Flickr/Bob Bob. Some rights reserved“Do you like jazz music?” I ask my personal escort, thinking I caught him whistling the melody to an old standard. He’s dressed in uniform, but unfortunately we’re not out for a night of costumed debauchery, he’s a real officer of the law, assigned to personally escort me to whichever London police station might still have capacity after a day of mass arrests.
“I like all sorts”, returns the standard response of someone too overworked to find time and energy to be passionate about music (a response I both give and receive more and more often these days), “but I really like Nick Cave”. “No way! He’s fucking amazing!”
My naïve side panics briefly; this is my first arrest. Can you swear in agreement with a police officer? He doesn’t seem to mind. “I just heard that song Stagger Lee, it’s utterly profane, yet it’s arresting in its dark comedy.” I’m struck first by the hope that this coach journey to the station might not be too dreadful (apart from the possible conversation, those padded seats look very welcoming after 6 hours kettled on the pavement), and second by the perfect irony of what my new policeman friend has just said.
I and 100 or so others had been swept into a police cordon, known as a ‘kettle’ to the experienced protestor, on Commercial Road, deprived of our liberty for allegedly breaching the conditions placed by the police upon a proposed anti-fascist march in Tower Hamlets under Section 12 of the Public Order Act 1986 (POA). Yet, I doubt many of those kettled would identify with Unite Against Fascism, the group who fastidiously agreed their protest with the police, so how could we have deviated from a plan we weren’t part of?
The surreal tipping point arrived shortly after 16:00 when twitter reports came in that the EDL rally at Aldgate had finished, they had been led back across Tower Bridge by their police bodyguard and sent on their way home. With no extant EDL demonstration our alleged counter-demonstration had no ontological validity.
Those of us who were once protestors (and some were all along journalists, legal observers, and a couple of confused passers-by) no longer had a reason to protest. We were all now pedestrians, safely contained on the pavement, not even blocking the traffic. The punchline to this quixotic and tediously prolix joke was that we were all arrested regardless.
Sitting in my cell five or six hours after being arrested, I try to ignore the pungent toilet, find a comfortable position on my blue waterproof so-called mattress, and reflect on events. But I’m cold, hungry and thirsty, so I press my Call button hoping to engage my human rights and ask for the water, blanket and meal I was promised I could have.
Some time and many button presses later a bald head appears at my door bearing a face which is clearly as unhappy at working overtime as I am (if that suggests I’m not having too bad a time of it that’s because I’m doing my utmost to convince myself how ‘interesting’ it is to find myself engaged as a criminal legal subject). I can have the water and blanket, but as for the food, “you’ll be out of here quicker than the time it’ll take me to get it”. “Ok, well that’s good news then I suppose. Cheers.”
Turns out the operative word from my jailer was me, as I’m kept here for about another three hours before being released on police bail, not yet interviewed or charged, but my prints and DNA have been added to their bulging databases and I’m obliged not to “engage in demonstration within the boundaries of the M25 where the English Defence League, English Volunteer Force or British National Party are present.” I’m greeted at about 03:30 outside the station by an arrestee support volunteer, armed with Red Stripe and chocolate digestives, and my faith in humanity rises significantly.
In total 286 alleged anti-fascists were arrested on Saturday, all but a handful for breaching Section 12, i.e. for peacefully demonstrating at a time or place not previously agreed with the police, none of whom have yet been charged, and seemingly all placed on the same restrictive bail conditions as me. Perhaps in the end some will be charged with the crime of philosophical contradiction for counter-protesting a protest that no longer existed.
My reason for arrest was recorded as “marching before 15:30”, as if my teacher was reporting me for not letting my lunch settle properly, presenting a reasonable suspicion of that great affront to common decency and public order: indigestion. I’m now a known poor timekeeper, for which I will forever have to answer ‘yes’ to the question, “have you ever been arrested?”
The Met’s performance this Saturday was more farce than comedy and more crushingly boring than dark, but the trends in political policing that it highlights are, under the spotlight, rather concerning. Let me quickly explain the standard dynamic of fascist demos in the UK: fascist group announces demonstration; Unite Against Fascism organises rally in a park with local community groups; militant anti-fascists mobilise to confront said fascist group, the aim being to pose a physical block to their plans, vetoing or out-voting their right to intimidate and attack locals and seeking the symbolic victory of sending them home as early as possible.
For a long time this process was less street democracy than vicious pitched battles, and whatever one thinks of the ethics of political violence the practical importance of this aspect of the UK anti-fascist tradition in keeping the far right at the fringes of politics should not be underestimated.
But nowadays militant anti-fascism involves playing a tactical game against the police, the latter committed to facilitating the fascists’ right to protest within the bounds of the law, the former trying to outmanoeuvre police lines in order to get within shouting distance, show symbolic dissent and force the police’s hand into restricting the fascist protest for the sake of public order.
Anti-fascism thus becomes civil disobedience, acknowledging that the state affords them the right to speak and assemble freely, but refusing to allow them to exploit that right to spread racial or religious hatred and intimidation unopposed. It’s always a risky business pushing the boundaries of the law and making the police work overtime, but normally the games are played like a schoolyard round of British bulldog and nearly everyone gets home for dinner.
Some will say “you break the rules, you get punished”, but it’s not as simple as that. It’s never as simple as that. It’s only recently that the use of Sections 12 and 14 of the Public Order Act to make mass arrests has become a common policing event, used most recently to arrest 58 anti-fascists at an anti-BNP protest near Parliament in June, leaving them, like us, still uncharged and on bail restrictions banning them from anti-fascist protest in London. Before that it happened at anti-fracking protests in Balcombe in August and at the Critical Mass event in London in July 2012.
The reasons for this tactical shift we may never know. Of course some are saying: “the police support the fascists.” While disproportionate support for the far right within police forces is pretty much a universal law of physics, this doesn’t explain why the EDL have seen plenty of kettles and restrictions, pretty much their fair share considering they tend to cooperate with the police in planning their protests.
More interestingly, some will suggest that the police are acting up in the face of possible funding cuts and wish to make themselves look useful, while others (or sometimes the same people), make the somewhat contrary argument that the police are trying to discourage protest. Intelligence gathering through fingerprints, DNA, photographs, personal details, digital data if they can access it, etc., is also often suggested as an incentive. Making presumptions about intent doesn’t get us very far on its own, and we should be wary of assuming without evidence that police actions even make inherent logical sense (the cock-up-over-conspiracy approach), but in this case there are facts to draw upon and clear effects to be worried about.
On 4th September the Metropolitan Police Service issued a public statement setting out conditions on both the EDL and counter-EDL demonstrations under Sections 12 and 14 of the Public Order Act. It included a quote from Chief Superintendent Jim Read, who said, “We will adopt a robust arrest policy on anyone who attends and is intent on violence and disorder, or is in breach of these conditions.”
This, along with the pattern of increasing use of mass arrest under Public Order Act powers, clearly shows that, whatever the reasons behind it, this is a deliberate policy and a concerted effort to criminalise any protest that falls outwith the incredibly limited and arbitrary scope of what the police will allow if they are asked. If you want to protest without even asking permission, forget it, you’re a criminal danger to society.
Again leaving presumed intent aside, we can confidently say that this policy of mass arrest is contributing to the unreasonable surveillance of and intelligence gathering from innocent people (only four were convicted of a crime out of the 182 arrested at the Critical Mass event last year), and is having a serious chilling effect on the right to protest. Kettling itself is a tactic of using boredom as a weapon against unwanted protest, and these mass arrests, made on the flimsiest of pretexts, are more than anything a pain in the arse of protestors who will now think twice about whether the impact of their protest is worth the day or days in custody, the bail restrictions, the loss of privacy, the return visits to be interviewed and the possible court case, which won’t even be able to set a useful precedent unless you go to the trouble of suing afterwards. The chilling effect on free speech is apparent from the fact that I write this article under a pseudonym for fear that it might jeopardise my defence.
The most worrying aspect of this in my eyes is that the far right are gaining strength in the UK, as in many parts of the crisis-stricken world, and the British police are increasingly going out of their way to facilitate their protests while going out of their way to criminalise anti-fascist counter-protest.
The 1930s shows the likelihood of economic crisis to foster political polarisation, racial scapegoating and fascistic tendencies. It also shows that if given the chance fascists will use their democratic civil liberties to co-opt the liberal state and turn it against minorities and political opponents. As the liberal state cannot be trusted to defend itself against fascism, militant anti-fascism therefore becomes an essential strategy, one now under threat from an overreaching police force with dangerously broad powers to control political expression.
More than ever we need to defend the right to protest, a right that necessarily extends beyond state-sanctioned static rallies and safely scripted A to B marches, and challenges the police’s coordinated strategy of criminalising protest and anti-fascism.