openDemocracyUK

Wasting money, freedom and security

How police surveillance of peaceful protestors in the UK puts our lives as well as freedoms in danger - a personal view from someone who watched them do it
Alex Holland
17 November 2009

Contributed by Alex Holland, associate editor of The Samosa, a new website with a focus on South Asia and British asians. For a full discussion of the left's divergent reactions to the policing of protest, see Stuart White at the Next Left.

Unlike some on the left, I do see a role for police surveillance of domestic protest groups. On the day of the 15 February 2003 anti-Iraq war demo, aka "the big one", I was a volunteer steward on the march. Part of what I did that day was act as a liaison between the march organisers and the police.

I stood beside police officers in a room located beneath the famous neon signs in Piccadilly Circus, watching a river of demonstrators go by. While there I saw undercover police, dressed as protestors, dashing up from the demo into the office and pointing out people on spotter cards, like those shown recently in The Guardian. They then quickly returned to the crowd to keep tracking the movements of targeted demonstrators.

I had mixed feelings about this. The vast majority of protestors I had contact with were, like me, entirely non-violent, law-abiding people who did not deserve to be spied on. However as a volunteer organiser in the European Social Forums, I did know of those who looked for confrontation at demonstrations, especially some Greek and Spanish anarchists. Stop the War organisers were genuinely concerned that demonstrations should not get violent and were generally not unsympathetic to police intelligence efforts to help with this.

However I still knew back then what the Guardian has highlighted now. That police surveillance is performed in a way that goes well beyond monitoring a genuinely extreme minority. Its main aim instead seems to be more about deterring legitimate dissent. These tactics have not only been an abuse of people's democratic right to protest. The current approach is also a gross waste of resources that could have been put into tackling genuine violent threats.

Police surveillance of non-violent activists was recently revealed to have significantly grown in size, scope and cost. Millions of pounds have been spent tracking the movements and personal details of people with no criminal records. 

During my student journalist days I went to a number of public events where the police openly, and often intrusively, filmed those attending. The most needless example of such harassment I saw was at a piece of mobile street theatre in 2004. Almost 30 officers formed a moving cordon around some rather amateur efforts to inform the public about the arms trade. The police ostentatiously recorded everybody’s faces. 

Imagine the cost of employing those 30 officers, most likely on overtime, to spend hours following an event that broke no laws and was organized through a public meeting. Add to that the back office time of identifying and cataloguing the street performers in a database and the bill gets even bigger. This was manpower and money that would have been better spent monitoring people more likely to cause actual harm.

Unlike these street artists, there were people at that time who were planning to kill and maim civilians in London. The leader of the 7/7 London bombings, Mohammed Sidique Khan, had been identified by domestic intelligence as a potential threat in the years before the 2005 attack. However, as a parliamentary committee reported, the security services lacked the resources to follow up more than half of the suspects they had. This meant Sidique Khan was never properly investigated.

That public money was being wasted harassing peaceful protestors - when it could have been put into following up potential suicide bombers - is simply wrong. That such waste continues and appears to be increasing, in response to things like environmental protest, is even more outrageous.

Another bitter irony of such policing is that it can help create the sort of law-breaking direct action that it is supposed to prevent. When reporting on student protests I observed one group of protestors who tried to organise "die-ins" and other law-abiding forms of awareness-raising action. They kept finding that wherever they went, the police seemed to know what they were planning in advance and blocked them from doing it.
 
The atmosphere of intrusive police surveillance at legitimate demonstration made people feel the only possibility of achieving a meaningful protest was to organise them in absolute secrecy. They stopped having email discussions and meeting openly. These cloak and dagger tactics led inexorably to only the more hard-core activists remaining. This in turn meant there was a greater tendency for actions like high-profile property damage to take place. This wasn’t just because of the mentality of the people involved. Reduced numbers, due to police harassment, meant that attempts at awareness-raising had to be more extreme just to get media attention.

Like a perverse observer effect, excessive spying by the police was actually reducing the chance of peaceful, legal protest.

For those who want to prevent this whole ridiculous and counter-productive approach to police surveillance, there are things that can be done. Writing to your MP and making a formal request for any information the police have on you are both ways to apply pressure.

The pressure is needed, to make sure that the necessary intelligence efforts to prevent violent threats are not undermined by irrelevant surveillance efforts which reduce both our freedom and security.

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