Aaron Porter, the NUS leader who has consistently condemned violence and property damage on demonstrations, has now joined ex cop Brian Paddick in calling for the Met to improve its intelligence gathering.
The best case scenario is Mr Porter is ignorant and should talk to a few of the activists and organisers who have been at the sharp end of police intelligence gathering over the last decade.
From past experiences, this is a snapshot of what student activists might expect from ‘improved’ intelligence and data gathering:
• Having to run a gauntlet of police and police cameras just to get to a planning or preparation meeting, never mind a demo;
• FIT teams ‘accompanying’ known activists on demonstrations, even to the point of following them back to their family home, place of work, or in one well documented case to their grandmothers nursing home;
• Thousands of students’ names and details placed on Criminal Intelligence or Domestic Extremism databases;
• Finding a police officer you’ve never seen before knows your name and personal details about you;
• A range of ‘disruption’ activities, to undermine and make life difficult for organisers and activist groups including excessive stop and searches (often many times in one day) and arbitrary arrests. This can also include undercover police officers getting involved with and disrupting activist meetings
• Trolling of websites with a targeted police ‘message’;
• Kettles, kettles and more kettles – they are so useful for data gathering, and for disrupting protest;
• Stop and search, breach of the peace arrests, and accusations of ‘anti-social behaviour’, all tried and trusted methods of getting the personal details of protesters
Over the last decade, the target of police intelligence hasn’t been the so-called criminal element, but the organiser, the facilitator, the groups who get active and make protest happen. These are the people most likely to feel the brunt of police tactics, and suffer real harassment for daring to organise demonstrations. However, the objective is to frighten away as many as possible, including those ‘on the periphery’ - the large contingent who support what is going on, but who may not have the commitment to keep going when the going gets tough.
Police intelligence gathering and ‘disruption’ doesn’t just prevent criminal activity – it seeks to deter people from getting involved in any protest at which criminality can occur. In effect, this means any they don’t like and certainly any with the audacity to not stick to a state approved A-B route or a protest pen.
The ‘harassment style policing’ of intelligence teams has a much greater effect on our civil liberties and our ability to organise and protest than any number of water cannons or horse charges, and must be opposed. As usual, Aaron Porter should be a lot more careful about what he says.
This was, according to the police, an entirely peaceful march, with no criminal offences taking place. It was predominantly a trade union march, upbeat and with plenty of colourful banners. Yet the police still insisted on imposing strict conditions on the route, refusing to allow the march anywhere near the Conservative Party conference which was the focus of the protests. These conditions were ‘robustly’ enforced with ten foot metal cordons, dogs and huge numbers of police officers.
When, towards the end of the march, some from the anarchist block decided to force the point and leave the authorised route, they were immediately ‘kettled’ - surrounded and held by police and dog units. The fifty or so in the kettle were pushed and shoved towards the car park where coaches were waiting, and were told they would be searched and released. Police cameramen carefully filmed each person as they were searched, getting close up shots of head and shoulders, clothing, shoes and ‘identifying features’. Police also demanded they give their name and address on film. The legality of all this is dubious - the Public Order Act (section 60) gives the police powers to search people for weapons but not, as they did here, to gather intelligence for their database while they are doing it.
When about half of the group objected to being filmed in this way, and refused to co-operate with the search while police cameras were present, the police response was to search them by force. At least one protester was left with severe bruising, another missing clumps of hair. None of the searches resulted in anything ‘untoward’ being found, there were no items seized and no arrests.
Generally the surveillance, while often discrete, was ever present. A large police mobile CCTV van (bearing the words Football Operations) was parked at the march start point. The National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), the unit that exists to keep tabs on ‘domestic extremists’ were there too, gathering their own ‘intel’. A very expensive police helicopter hovered above. And police cameramen took photographs from windows of a number of buildings lining the route (out of reach of Fitwatchers!).
Given the extent of surveillance of their members on this march, it is remarkable (though perhaps not surprising) that the unions don’t do more to question where the line is between ‘facilitating’ protest, and controlling political expression.