Monday, September 09, 2013

controlling dissent with mass arrests

On Saturday thousands of people took to the London streets in a counter-demonstration to a march by 500 racist knuckle-draggers of the English Defence League (not to be confused with the real EDL). Sections of the mass rally went outside of the police's designated area. They were kettled (ie surrounded by police and not allowed to leave) for seven hours, then arrested. The police had already hired numerous buses to cart them away.

The police said there had been about 150 arrests. Filling five buses to capacity and driving them away is clearly more than that. Like their habitual underestimation of the size of demonstrations, it's a childish way to discredit the dissent, and yet the media happily parrot it.

On Sunday they finally revised the figure upwards to 286, a figure that tallied with estimates given all along by eyewitnesses. They had been bussed out to Surrey, held for hours, and then all of them released without charge but with police bail conditions


Mass arrest is a tactic that has been developed to stifle protest that is deemed politically undesirable.

In April 2009 Nottinghamshire police arrested all 114 climate activists at a meeting planning to shut down Ratcliffe on Soar coal fired power station. They weren't intending to prosecute a large proportion of them. Only 26 came to court.

Fortunately for the defendants, between their arrest and trial they discovered that one of their number was in fact undercover police officer Mark Kennedy. They asked to see what reports he'd made, as the defence have a right to see evidence that may be helpful to them. Rather than do this, the state dropped the trial of six people, and the earlier convictions of the other 20 were quashed.

In Saturday's context, I can't help wondering if we would even have fascists marching on our streets if the BNP and EDL's rise hadn't been so ably assisted by sending Mark Kennedy and other undercover police officers in to disrupt effective anti-fascist work over the last decade.

But whatever, the Ratcliffe arrests heralded the modern use of mass arrests of dissenting activists. Two years later the Metropolitan Police made a their record mass arrest of an even larger number. Then a year later they broke their record. And now a year after that, on Saturday, they've broken it again.


In March 2011 anti-cuts protesters occupied tax-dodgers Fortnum and Mason. As the video shows, Chief Inspector Clare Clarke was there and told them they were 'sensible and non-violent' and that they would be free to go. Her officers then released them into a pre-arranged kettle outside where an officer said, 'yes, you're free to leave – to the police station. You're going to be arrested.'

All 145 were then arrested and taken away. Many were held for 18 hours and had their phones, clothes and shoes confiscated.

They were the vast majority of those arrested on the entire day's protests, and the Home Secretary told parliament it was a 'message to those who carry out violence'. Between them, the Fortnum's 145 had been responsible for minor damage to an Easter egg.

The police are not distinguishing between protesters on grounds of their propensity for violence, but on their propensity for autonomy and disobedience. If you're active outside of the controlled system of grey politics, and especially if - as with the likes of UK Uncut or Climate Camp - you're really catching on, then you will be clamped down on and mass arrested. Meanwhile, of Saturday's easily corralled fascists, only 14 were arrested.

The 145 Fortnum protesters were given charges, but these were later dropped against the vast majority and only a handful were convicted.


On the evening of last year's Olympics opening ceremony 182 Critical Mass cyclists were pushed off their bikes and kettled by the Met. As this comprehensive eyewitness account with video shows, it was done in a needlessly aggressive manner.

Held for hours in handcuffs - some on buses, some in a windowless bare concrete police garage - until being put in police stations during the night, all but four were released without charge, yet they had their bikes confiscated and, of course, all had bail conditions. Only nine were charged and five convicted. Again, this is not about court cases, it's about stifling protest.

On Saturday 286 people were kettled for hours, arrested for longer, then given restrictive bail conditions, yet none of them have been charged with anything at all.


The Met are taking their 'total policing' slogan very seriously indeed. This is total political policing, pure and simple. It makes anyone who was there reluctant to come back for future protests if they're not up for a night in the cells and finding their way home from another county. It makes their mates hear the story and think it all sounds a bit much to get involved in.

Irrespective of whether you come back, it means the police have already collected names, addresses, fingerprints, DNA, and anything else they can wheedle out of you. Again, this sounds daunting to those you tell it to, and it also allows the police to build their databases and target their surveillance.

Saturday's counter-demo was addressed by Max Levitas, veteran of the Battle of Cable Street 77 years ago. Then as now, fascists were marching on the East end of London. Levitas and his comrades took to the streets to stop them. It was a defining moment in stopping the rise of the far right in the 1930s. They succeeded precisely because they did not not comply with the wishes of the government and police. It's to their proven vision and methods we should turn for inspiration and guidance.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thinking about Cable Street - this is footage from the time, put to music by The men They Couldn't Hang
Ghosts of Cable Street