On Monday night at a lobby of a Lambeth council meeting to protest against 30% cuts to public services in the borough; policemen entered the council chamber. Who invited them in, and what they were expected to do is still unclear but the precedent could be important and seems to fit a worrying pattern that is developing in our democracy.
The meeting was open to the public and hundreds had turned up to voice their concern at the Labour council’s acquiescence to Tory demands for wide ranging local service cuts. The police entered during a loud and passionate exchange between the public and council leader Pete Reed, who was being shouted down for calling fellow councillor Kingsley Abrams a ‘disgrace’, after Abrams had suggested that some of the blame for these cuts lay with the councillors themselves and they should vote them down. The public gathered in the room angrily demanded that Reed apologise.
As this was happening, two officers entered the chamber from either side of the room. It was the rowdiest part of the meeting in a long happy tradition of rowdy town hall meetings (democracy is like this sometimes). The public, on seeing the policemen, refused to allow the meeting to continue until they left the room and after some deliberation they backed out again. The entry of the police was certainly co-ordinated as the two officers entered simultaneously from opposite sides of the chamber. However, we received no answers when questioning both the council security and the police as to who had either ordered or requested them to enter.
Two things struck me most about this incident. Firstly, has the disconnect between the public and our representatives become so complete that dissent in institutions like Town Halls now needs to be actually policed? And, secondly, has the reach of the police force into the political sphere reached such levels that they think it's perfectly fine to enter into a democratic meeting between councillors and the public because people are shouting?
The tone for this meeting was set well before as protestors began to gather outside from 5.00pm. At approximately 5.30pm a police van pulled up and about 15 police officers entered the Town Hall. This was followed by several more officers intermittently going inside, and estimates from the public ranged between about 20 to 25 officers inside the building in advance of the meeting. The police outside erected barriers to try and pen protestors into designated areas, and those ‘lucky’ enough to be allowed to enter the public meeting were flanked by pairs of police officers all the way into the chamber itself, getting tickets from security guards near the door, those too being flanked by police. The intimidatory atmosphere this created cannot be overestimated. This was a meeting that involved children’s play groups, pensioner organisations and tenants' associations making appeals to the people they had voted to represent them in a public building. And someone saw fit to stuff that event with police officers.
Protest, a sanitised form of polite complaining within boundaries set by the state, we are constantly told, is perfectly allowed, to which I think the response is supposed to be gratitude. Actual dissent, it is becoming obvious, is now viewed as very suspicious and potentially criminal.
This seemingly insignificant town hall meeting in south London fits a much larger pattern of the policing of public dissent. Any action that has the ability to change things is to be suppressed. With undercover spies in environmental groups, counter terrorism police writing to the vice chancellors of universities to request details of student protests and ‘domestic extremism’ lists of people who simply attend demonstrations, the politicisation of the police’s role is becoming quite clear. It has now entered town hall’s, and it has come mob-handed to watch over children from the borough appealing to councillors to keep their playgrounds open, pensioner’s pleading for local services not to be dismantled and Trade Unionists asking for consultation on redundancies. When the public didn’t like what they heard the police entered the chamber as overseers.
The police are coming to resemble the armed enforcers of government cuts. All those involved in fighting the cuts and striving for an alternative vision of how our society should be ordered need to be aware that we are now fighting on two fronts: against the government and its ideology and against police intrusion into the common political space.
We need to expand and assert a free democratic space for citizens, both psychologically and physically. Free public political spaces within which the arms of the state are simply not welcome need to be continuously defended and demanded. There is a reason why the police must be invited into parliament by the Speaker. It is because political interference and intimidation by such an institution is an accepted danger to democracy. We must ensure this principle extends into other areas, starting with town halls and university campuses, and break the trend of ‘public’ spaces becoming ‘policed’ spaces.