War on Dissent: shrinking space for protest in the UK

  • October 30, 2018

People & Protest

The Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) campaigns against police surveillance and the regular smearing of activists and groups as “domestic extremists.”

Writing in 2016, Netpol observed that the government and the police in Britain are in a “permanent state of war.” This war is fought on a number of fronts — apart from the never-ending war on terror, there are also wars on drugs, on urban black youth, on migrants and on alleged extremism, particularly but not exclusively targeting Muslim communities.

“Every battle,” we argued, “requires an enemy and these wars are no exception.” Not least among those perceived enemies are the political dissenters, the campaigners who oppose state coercion and violence and the dehumanizing use of highly contested terms like “gang member,” “economic immigrant” or “domestic extremist.” The extraordinary breadth of social and political movements of all sizes and interests which have been targeted over the years by UK secret police units is a testament to this, as revealed by the Undercover Policing Inquiry that has trundled on to little effect since it was set up by the Cameron government in 2015 in the wake of the spycops scandal.

Two years ago, our intention in highlighting the war-footing of British policing was to comment on the expanding policing and security market and how it’s exported around the world. At the time, the UK Home Office held its annual trade exhibition offering a “discreet environment” for companies that supply police, prisons and the Ministry of Defense. This event marked an exclusive opportunity for police leaders to fulfill their constant need for more comprehensive intelligence, improved arsenals and more efficient logistics.

The mentality of militarized public order policing demands the latest technological advances, and it does so for a reason — conducting war is never simply about the capture of physical space, but also about the ability to maintain control once its captured.

Pacifying protest, shrinking space

“Keeping the peace” — perhaps more accurately, pacification — involves the shrinking, and ultimately annihilation, of any space that your “enemy” might benefit from. In public order policing terms, this invariably means any space that provides an opportunity to directly challenge either state or corporate power that is being exercised in the name of progress or economic growth. For example, against the construction of airports, subsidies for the arms industry, nuclear power, fossil fuel extraction or restrictions on workers’ rights.

As Netpol has documented since 2014, this is precisely what environmental campaigners opposed to fracking in the UK have experienced first-hand. Initially through aggressive and often violent police tactics and subsequently by the oil and gas industry’s civil injunctions to completely shut down any form of protest.

This trend is also illustrated by attempts to pacify protests within corporate consumer spaces, such as the mass arrests of Black Lives Matter activists taking part in a solidarity action against police violence in a London shopping mall in 2014. Police in Liverpool have also used sweeping powers to force anti-fur activists out of the city central shopping district despite the fact that they were not even protesting at the time.

The way police forces are operating in some residential areas — perceiving themselves as an army of occupation — have led to severe restrictions on who is actually in control of public space. This is most notably the experience of black and other minority communities whose neighborhoods are routinely perceived as hostile “enemy territory.” In these areas, institutionalized racist policing comes to the fore in the shape of officers who turn to intrusive surveillance and repeated use of stop and search powers to criminalize young black men as “at risk” of becoming gang members because they are unable to actually charge them with any serious crime.

Over the last decade, European concerns about the shrinking democratic space for civil society groups to organize, participate and communicate abroad have increased. The European Parliament insists this phenomenon is part of “a general authoritarian push-back against democracy” and accepts that EU foreign policy “can still be strikingly cautious in confronting regimes engaged in brutal civil society crackdowns” around the world.

Concerns about shrinking space within Europe itself, meanwhile, have tended to prioritize limits on participation. For example on legal regulations restricting some civil society organizations, deteriorating financial support (including the outlawing of support from foreign donors), severe restraints on the use of funds for advocacy work (especially for refugees and migrants), and the general lack of access to consultation and dialogue with governments.

These issues are undoubtedly alarming. However, as the Transnational Institute (TNI) already argued in April 2017, the concept of “shrinking space” is itself deeply problematic. This concept attempts to describe in a “more palatable and less discomfiting” way what is essentially political policing and in doing so, shifts the focus away “from the tangible repression of one kind of politics in the service of another,” namely the reinforcement of support for free-market capitalism.

TNI also points to the double standards of rhetoric around “shrinking spaces” that “tends to flatten the differences in the struggles faced by social movements versus larger NGOs, inferring that all civil society actors experience the same type and degree of shrinking space, whilst simultaneously upholding the idea that the Global South is where the ‘real’ space is shrinking.”

In the UK it seems self-evident that liberal civil society organizations with established political influence, large teams of paid staff and significant campaigning budgets will experience shrinking democratic space very differently to those perceived as radical, anti-capitalist or who use direct action tactics rather than lobbying and negotiation to articulate their demands.

It is obvious, too, that some protests are lightly policed whilst others — especially protest camps or social movements like Occupy in 2011 or anti-austerity campaigners in 2016 that seek to secure and hold public spaces — are faced with disproportionately large police forces intent on making arrests.

This, for us, is where unease about shrinking spaces should concentrate on. For all the public assurances from the police about their role in “balancing the rights of protesters and the rights of others,” the idea that officers play a benign role as referee between the interests of civil society and those of corporations or state institutions is a comforting fiction.

Instead, the police are making highly subjective political judgments about the use of force or other disruptive or repressive tactics at protests. This is clearly driven by an agenda based on securitization and public order rather than out of any real concern for facilitating rights to freedom of assembly. As TNI puts it, favoring “one kind of politics in the service of another.” This is not only happening in the Global South or in countries of the former Soviet Union, but is also common practice in many Western states — the UK being no exception.

A chilling effect

The definition of what constitutes a “peaceful protest” becomes increasingly meaningless when protests are judged not on whether they pose a genuine risk of violence — and in our experience the overwhelming majority in Britain do not result in arrests for violent conduct — but instead on who the protests are directed at and whether protesters are likely to disrupt some aspect of state or corporate interests.

Nowhere is this reflected more clearly than in the repeated classification of a broad range of non-violent social movements in the UK as “domestic extremists” and the conflation of any actions that are not “lawful” with illegitimacy or a risk of vulnerability to radicalization. This has been used to justify the subsequent intolerance by the police for even the most minor disruption that protest inevitably causes.

Having labeled the enemy, it has in turn driven the deployment of intensive surveillance in parallel with the police’s aggressive “war on gangs.” This includes overt reminders of the scale of police power as well as the use of undercover officers to deliberately undermine campaigners’ activities.

The implications of such data gathering and retention by the police are that campaigners involved in public assemblies are more likely to face arrest, vehicle stops and in some cases detention at borders. It has also resulted in interference in matters unrelated to protest — for example, farmers in Lancashire who were arrested for minor offenses at anti-fracking protests found that their shotgun licenses had been revoked without explanation.

Since responsibility for monitoring alleged “domestic extremism” passed from London’s Metropolitan Police to the UK’s national Counter Terrorism Network in 2015, it is now also far more difficult for activists to use data protection legislation to obtain any disclosure of personal information held by the police that classifies them as an alleged “extremist.” This is because political dissent is treated, in effect, like terrorism and thus immediately subject to blanket national security restrictions.

In our 2017 report on the policing of anti-fracking protests in England, we highlighted concerns that such intense surveillance has a potentially “chilling effect” on freedom of assembly by actively discouraging the participation in campaigning activities. It also has a negative impact on the kind of collective discussion, decision-making and organization fundamental to the ability of campaigners to exercise their rights to protest effectively.

Furthermore, the smearing of legitimate campaigners as “extremists” drives a wedge between them and potential allies in their communities and is used as a weapon against them by the media and pro-industry groups. It also encourages the reluctance of mainstream politicians to raise concerns about protesters’ experiences of aggressive policing or the persistent misrepresentation of their actions by the police.

Challenging surveillance

Right now, the front-line of protest is in Lancashire, North Yorkshire and at other fracking sites around England. Here, first-time campaigners with limited resources who are trying to challenge the politically well-connected onshore oil and gas industry face police tactics that appear deliberately intent on impeding the right of local people to effectively express their opposition.

Shale gas companies, meanwhile, benefit enormously by presenting the battle against fracking as being primarily between the forces of order and disorder, rather than a struggle by local people against pollution, ill-health and climate change.

It is unreasonable to expect local campaigners to simultaneously hold both the fracking industry and the police to account, particularly when there is an unwillingness among politicians and the press to criticize policing operations. This has made the role Netpol and its members fulfill in coordinating legal support and countering the negative portrayal of protests even more important.

Social movements are more than a series of connected actions. They are communities in their own right — and communities need their own infrastructure. That infrastructure includes organizations like Netpol that are able to take on the task of challenging surveillance, opposing the classification of campaigners as “extremists” and resisting the shrinking democratic space for exercising the right to freedom of assembly.

Watch Netpol’s short film, War on Dissenthere.

Kevin Blowe

Kevin Blowe has been the coordinator of the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) since 2014.

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Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/war-on-dissent-netpol/

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