- Created: Tuesday, 15 February 2011 14:38
‘Law should be used as just another weapon in the government’s arsenal, and in this case it becomes little more than a propaganda cover for the disposal of unwanted members of the public.’ Brigadier General Frank Kitson, Head of UK Land Forces
In November and December 2010, youth took to the streets in their thousands to protest against attacks on education. The violence that confronted them was not the result of ‘excess’ by ‘out of control’ police officers but was, rather, of a conscious state strategy developed over the past four decades. Joseph Eskovitchl reports.
In London especially, the action of police was a highly-organised public order operation. Students faced Police Support Units trained to deal with protests and riot police equipped with acrylic glass riot shields, 26-inch Arnold batons, visored ‘NATO’ helmets, reinforced steel toe-capped boots and fireproof overalls. Stockpiles of CS gas, baton guns and plastic bullets, as well as Specialist Firearms Officers, were all available if police lost control of the situation. Specialist Forward Intelligence Teams undertook overt mass surveillance, feeding intelligence back and forth from the Criminal Intelligence database, while officers from the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit monitored key individual targets. Helicopters surveyed all from above.
The state ultimately depends on armed force. The ability to use force does not primarily depend upon equipment and training but upon the balance of political forces. In 1969, historian Eric Hobsbawm commented that whenever crises threatened to become unmanageable, the ‘politically decisive section’ of Britain’s ruling class could always afford the ‘modest cost’ of conciliating a significant section of the working-class majority. ‘By the standards of other leading industrial countries hardly any blood has been shed in Britain (as distinct from colonies or dependencies) in defence of the political and economic system for more than a century.’ However, since then a fundamental change in the state’s policing of dissent within Britain has been underway. Methods of policing used in the former British colonies and the North of Ireland were adopted in Britain in the 1980s, in preparation for containing and subduing any revolt against the conditions that the growing capitalist crisis would inflict.
Under the influence of Brigadier General Frank Kitson, head of UK Land Forces, military experiments in counter-insurgency were tested against the nationalist uprising in the North of Ireland. Techniques were pioneered in intelligence gathering, ‘false flag’ operations, psychological warfare, mass population control and targeted assassination campaigns against political opponents. The uprisings of inner-city youth against police repression in 1980 and 1981 caught the police on the back foot. In 1982, Kenneth Newman, formerly Chief of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), was appointed Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. While in Ireland, Newman established a system of institutionalised torture of Republican prisoners and, following Kitson’s theories, sought to criminalise the anti-imperialist struggle. In 1983, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) issued a secret handbook to its members, the Public Order Manual, which codified an end to traditional ‘policing by consent’ and the implementation of a policing philosophy based on the colonial experiences of the RUC in occupied Ireland and the paramilitary Royal Hong Kong Police. Police using the new approach were mobilised against striking miners in 1984-85 and the black community of Broadwater Farm in Tottenham in1985, amongst others – by now described as ‘the enemy within’.
The policeman’s friends
On the recent student protests, the Met police systematically clamped down on the right to freedom of assembly and protest, kettling thousands for hours in freezing conditions with no food, water or toilets; mercilessly attacking the crowd with shields, batons and horse charges; beating injured protesters and denying wounded people medical attention. On 9 December, Alfie Meadows, a 20-year-old student, was struck on the head by a police baton and suffered bleeding to the brain, coming within minutes of death as police delayed him getting treatment. Activist Jody McIntyre was twice pulled from his wheelchair by police and dragged across the ground. Royal Protection Officers claimed to have come ‘within seconds’ of opening fire with live ammunition on the demonstrators who targeted Prince Charles’ and Camilla’s Rolls-Royce.
However, state strategy extends beyond shows of force on the streets. One of Kitson’s key counter-insurgency tenets was to ‘associate the many prominent members of the population, especially those who may have been engaged in non-violent action, with the government’ while at the same time trying to ‘discover and neutralise the genuine subversive element’. The focus of the police and the state in relation to the student movement has been to divide the movement. They claim to uphold the democratic right to assembly and to welcome those who protest peacefully. In reality, they criminalise any effective protest. As we wrote in FRFI 31 in 1983: ‘Only ineffectual political activity limited to establishment bodies and parliamentary debate will be regarded as legitimate. Anything else is outside the bounds of legitimate “democratic” opposition and must be dealt with as “a threat to public order”.’
It is crucial for the police and the ruling class that ‘moderate elements’ are drawn to the government side and that ‘violence’ and ‘disorder’ are condemned on all sides, but especially by elements within the movement itself. The ability of police to engage in repressive public order strategies is dependent on the alignment of political forces; it is in this context that statements in the wake of the Millbank occupation, by Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU, condemning ‘the actions of a minority’ or by NUS president Aaron Porter that the ‘actions of a minority of idiots are trying to undermine 50,000 who came to make a peaceful protest’ are so important to the ruling class. On 10 November, Employment and Learning Minister Danny Kennedy stated, ‘The democratic right to protest carries with it the responsibility to do so in a peaceful, law-abiding fashion. Instead, today saw... our nation’s capital city scarred by mob violence. I am glad that the leadership of the NUS has seen fit to condemn this thuggery.’
Any military or policing action must be judged by its political significance in the overall context of crushing and isolating genuine resistance. In the wake of the April 2009 G20 protest, the Met police was forced onto a public relations offensive after public disgust at the unjustified levels of repression, culminating in the killing of Ian Tomlinson by a riot officer with his number concealed, and the subsequent cover-up. Pressure forced a report from the Met, two parliamentary inquiries and an official review by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, and a later report from the Metropolitan Police Authority, all critical of the police’s tactics, prompting a temporary hands-off approach to protest. The Millbank occupation provided the opportunity for aggressive public order policing to be presented as not only justified, but necessary, as the student movement grew.
What is essential for the state is to have its use of violence widely accepted as necessary. Collusion with the police by organisations such as the NUS, student unions in places like Swansea and Leicester, which condemned the Millbank occupation, and some in the UCU who did the same, helped ensure this.
The role of the law
The judiciary and media are central to this process. Kitson’s recommendation has been taken to heart – the ‘law should be used as just another weapon in the government’s arsenal, and in this case it becomes little more than a propaganda cover for the disposal of unwanted members of the public.’ On 11 January, in sentencing 18-year-old Edward Woollard to 32 months’ imprisonment for throwing a fire extinguisher off the roof of Millbank tower during protests, Judge Rivlin stated, ‘The right of peaceful protest is a precious one. Those who abuse it and use the occasion to indulge in serious violence must expect a lengthy sentence of immediate custody.’ The judge spoke of the court’s duty to protect the community from violence. This presumably does not include protection from the police, who have launched Operation Malone to hunt down, capture and make an example out of students involved in the protests to deter others, and who are currently trawling through hundreds of hours of CCTV and periodically issuing photos and videos of ‘violent suspects’ (young protesters) for publication by the media.
The media has played a crucial role in criminalising the student protests through hysterical reporting, as with the attack on Prince Charles’ car, and downright distortion, like the BBC’s reporting of the Met’s brazen denials of mounted charges on 24 November, despite clear evidence to the contrary. For many, Ben Brown’s interview with Jody McIntyre on BBC news, in which he repeatedly accused Jody of somehow inciting the police violence against himself, marked the low point of this. But as Jody McIntyre himself stated, ‘we must appreciate the role of the BBC in the British media. The BBC is state television; why is it that we are so happy to condemn the state media of other nations, but then refer to our own as “impartial”, or are remotely surprised when they show bias? As the state media of our country, the role of the BBC is to protect the interests of the government through its coverage. Simple as that!’
Britain’s National DNA Database is the largest in the world, and the Met’s Criminal Intelligence database details political affiliations of people attending political events of any kind. Recent revelations show the use of undercover police officers to infiltrate and provoke protest movements. The British police are now organised like an occupation army, with the mass of the population targeted as the potential enemy within.
The student protests have developed largely outside the control of the Labour Party and opportunists, developing creative new forms of direct action and civil disobedience, fighting magnificently over the past two months and sending a chilling signal to the ruling class that, outside the broken windows of the Treasury and the Supreme Court, all is not well.
FRFI 219 February / March 2011