Policing politics in Glasgow

After six months of consistent work by FRFI in the working-class community of Govanhill on the southside of Glasgow, local police began attempts to shut down our stalls outside Lidl supermarket on Victoria Road. This was the first time in recent memory that police have tried to prevent a political stall taking place in Govanhill or indeed any part of Glasgow, where many left groups every week sell and distribute political literature openly in the city centre without permits. Ian MacInnes, community councillor and a long-time resident of Govanhill, told FRFI: ‘For 30 years people have used this Victoria Road location to promote their party, their campaign and have erected paste tables to make a stall for this purpose. By custom and practice this public space has become recognised as an alternative source of info and opinion and almost as a sort of speakers’ corner in Govanhill.’ Joseph Eskovitchlreports.

On 13 July, two supporters of FRFI were charged by police in Govanhill under section 7 of the Civic Government of Scotland Act 1982 for trading without a street licence. A stall and 13 copies of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! were seized and arrests threatened. One officer, when questioned about the legal basis of his actions, responded: ‘The law has nothing to do with me.’ On 5 August two FRFI supporters leafleting outside Laurieston Job Centre had their names and details taken by police following calls by security guards inside. Then on 7 August a third supporter of FRFI was charged with illegal street trading and 27 copies of the newspaper seized. This time, four separate police officers, as well as two community support officers and a community CCTV van, were involved in the harassment throughout the day. Four days later, FRFI supporters attended a meeting of the Left Society at Glasgow University to discuss action against a proposed march by the racist Scottish Defence League in September. Two officers arrived early to instruct janitors that the meeting had been cancelled and questioned those who turned up, blocking the entrance to the room before eventually leaving.

As a result of these attacks on democratic rights and blatant examples of political policing, FRFI in Glasgow established the Govanhill Defence Campaign. The GDC was formed to ‘build maximum unity of all progressive and democratic organisations, groups and people to defend and extend our political rights.’ Leaflets were produced and distributed around the local community, detailing the harassment and a blog set up with a log of all incidents of political policing in recent months, with the officers involved named and identified. The following Saturday, three officers and a Chief Inspector approached the stall in Govanhill. This time no one was charged and no material seized. The GDC stated: ‘Recent events are clearly political in nature and can only be fought through a political battle on the streets. The police are now aware that their harassment will be met with organised, public opposition and now have to think carefully about whether or not to pursue their current course. It is not the law which changed from the previous Saturday. It is the establishment of the GDC which has made the difference.’

This was enough to grab the attention of the Chief Inspector of Gorbals police station, who took contact details of GDC members from online articles and phoned to arrange an ‘adult discussion’ about recent events. On 24 August supporters met with CI Stephen McAllister to demand the dropping of charges and return of material. During the meeting, McAllister several times insisted that to think that the actions of his officers were political was ‘a nonsense’, the police being an ‘apolitical organisation’. He stated it was a ‘huge leap of the imagination to think that Strathclyde police are against work in opposition to racism and fascism’.

The Chief Inspector is entitled to his views. But to anyone involved in progressive political activity, or simply living in working-class areas, the reality is clear, despite the slick public relations exercise of community policing. To those local residents who faced hundreds of police officers, mounted charges and helicopter surveillance as police forcefully ended the occupation of Govanhill’s historic swimming baths in 2001, the idea of political police is no ‘nonsense’. Kevin S, now 28, took part in the defence of the pool as a teenager when it was stormed by the police. ‘It was one of the only times I’ve seen Govanhill united, white, Asian, everyone was together,’ he told FRFI. ‘The police were scared. Then they started charging horses at the people sitting down on the street, disabled people were sitting there. One of my pals got trampled by a police horse.’ A young Slovak teenager, who has lived in Govanhill for five years, gave FRFI some idea as to why Strathclyde police’s commitment to anti-racism could also be doubted. After being chased by a local white gang with knives, he spoke to police on Allison Street where they now have a permanent presence. ‘One of the officers just told me to “fuck off”. They don’t care about us. I think they are encouraging the young team to chase us.’ The same officer was involved in the seizure of FRFI material.

The fight for democratic rights is a crucial one for all progressive political groups and campaigns to unite around. Without the ability to be on the streets in working-class areas, talking to people, organising, distributing literature and supporting community struggles, socialist and anti-imperialist politics cannot be effective. On 14 September, Chief Superintendent Derek Barnett, the president of the Police Superintendents’ Association, said in a speech to his members: ‘In an environment of cuts across the wider public sector, we face a period where disaffection, social and industrial tensions may well rise. We will require a strong, confident, properly trained and equipped police service.’ He suggested widespread disorder is ‘inevitable’ at some point and that there ‘would be consequences’ if cuts were too severe. Cuts to police budgets, that is.

Tory Home Secretary Theresa May accused Barnett of scaremongering but the British ruling class will surely be calculating to what extent the forces of repression must be saved from the cuts to contain these coming struggles. If police harassment is not fought, no campaign against the austerity programme is possible. On 31 August, Glasgow City Council announced proposals seeking to ban marches and parades from the city centre and imposing other restrictions on the right of assembly. While the vast majority of time and resources spent on parades for 2009-10 was taken up by supremacist Orange parades (332 out of a total of 500), the new restrictions will apply to Irish republican groups and trade unionists, and presumably anti-cuts and anti-war demonstrators. The council has said that ‘at this critical time for the economy any potential disruption to the city centre is a major factor which must be taken into account.’ In Glasgow – ‘Scotland with style’ – the right to shop trumps the right to march, at least in the eyes of the city council’s corrupt Labour elite.

FRFI has also insisted that the recent harassment of political activists is linked to wider developments in society as a whole. Glasgow is one of the most unequal places in Europe. 11,288 millionaires in a city with the worst unemployment, drug overdose, lung cancer and knife crime statistics in Britain. A French journalist recently writing on ‘Glasgow’s two nations,’ noted: ‘Just as in the 19th century, the wretched poor live alongside the philanthropic rich.’[1] The social fallout of this inequality – built on decades of deindustrialisation, privatisation, falling investment and deregulated markets – has been met with the criminalisation, control and displacement of the working class. The researcher Neil Gray, a supporter of the Govanhill Defence Campaign, has commented on how discourses of ‘blight’ and ‘decay’ are ‘mobilised as neo-liberal alibis to stigmatise places targeted for “renewal”’ ie gentrification.[2] Today in Govanhill, under headlines of ‘Govanhell’, ‘Ground Zero’, ‘Europe’s murder capital’ – an entire community is stigmatised. The police are there at every step to enforce this political designation of Govanhill. On 17 September, while collecting quotes from a group of Roma youths on Allison Street for this article, two officers approached an FRFI activist and demanded his details and to see a ‘journalist card’. They claimed the comrade was acting ‘suspicious’ by speaking to a group of people and having his bag open, which they then tried to search. The police said such suspicion was justified, since Govanhill was an area ‘rife with crime and disorder.’ In such an area, who is not a suspect?

The real criminals walk free. The slum landlords renting out hundreds of private properties to immigrant workers for £650 per month, overcrowded, without heating, running water and infested with cockroaches, with over 200 properties Govanhill without a toilet; the gang masters every morning driving dozens of migrant workers from Victoria Road to an Ayr potato factory to work for slave wages; the corrupt Labour councillors who shut down Govanhill Baths as it failed to fit with their slick, privatised visions of the city; the Scottish Government, which has so far spent £600 million on an M74 motorway extension two minutes north of Govanhill that even its own inquiry stated ‘would have an adverse affect on the local communities without providing local benefits’; the successive Labour and Tory governments which at every turn have sacrificed working-class communities to satisfy the demands of capital and private investment. These are the suspects responsible for crime and disorder.

A recent consultation by the Centre for Community Practice in Govanhill unsurprisingly reported ‘widespread disaffection with political process’ in the area.[3] A third of people when asked if they thought they could influence decisions in the area answered simply that they couldn’t. Another set of answers was captured in the following: ‘It doesn’t really matter who makes the decisions because it’s not us.’ There are not many in Govanhill with faith in the establishment. FRFI will continue to fight on the streets for a working-class politics capable of changing this rotten status quo. We will defend the right of anyone and any group to stand up against police harassment. So far, charges against two activists have been dropped but the frequency of political policing will only increase as the attacks on living standards begin to bite. We call on all progressives to support the Govanhill Defence Campaign and the fight for democratic rights.

On 22 September, a Chief Inspector known to FRFI was in Govanhill handing out a ‘public perception survey’ to local shoppers. It asked: ‘How does knowing that some local officers could carry a Taser on patrol make you feel?’ The next day, Chief Inspector of Constabulary Sir Denis O’Connor again protested against any cuts to police numbers and talked of ‘reclaiming the streets’. The battle begins here.

See campaign updates at http://govanhilldefencecampaign.blogspot.com or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

1 Julien Brygo, ‘Glasgow’s two nations’ in Le Monde Diplomatique September 2010

2 Neil Gray, ‘The Clyde Gateway: A New Urban Frontier’ in Variant Winter 2008

3 See Govanhill: ‘A Map of Assets report by Centre for Community Practice’. Report available from Govanhill Baths Community Trust on Calder Street, Glasgow

FRFI 217 October/November 2010


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