected to 8 year long undercover police operations targeting “domestic extremists”, where current officers from the CTC are asking universities to pass on information about student activists, where our council chambers are invaded and in some cases members of the public arrested for asking “unplanned questions” about the cuts (to applause from Conservative councillors).

One case study in the HMIC report about the May Day demonstration in 2010 notes that “While it was recognised that the protest areas were targets for terrorism, it is explicit in the Silver Commander’s briefing that the use of s.44 Terrorism Act 2000 (power to search without reasonable grounds in a defined area) would only be exercised after consultation with, and under the supervision of, a supervisor.” It would appear that the abuse of anti-terror legislation in quelling dissent, once an unofficial practice, is now an open and naturalised component of the public order inventory.

Henry Robinson argues that UK Uncut fits the model of extremism because its tactics “intimidate” shoppers and shop-workers. He provides no evidence, so I will. At the last demonstration, one protester used a leaflet to terrorise the rubber seal of a Boots store doorway. The police were on hand to protect the staff, arresting the extremist and CS-spraying three more protesters. "The staff at Boots were fantastic and took us inside and gave us free treatment," said Gordon Maloney, 20, one of the other protesters who was hit by the CS spray. "My eyes were really streaming and my face hurt but I was most struck by the violence used by the police. I have been on a lot of demonstrations and have not seen anything like this before."

The “Right” to Protest

What is behind this recent push to control the narrative of dissent? Activists involved in 2009’s G20 demonstrations will remember how a similar process of steady defamation fuelled expectations of violence. First police warned of a “summer of rage” following the financial crisis and banking bailout, with further prophecies that April 1st would be “very violent”, warning that they were “up for it and up to it” if there was trouble. The resultant policing operation, Operation Glencoe (a belligerent nod to the Glencoe massacre in 1692), saw an uninvolved man killed and many more injured. The suspicion is the police are once again planning to ‘save’ ‘us’ from the phantoms which the police itself creates.   

Despite the HMIC’s report on the policing of the G20 finding systematic failings, an audience member of the Policy Exchange saw it as a model example: “ideal, and very practical” which due to “an unfortunate incident… was lost in the media scramble to bring a stop to the story about the good success of the police.” The “unfortunate incident” refers to Ian Tomlinson’s death.

The framework for debate about policing operations since the G20 has primarily centred around the “right to protest”. Yet Hugh Orde’s interview exposes some of the problems with the way this language has been interpreted. “There are lots of people we can talk to, but they need to stand up and lead their people too. If they don't, we must be clear that the people who wish to demonstrate won't engage, communicate or share what they intend to do with us, and so our policing tactics will have to be different ... slightly more extreme.” Orde’s understanding of the “right” to protest as contractual rather than universal is classically conservative: with rights come responsibilities. His appeal for leadership is both outmoded and ideological.

Of course, if protest really is a right then it needs no permission to be exercised. HMIC’s post-G20 report in fact makes more or less this point – it criticises the foundation of ACPO’s guideline that the police’s role is to 'facilitate lawful protest'; noting that “Article 11 of the ECHR places the police under the obligation to facilitate peaceful protest….even if these protests cause a level of obstruction or disruption”.

Lessons to Learn

Tactics: Abandoning the “Right to Protest” leaves two options: reconsider the basis upon which rights are invoked (for instance, a “right to dissent” or a “right to resist”) or abandon rights as a platform altogether, instead focusing on novel, flexible tactics which protect, obstruct and disrupt. Pre-approved actions are clearly ineffective; treating dissent like a commodity – tokenistic, performative, sanitised, and ultimately, appropriable.

Locations: As David Maclean (former Minister of State at the Home Office) puts it “at the moment it’s centred on Parliament, and thank god for that”. Others have already pointed out that Parliament Square is as limiting a site for protest as it is symbolic. These spaces were built with the suppression of protest in mind.

Aesthetics: Kitsch protest is self-defeating, and works by the same logic of other postmodern forms of cultural production which regurgitate aesthetics outside of the context which grant them critical saliency. Ruling powers (and this is a frequent motif in the Policy Exchange event) will do everything they can to assimilate dissent within narrow, safe typologies (“Trotskyists” “Extremists” “Anarchists”). Our images must contradict the dismissive labels imposed upon them.

Resources: High-intensity policing costs money. The student protests in November and December amounted to an estimated £100,000. According to the HMIC, some metropolitan forces report increases in their public order spending for 2009/10 to 2010/11 of anywhere between £245,000 and £636,000. The student demonstration on December 9th was the most testing of police capabilities, with 80 PSUs (Police support units) deployed. Given that one PSU consists of approximately one inspector, three sergeants and 18 constables, this amounts to roughly 1760 officers in total. This is in the context of a 20% cut to policing budgets.


It is revealing that both panellists at the Policy Exchange, and the HMIC report, mistakenly list the NUS as the organisation behind the demonstrations on November 24th, 30th, and December 9th. Whilst they recognise that protest is changing, they are slow to comprehend political organisation which moves beyond hierarchical organisations, and when they can’t identify groups or leaders both they, like the media, are intent on inventing them. As one police officer tentatively asks in the Guardian’s recent UK Uncut video “Who organised all this… is it facebook, twitter?” “It’s just anger” the protester replies. “No one needs organising for anger.”

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