This week the controversial Police and Crime Act that sparked a series of protests on Bristol’s streets last year finally became law. In 2022 we have ended up with a Police Act that potentially outlaws noisy, seriously annoying demonstrations. It appears we are left with silent, short, anodyne protest, but is that protest at all? How did we get here?
After the 1980 Bristol riots, the Association of Chief Police Officers said going beyond a ‘traditional method of policing’ of protest would be a fundamental change that would inevitably lead to the erosion of the current image and acceptability of the police service.
But following the 1981 Brixton riots, which promoted widespread criticism of police powers, the Conservative government moved surreptitiously to permit a greater freedom for the police to crackdown on protest, through the creation and sanctioning of a new police manual with paramilitary tactics. Since then, successive British governments have condoned their tactics – from batons to horse charges to kettling.
The UK government’s efforts to suppress dissent in the pursuit of greater power have given a green light to the police to apply more aggressive tactics in managing crowds and protest.
The results have provoked violence and even led to officers breaking the law. My new book, Charged: How the Police Try to Suppress Protest, tells the troubled history of the relationship between police and protesters in today’s Britain. Here are five key takeaways.
1. Police obtain paramilitary tactics
In 1981 following the Brixton Riots, the Home Office publicly agreed with Lord Scarman about increasing community policing around protest. However, behind closed doors, a cabal of Home Office officials and chief police officers created a manual of paramilitary tactics. This was a significant change in the policing of protest because the Home Office and police breached the line of independence that is meant to exist.
We now know that the Home Secretary at the time, Willie Whitelaw, facilitated and sanctioned the manual, which was classified just before publication. The only people who were allowed to see it were the most senior police officers in the country.
2. The paramilitary police manual was first used against the unions
The manual first came to light during the trial of miners arrested on 18 June 1984 at Orgreave for riotous assembly. The senior police officer in charge of policing at Orgreave, ACC Clement, claimed at the trial that the manual did not apply to industrial disputes, but police training documents say otherwise.
The manual allowed for the police to ‘incapacitate’ protesters just for being there. At Orgreave during the miners’ strike, the police charged protesters with horses, going beyond their own manual. The BBC subsequently reversed the footage to suggest miners had started the violence, although they later admitted this ‘mistake’. The Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign is demanding an inquiry into the policing that day, while former home secretary Amber Rudd is alleged to have refused an inquiry because it might embarrass Margaret Thatcher.
3. The police’s use of excessive force on protest has not been held to account
Looking at the protests that have turned violent over the last 40 years, there is a consistent pattern: after the protests a narrative is put out by the police, that is then repeated by the government, but eventually found to be misleading or untrue. In every case, the police have avoided being held to account. After the poll tax protest in 1990 where 200,000 protested in London, the police engineered it to have its own review rather than a public inquiry. This took a year to report, and only a summary was ever published. The summary was critical but did not properly address how the violence started.
After the protest against the Criminal Justice Act in Hyde Park in 1994, the police denied any wrongdoing but a report that has subsequently come to light reveals police acknowledgment of serious failings on the day. The effect of not being held to account has meant protest has continued to be policed with impunity, whilst the government have continued to increase police powers.
4. The police have undermined dissent with the help of other institutions
What has also come to light is that the subterfuge of the police acting with the government has only been possible with the support of others. Civil servants instigated the manual’s creation and helped organise the policing operation in the miners’ strike, including mass state surveillance. The Leveson Inquiry of 2011 revealed the extremely close relationship that developed between the police and Murdoch media. This was reflected in the police media campaign which saw warnings of forthcoming protester violence at the May Day 2001 protest repeated by the press. This aided the introduction of large-scale kettling for the first time, with protesters denied food, water and toilets for seven hours.
The specific tactical operations of the kind approved by the Home Office in 1983 remain secret and have never been discussed in Parliament. Those such as horsecharges and dogs are still seen at protests. In 2021 during the protests in Bristol against the Police and Crime Bill, officers used dogs and the side of their shields to hit protesters, causing injury. Superintendent Mark Runacres said the use of shields in this way was a “legitimate and trained tactic” that could be used provided it was done so as a proportionate response. An off-duty nurse who witnessed the head injury caused by police shields being ‘lifted and chopped down on top of protesters’ heads in a peaceful crowd’ was left traumatised.
5. Protest has remained resilient
A paranoia around protesters has developed and is reflected in the decision to include campaign groups such as CND and Stand Up To Racism on an ‘anti-terrorist’ list as part of the Prevent Strategy. Despite the approach to policing over the last 40 years, protesters have continued to be resilient. The Poll Tax protest of 1990 led to the downfall of Margret Thatcher. 60,000 anti-racist protesters attending Welling in 1993 led to the closure of the British National Party ‘bookshop’.
More recently, Extinction Rebellion managed to push the climate change crisis up the agenda, and thousands protested against racism in the UK and across the world following the death of George Floyd in the US at the hands of a police officer. Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the toppling of the Colston statue brought into general consciousness that history had been seen through a prism. BLM led to the introduction of a wider history being taught in schools, as well as a recognition of how much we still need to do around racism in this country. There is no doubt that further repression of the basic right to protest will be met with resistance.
Matt Foot is a criminal defence solicitor. He specialises in representing protesters and victims of miscarriages of justice. As a campaigning lawyer, he co-founded Justice Alliance to protect legal aid and Asbo Concern. He has also written in the Guardian and the London Review of Books.