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farmers in Lancashire were arrested for minor offences at anti-fracking protests found that their shotgun licences had been revoked without explanation.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.