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Monday, August 23, 2004


Protests, Police and Political Persuasion

On Saturday lunchtime I was in Cardiff city centre and was witness to a Reclaim the Streets demonstration. I was amazed at the number of police in attendance at what seemed to be an entirely peaceful demonstration. Of course it caused some disruption, as a demonstration advocating reclaiming the streets must be. But whether there is a justification for forming a human wall of police officers around a demonstration, forcibly restricting the movement not just of the group en masse but of individuals, is a question that must be answered every time the police are deployed in such force.

Nevertheless, there were smaller groups of demonstrators involved in direct action outside the main body of the demonstration. I watched as several small groups blocked St. Mary’s Street, holding up the traffic for a short period of time before moving aside, allowing some traffic to pass and then blocking the road again. These roadblocks were temporary and dignified, even if one driver did physically push a demonstrator off the road. According to icWales ten demonstrators were arrested, but no details have been given of criminal charges or pending prosecutions. I will return to the icWales coverage later, as I will to the only example of aggressive act that I witnessed, except, of course, for the forceful corralling of the demonstration.

The main body of the demonstration was guided into Sophia Gardens, where they were loosely ringed by police officers. As I followed the progress of this demonstration I watched the two police cameramen. These filmed and took photographs of the both the demonstrators and in some cases spectators of the demonstration. I wondered what this surveillance was for. The demonstration was taking place in Cardiff city centre. Like all city centres it is dotted with CCTV cameras, which appear to prove sufficient to monitor and record acts of public disorder – genuine destruction and violence – that attends such disruptive occasions as football matches and Friday nights. But even if the CCTV surveillance was not available, the people being filmed and photographed were entirely encircled by the police and were behaving in an overwhelmingly peaceful manner. It is hard to argue that this was an effective or proportionate use of police resources in the collection of evidence of the commission of crimes.

So it seemed to me that the answer to the question - why did the police deploy cameramen at this protest? - was political. For a few moments I thought that I had found the answer in the collection of intelligence on groups that may engage in criminal activity. If we put aside the dubious nature of the practice in terms of civil liberties, we are still faced with a major problem of employing this explanation as our justification. That is; how would these hundreds of photos and several hours of video footage be filed? How could they be filed? If they simply rest in an archive marked ‘Reclaim the Streets, Cardiff, 2004’ then, not only what business is it of the police, but what use is it to them.

And then it struck me. I did not join in the protest. I did not even go and speak to anybody taking part. If I did, I would have had my picture taken and very possibly would have been confined and my movements controlled with the rest of the demonstration. This was an exercise in intimidation. Not of the demonstrators, but of the surrounding onlookers. Who would want to join in this protest unless they are entirely committed to the cause? The implication of the cameramen’s presence was not so much, ‘we’ve got a file on you, demonstrator’, but, ‘we’ll get a file on you, if you join in’. Much the same reasoning can be applied to the wall of police, which tells onlookers, ‘these are dangerous, violent extremists, so don’t join in’. When a demonstration is reduced to a rump of the highly committed, the arguments of the demonstration can be effectively delegitimised, being easy to represent as extreme and lacking broad support. Reports of the demonstration can say, ‘look, the demonstration was tiny and almost entirely composed of peacenik commie hippies’. This was, it seemed to me, to be a highly effective and covertly political strategy to discourage protest.

This argument is bolstered by a look at the policing and reporting of the fuel protests earlier this year. I watched the go-slow procession of trucks through Cardiff city centre earlier this year. The noise from their horns was deafening and the disruption to the movement of traffic was significantly greater. But I did not see a police presence of any significance, and if police cameramen were present they were particularly discreet. Why are these two events, demonstrations with much the same aim as regards civil disobedience, policed in such a markedly different manner? The answer must, in part lie with their diametrically opposed political agendas. Consider the coverage of the fuel protests on icWales. The fuel protests are covered in great context and the organisers and given suitable space to voice their opinions. In comparison, the coverage of the Reclaim the Streets demonstration has so far amounted to this:

Arrests at capital's reclaim the streets demo
Aug 22 2004
Laura Kemp, Wales on Sunday
TEN protesters were arrested in Cardiff city centre yesterday when a street party turned to chaos.
South Wales Police were called to the Reclaim The Streets demo at lunchtime when a number of the anti-capitalist group members stepped into the roads.
A police spokesman said: "As the protest developed some roads in Cardiff were obstructed for a very short time."
Chief Inspector Andy Morgan said: "The group has been allowed to hold its protest with minimum disruption."

'Minimum disruption’ and obstructions lasting ‘a very short time’ does not sound like chaos. Are we to assume that Laura Kemp is stupid for writing an article that is only 77 words long but is internally inconsistent? Or must we conclude that this is politically aligned reporting masquerading as unbiased journalism? The American line of objectivity often amounts to ‘no-context’ reporting. Be aware that only the headline and the first line of any report appear on the icWales news listings. Readers are presented with the words ‘arrests’ and ‘chaos’, fixing an image before the article is even read – if it is read. But by placing the moderate comments of Chief Inspector Morgan in the last lines Laura Kemp hopes to, and will be able to, sustain a defence of impartiality. A defence, of course, is quite different from a rigorously argued justification. That, she could not manage.

Where do I stand on the subject of Reclaim the Streets? First, I believe that the streets and other public spaces are a valuable resource for interpersonal interaction in any democracy. But I feel that they are effectively private property. The exploitation of public space is only allowed when there is a potential for profit. Why else would we permit 30,000 people to gather for a football match, or tolerate the levels of public disorder that are associated with alcohol consumption? Unlike a demonstration, these activities add nothing to our democracy, and democracy, as we have been told, is a state of government, perhaps the only state of government, worth killing and dying for. Yet football and booze are given privileges that democracy is not? Please excuse my bafflement.

I am also struck by the political role of the car. The car is a highly political object, why else would there be protests both for and against its use. Its political role goes further than arguments about the consumption of oil or the rate of fuel tax, however. Like all aspects of our physical environment, the car also shapes our thinking. And I am coming to believe that the car is an object that pushes people towards fascist tendencies. I do not use this word lightly. The car, it seems to me, acts to individualise everybody. Next time you watch rush-hour traffic, count the number of cars that contain only one person. Individualised, each person rarely considers the needs and desires of other road users. Consider the anger many placid people seem to develop once behind the wheel. Watch the mean, aggressive faces of the drivers at rush-hour. Other people are simply obstacles to be overcome by the action of the individual alone. Consider also the culture that develops around the car, celebrating force, in terms of speed and acceleration, and power, in terms of both the car being a wealth-signifying status symbol and in terms of the engine of the car itself.

Why did the driver climb from his car and manhandle the demonstrator off the road? Did he think that his needs were greater than those of the demonstrator? Why? What was he doing? Where was he going? Shopping? Why did he immediately resort to force? Were his greater needs incommunicable? Were they incommunicable because in any reasonable reckoning, the driver had no need to drive through central Cardiff? He could have walked. He could have got the bus.

I am glad that I witnessed what I did on Saturday. Despite the unthinking, unreasoning grumbles of many, this demonstration was successful. It demonstrated to me the manner in which protest movements are discouraged, marginalised and stigmatised by the police and the press. And forced me to ask questions of the use of our streets and public placed, demonstrating that despite the title, public space is private space after all. And it offered be a microcosmic demonstration of the unhealthy role of the car in shaping our attitudes. My thanks to Reclaim the Streets.

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