COMMENT: police ‘not knowing’ whether protest is permitted is deliberate – and it has to end

Thursday, 15 September 2022 — NetPol

There has been considerable press interest in the fairly small number of arrests (or threats of arrests) of anti-monarchists since the Queen’s death on 8 September.

Protests have been nothing quite as dramatic as the hundreds who gathered outside of Buckingham Palace with a mock guillotine back in 1998, or the wild, unsubstantiated claims of riots in 2002. In a 24-hour news cycle, however, anything different from an endless conveyor belt of royalist platitudes has been seized upon by the media.

The police response to these protests has been familiar: faced with demonstrators whose legitimacy officers reject, even the most innocuous demonstrations (like holding up a card or a few shouted words) have been quickly closed down. It is evident that in at least one case, officers claimed they were relying on powers in the new Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Act, even though this was simply untrue.

What these incidents have highlighted, once again, is how public order policing relies heavily on creating uncertainty, with the intention that this stops people from exercising their rights to protest in any way because of a fear of arrest.

This is, however, unlawful. Police officers are not supposed to deny people rights protected by international human rights obligations because they feel like it – or because they do not understand the laws they are enforcing. In a week of many extraordinary statements – pushing even this one into second place – the chair of the Metropolitan Police Federation, Ken Marsh, told a journalist:

“It was clear that some of my colleagues weren’t aware what people can and can’t do in terms of holding up pieces of paper.”

It has been reported that the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) and the Metropolitan Police have since “issued new protocols for the tens of thousands of officers on duty at events to mark the passing of the Queen”.

The NPCC’s lack of foresight should come as little surprise – a Freedom of Information request by the Article 11 Trust, a charity Netpol works closely with that provides research and education on assembly rights, has confirmed that the NPCC still has no guidance on the new Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Act.

This is despite its status as one of the most controversial pieces of policing legislation in the last decade. No wonder some officers are making powers up and claiming they are part of the Act.

“What we are left with instead is the same problem as always: vague statements about ‘balance’ and images of officers leading protesters away in handcuffs.”

Significantly, we have no idea what the new royal funeral protocols issued this week say – they have not been published.

We have no idea what advice has been given to frontline officers and there is no way to test whether pledges to protect and facilitate the right to freedom of protest and “balance these rights against those who wish to grieve and reflect” are genuine or completely meaningless.

None of this would have been necessary if the NPCC had listened to Netpol’s call – over the last seven years now – for greater clarity and transparency and for senior officers to produce proper guidance on the policing of protests that the public can scrutinise.

Netpol argues that there is no ‘balance’ when one side of the scales is always loaded against demonstrators. That is why we have continued to argue for the Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights: eleven guiding principles for protecting and facilitating the right to protest that emphasise minimum and proportionate interventions recommended by international human rights guidance.

The NPCC and individual forces have repeatedly failed to engage with the demand for a proper benchmark for policing operations at demonstrations – when we raised this during the COP26 Climate Conference in November 2021, Police Scotland simply ignored the support expressed for the Charter from all the main climate coalitions in a letter to First Minster Nicola Sturgeon.

What we are left with instead is the same problem as always: vague statements about ‘balance’ and images of officers leading protesters away in handcuffs.

As we said in our open letter to the Metropolitan Police in advance of planned environmental protests this autumn:

“All too often, protests are treated as an inconvenience to crack down on. It is time they were seen as a necessary and important element of a free, democratic society.”

A royal funeral has helped drive home the point that the time for change and for ending uncertainty is now long overdue.

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