Clapham Common: policing protest

15 Mar

Will Met Commissioner Cressida Dick, Britain’s highest ranking police officer, fall on her sword? It seems likely, though she’s come out fighting amid widespread criticism from unusually high places of her force’s conduct at Clapham Common on Saturday night.1  More than a thousand people, mainly but not exclusively women, had gathered at a Reclaim These Streets vigil – and protest – following the South London murder last week of Sarah Everard.

The Met having banned the gathering under coronavirus legislation, the event organisers had sought to overturn it under right of assembly laws. At the High Court the day before, Mr Justice Holgate had refused to do so, in a ruling Liberty lawyer Lana Adamou called “concerning”:

Safe, socially distanced demonstrations are perfectly possible and it is the duty of the police to facilitate them, not block them.

In the ensuing confusion, it’s likely many stayed away who might otherwise have come.

The thousand or more who did show up at Clapham Common, many bearing flowers for Sarah, faced heavy handed policing of a piece with that at the G7, Occupy, environmental and many other protests – and of course the titanic clashes of earlier decades, such as at Orgreave 1984. This time an extra dimension was added by the fact that, as the Met’s foot soldiers confronted the peaceful crowd, one of their own stands charged with Sarah’s murder.

Some images and video footage can be seen in the previous post.

Writing in yesterday’s Guardian, Lady Shami Chakrabarti – former Liberty Director, and Shadow Attorney General – offered the following. I replicate in full, with some commentary.

After the Sarah Everard vigil scandal, who still thinks the police need extra powers?

The Peterloo massacre in 1819, the abuses of the suffragettes in the early 20th century, the killing of Blair Peach in 1979, the recent “spy cops” scandal: there have been many dark moments in Britain’s history of policing and protest. To this long list we must now add the scandalous police response to a public vigil held on Clapham Common, south London, marking the disappearance and death of Sarah Everard. That this brutal reaction to the women who gathered to remember her was presided over by the first female Metropolitan police commissioner and the fourth female home secretary is a bitter feminist irony. It should be a reminder that we need to change how the system works, not just the faces that govern it.

Me, I’d have added police thuggery in industrial struggles, most infamously Orgreave, but that may be “too political” for a House of Lords member. Otherwise fair points all, including the mild irony of Dick not having one.2  Ditto her current boss, the awful Priti Patel.

The pandemic has created an opportunity to crack down on peaceful protests. Under current social-distancing laws, gatherings of more than two people are forbidden in most circumstances. But regardless of this legal framework, the Met is still obliged to follow the Human Rights Act, which stipulates that power should be exercised proportionately and only when necessary. The purpose of policing isn’t primarily enforcement, let alone brutality: it is to keep the peace. What happened on Saturday is now infamous, documented in widely shared images and videos of uniformed officers manhandling peaceful female protesters to the chants of “Shame on you”.

Credit to the less swivel-eyed wing of lockdown opposition. It has warned all along, and rightly so, that state powers grabbed amid moral panic are surrendered with the greatest reluctance.

Under current lockdown rules, the organisers of the Reclaim These Streets vigil acted impeccably. They offered to work with the police to ensure the planned one-hour vigil was calm and socially distanced, complete with volunteer stewards so that public safety could for the most part be self-policed. Given that a police officer has been charged in connection with the death of Sarah Everard, you might have expected the Met to have gratefully accepted this plan. Indeed, this seems to be what happened at borough command level, before Scotland Yard intervened. This catastrophic misjudgment appears to have come from high up, as Reclaim These Streets resorted to a high court application to ensure the vigil could go ahead (the judge recommended that organisers and police continue to talk).

As a lawyer, Sharmi Chakrabarti hardly needs me to tell her we all do well to tread carefully on the charging of Wayne Couzens. Cop or not, he is innocent until proved guilty.

A change of leadership at the top of the Met now seems inevitable. But politicians and commentators have equal cause for reflection. Women have frequently complained that the justice system doesn’t take violence against them seriously, warning that low levels of rape prosecutions by the Crown Prosecution Service effectively decriminalise one of the gravest crimes.

Almost five years ago, I wrote about tensions between social justice (under-reporting of and low conviction rates for rape) and the individual justice on which Roman Law is founded. Women are not the only group affected by this tension, of course, which is why victims of capitalism’s crimes – super-exploitation, murderous sanctions and acts of war attendant on neocolonial plunder of the global south; casualisation in the north – find scant redress in court.

But that five year old post – Sex Crime – can we ever get it right? – confined its scope to the theme given in the title. By “we” I meant Britain and by extension the West. Since I wrote it, my condemnation of capitalist society, the imperialist nations especially, has hardened, broadened, and deepened. But though its tone now strikes me as flawed by an excess of  liberal humanism, I stand by the substantive content.

Low conviction rates, on top of all [the victims] endure in court, keep rape hideously under reported. But while more can be done, like removing the defendant’s right to personally cross examine a victim, there’s only so far we can go down that path without eroding the right to a fair trial. In those rape cases (i.e. most) where what is contested is not that there was sex but whether it was consensual, can the conflicting demands of individual and social justice ever be fully reconciled?

The 1992 trial of world heavyweight champ Mike Tyson highlights the dilemma. Personal traits that made this man a plausible rapist made him an equally plausible sting victim. Here too the issue was one of consent, so hard evidence barely featured. The prosecution told one story, the defence another, then the jury got to say which story it liked best. But Tyson, with thuggish past and record of savagery in the ring, was also a wealthy man. After the trial jury found, largely on the basis of her performance on the stand, that Desiree Washington had indeed been raped by Tyson, she sued him for millions. You see the problem …

As lawyer, human rights activist and baroness, it is natural for Lady Chakrabarti to look to the courts, and the rigged deck of a game fundamentally skewed by class as well as patriarchy, for justice. Some circles, however, cannot be squared.

Much of this is no doubt down to austerity. But there is also the separate issue of public appearances. Though our elected representatives seem desperate to appear tough on law and order, this same concern doesn’t appear to extend to female victims of crime. How else could politicians have voted in support of the “spy cops” bill, which grants total immunity to undercover agents who commit crimes while infiltrating criminal gangs, despite the reality that many of the victims of historical abuses have been women?

Good point, well made.

Since Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests took place in April last year, the Met commissioner, Cressida Dick, has publicly requested greater police powers to curb peaceful dissent. When XR blocked access to three printing presses owned by Rupert Murdoch in September, accusing newspapers of failing to report on the climate crisis, many politicians and commentators fell over one another to side with Murdoch over the climate protesters. Those who didn’t care about defending protesters’ rights when they were considered too green, or too black, have now woken up to find that a vigil for Sarah Everard has been broken up with a callous police response.

My views on the corruption of our media – hence our ‘democracy’ – have been too often stated on this site to need repeating here. But as she does in her opening paragraph, Lady Chakrabarti pays homage to environmental protest and BLM – but not, Peterloo 1819 aside – class struggle.

Too dangerous?

And now, as if to crown this dystopian moment, the home secretary, Priti Patel, will seek a second reading for the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill, which would grant Dick further powers. Its contents are dangerous and its timing in particularly bad taste. Labour has pledged to vote against the bill, which will curb protests if they “result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation” or have a “relevant impact on persons in the vicinity”. This is the very definition of a peaceful street demonstration. The bill’s explanatory notes, which deal with police powers to tackle “non-violent protests”, are worryingly authoritarian: they criticise current “gaps” in the law, and its limited focus on protests that are “violent or distressing to the public”.

This is not the only incidence of unfortunate timing for the police. At the time of the 2009 death of Ian Tomlinson, the newspaper vendor who died after being struck by a City of London cop at G-20 Summit protests he had been caught up in, the Police Federation had been pushing for the filming or photographing of police at work to be criminalised. An inquest jury found the killing unlawful and PC Simon Harwood, though later acquitted of manslaughter, was dismissed. Save for damning footage taken by scores of protesters, and viewed the world over, Harwood would likely still be a serving officer, maybe now a sergeant or inspector.

(It is still lawful, for now, to film or photograph UK police at work, subject to not getting in their way.)

Conservatives seem to have conveniently forgotten that free speech is a two-way street. It isn’t just for those with the privilege of weekly columns in British newspapers. Noisy protesters bearing placards are exercising this same right to free speech. The events on Saturday have made it clearer than ever that what is needed isn’t further police powers. There have been many dark days in our history of policing and protest. We owe it to Sarah Everard to wake up and turn on some lights.

Hear hear. And, not least because I have two daughters of similar age, I want not to lose sight in any of this of a young woman cut down in her prime, nor of what she may have suffered in her last hours and minutes, nor yet of the unimaginable anguish of those who loved her. But forgive my finding the claim that “free speech is a two way street” hopelessly naive. On what planet could free speech be a two way street while we have media, social media not excluded, not just largely in the hands of an oligarchy but – more corrosive because more covert – subject to the reactionary discipline of market forces?

* * *

  1. Cressida Dick to resign? This post was published at 07:34 today, March 15. At 13:59 the Guardian was saying not only that Boris Johnson and policing minister Kit Malthouse are backing her. So is Reclaim These Streets. Said spokesperson Anna Birley: “We are a movement of women seeking to support and empower other women, and as one of the most senior women in British policing history, we do not want to add to the pile-on.”
  2. Update 16/3/21. I call the irony, of what Chakrabarti rightly calls a brutal reaction, mild where she calls it bitter. We both refer to the fact of the Met Commissioner and home secretary being women. The stronger word, bitter, arises from unrealistic expectations born of flawed analyses and further reflected in RST support for Commissioner Dick – footnote 1 – on the ground she is a woman.

4 Replies to “Clapham Common: policing protest

  1. Cressida Dick being backed up by the tories? Maybe they have at last remembered what the police are really there for? Which is of course to be the principal arm of the state to defend itself against physical action from the populace. They seemed to have forgotten that when May was Home Secretary, but while this present one is perhaps the dimmest and most talentless ever, their right wing cronies may be reminding them who they will need if push comes to shove over the next decade or so.

    • Cressida Dick being backed up by the tories

      More to the point, as it seems to me apropos discussions sparked by my coverage of the small vigil at Nottingham, is Reclaim These Streets backing her.

      I have been taken politely to task over said coverage by a few individuals, you included. I went to that Nottingham vigil to stand with the grieving. Had it been simply a vigil I’d have written a short and respectfully ‘non political’ report, or nothing at all. But since socialist perspectives were banned, while the permitted speaker indulged in what I saw as a dead end rant, with zero evidence she is mandated to speak for Everywoman – and much anecdotal evidence that she is not – I gave my own perspective. I stand by it. RTS backing of Dick – or to be precise, its rationale for doing so – is one of my reasons. That backing strikes me as scarcely different from the thinking (I’m sure you and I see eye to eye on this) of those who berated all who would not support Hillary against Donald in 2016, and were silent when a black president and female Secretary of State laid Libya to waste.

      (As I never tire of saying, to those unaccustomed to factoring the global south into their world views, the victims of ‘our’ wars on that south are not only predominantly brown-skinned. They are also disproportionately female.)

      It’s true of course that my perspective is even less representative than that speaker’s. But this is beside the point when I am urged to be ‘respectfully’ silent in the face of a woman’s anger at men (including those who troubled to come to that vigil in the first place) and when women and men take to social media with ‘solutions’ I say have never worked and will not work now.

      Perhaps the most constructive comment on that Nottingham post came from a good and wise friend. In a separate email to me, she sought to bridge the gap:

      I get your ennui and despair about this kind of speech. On the point of hearing nothing you didn’t hear 45 years ago, maybe that’s because so little is different. The men can’t tell women how to think and feel thing is a repeat pattern of a lot of what’s said by those on the wrong side of oppressive practices. Jews only can say what is and isn’t antisemitism. Black people don’t want to be told by whites about racism. If you question this you’re just showing that you’re part of the problem they would say. Happens with the whole trans thing as well. However maddening this may be and however it may sometimes stifle real debate that might lead to understanding and change, there is a little truth in there as well. If certain groups have accrued benefits from being on top in a systemic inequality, can what they have to say be totally trusted? I get that there would be scepticism from the oppressed. It’s not simple to navigate and in attempting to do so good people will feel hurt and misunderstood.

      • The observation ‘being on top in a systemic inequality’ is spot on. Yet some underlying assumptions require further consideration.

        One of which is that being ‘systemic’ means the the process – its problematic issues – operates (works) both ways.; ie it is not limited to one demographic. As succinctly laid out here:

        The point being that whoever happens to be ‘on top’ makes little difference when they are merely perpetuating the same systemic process and associated problematic issues. Any support for Cressida Dick on grounds that she needs to be supported because she has got to the ‘top of a systemic inequality’ misses the point and fails on its own criteria when, as Rania Khalek points out in the above video link, that same ‘systemic’ inequality’ is being perpetuated.

        Whoever happens to be “top” in any systemic inequality – whether its CEO’s of so called ‘defence industries’ ; Military Generals; Police Chiefs; Politicians; whatever – if the same ‘systemic inequalities’ are being perpetuated any characteristic based criteria for giving a free pass represents a failure to tackle the ‘systemic inequalities’.

        The replacement of one characteristic with another does not change the systemic inequality. Whoever was in charge of the operation which in effect resulted in the State sanctioned murder of Jean Charles de Menezes, regardless of sex or gender characteristics, should never have been subsequently promoted to The “top” job. Supporting them is thus merely perpetuating the same ‘systemic inequality.’

        Secondly, there is what Pirsig described in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance a blade so sharp operating here you can barely see it. Its called The hierarchy of oppression. Where some ‘systemic inequalities’ are considered more unequal than others.

        The result of which is that instead of dealing with those ‘systemic inequalities ‘ a divide and rule race to the bottom ensues in which characteristics suffering specific inequalities based on those characteristics compete against each other like they were mere consumers in a market place. Often resulting in unnecessary conflict.

        One descriptive observation recently supplied to me by a biological female- which I rewrite rather than quote verbatim – being the following:

        RTS generates a great deal of noise in regard to male violence. Yet when the male takes on a female persona the default position of RTS in every and all cases is of female and by definition must be therefore non-violent in all cases.

        The funding page specifically states they will only donate to ‘inclusive’ organisations, failing to realise that as a result the exclusion of the group they set up to support is taking place.

        No amount of sophistry or wishful thinking is going to make that objective reality go away or disappear. Simply asserting as a matter of individual opinion that such problematic issues do not and cannot exist on the basis of a subjective based reality offers no way forward out of the ‘systemic inequality.’

        • Great video, linked after paragraph 2 in your comment. Oh, hang on a minute. It’s on RT, née Russia Today. That means it’s propaganda, right?


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