A war on dissent? The shrinking space for protest in the UK

The Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) campaigns against police surveillance on political dissent and the regular smearing of activists and groups as “domestic extremists”. Kevin Blowe explains how the police are closing down the space for protest in the UK.


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Kevin Blowe

Writing in 2016, Netpol observed that the government and the police in Britain are in a “permanent state of war” fought on a number of fronts: apart from the unending ‘war on terror’, there are also wars on drugs, on urban black youth, on migrants and on alleged extremism, particularly but not exclusively targeted within Muslim communities.

“Every battle”, we argued, “requires an enemy and these wars are no exception”. Not least amongst those perceived “enemies” are the political dissenters, the campaigners who oppose state coercion and violence and the dehumanising 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. It has been one of the few revelations to emerge from 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 its export around the world, as the UK Home Office held its annual trade exhibition offering a “discreet environment” for companies who supply police, prisons and the Ministry of Defence. This event provided an opportunity for police leaders, who as we described are “like the generals of any army”, to fulfil their constant need for more comprehensive intelligence, an improved arsenal of weaponry and more efficient logistics.

The militarised mentality of public order policing undoubtedly demands the latest technological advances, but it does so for a reason: conducting any war is never simply about the capture of physical space, but about the ability to maintain domination and control over it.

“Keeping the peace” (perhaps more accurately, pacification) involves the shrinking and ultimately denial of any space that your “enemy” might conceivably benefit from. In public order policing terms, this invariably means any space to directly challenge either state or corporate power 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' right.

As Netpol has documented since 2014, this is precisely what environmental campaigners in the battlegrounds of opposition 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 shut down any form of effective protest completely.

However, it is also illustrated by attempts to pacify protests within corporate consumer spaces, such as the mass arrests of Black Lives Matter campaigners 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 centre’s shopping district – despite the fact that they were not even protesting at the time.

On the same basis, restrictions on who has control of another physical space – the streets where people live – is why policing operations are periodically referred to as an army of occupation. This is most notably the experience of black and minority communities who are routinely perceived as hostile “enemy territory” and where institutionally racist policing means officers, when they are unable to gather enough evidence to make arrests, turn instead to intrusive surveillance and repeated use of stop and search powers to criminalise young black men as ‘at risk’ of becoming members of ‘gangs’.

Pete MacClaine/Shutterstock

Concerns about the shrinking democratic space for civil society organisations to organise, participate and communicate has undoubtedly gained ground in Europe over the last decade. The European Parliament insists this phenomenon is part of “a general authoritarian pushback 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.

The idea of 'shrinking space' within Europe itself, meanwhile, have tended more to prioritise limits on participation: for example, on legal regulations restricting some of the operations of civil society, 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) argued in a paper in April 2017, the concept of 'shrinking space' is itself deeply problematic, because it 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 organisations 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 protests 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, face oppressive numbers of officers intent on making arrests.

Peoples Climate March 2014

This, for us, is where unease about shrinking spaces should concentrate. For all the public assurances from the police about their role “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 judgements about the use of force or other disruptive or repressive tactics at protests, driven by an agenda based on security and public order rather than out of any real concern for facilitating rights to freedom of assembly – as TNI puts it, favouring “one kind of politics in the service of another”. This is not simply happening in the Global South or in countries of the former Soviet Union but routinely in western European nations like the UK.

In such circumstances, 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 extremism” and the conflation of any actions that are not “lawful” with illegitimacy or a risk of vulnerability to radicalisation. This has been used to justify the subsequent intolerance by the police for even the most minor disruption that protest inevitably causes.

Having given the enemy a name, it has in turn driven the deployment of intensive surveillance, in a parallel with the police’s aggressive ‘war on gangs’, that includes overt reminders of the scale of police power and the covert 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 were arrested for minor offences at anti-fracking protests found that their shotgun licences 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, Netpol highlighted concerns that such intense surveillance has a potentially ‘chilling effect’ on freedom of assembly, in actively discouraging many from participation in campaigning activities. It also has the negative impact on the kind of collective discussion, decision-making and organisation 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.

By taking a side and deciding to protest, it is almost as though campaigners have declared themselves as an “enemy” too, even if this is not something some have never planned or expected when they first started.

Right now the frontline 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.

TheNetwork for Police Monitoring (Netpol)

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 amongst politicians and the press to criticise policing operations. This has made the role Netpol and its members play, in coordinating legal support and countering the negative portrayal of protests, even more important.

As we said at a TNI workshop held in Salento in southern Italy in October 2018, 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 organisations like Netpol who 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.

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

Netpol (the Network for Police Monitoring) is a collective of experienced activists, campaigners, lawyers and researchers challenging disproportionate or excessive public order policing at protests and against local communities. We support a more cohesive voice for independent frontline groups within the mainstream debate around civil liberties in England and Wales. Netpol’s website is at netpol.org

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