Policing protest

Charged: How the Police Try to Suppress Protest 

By Matt Foot and Morag Livingstone,Verso, 2022, £15.19

Reviewed by Niall Mulholland

In January 1983, Willie Whitelaw, Conservative home secretary, hosted a celebration party at the Home Office. Invited guests included members of the Association of Chief Police Officers and Home Office staff. They were toasting the Public Order Manual of Tactical Options and Related Matters, which covered all forms of public disorder. This manual allowed for unprecedented military style tactics for policing. Given the manual’s contents, it was classified, which meant only senior officers were ever officially allowed to see it. The secret manual first came to light in 1985 at the trial of miners arrested at a mass picket at Orgreave, South Yorkshire, during the 1984-85 miners’ strike, where thousands of police with horses and truncheons attacked miners.

The capitalist state saw the need for new policing methods following the riots across cities in Britain in the early 1980s. Riots in St Paul’s in Bristol, Toxteth in Liverpool, and Brixton in London all started following incidents of oppressive policing within the black community. The Chief Police Officers looked outside Britain for a model of policing methods. Policing in Northern Ireland was deemed not suitable, so they turned to colonial practices from Hong Kong. The paramilitary methods used there by the police were the main inspiration for the secret police manual.

Running alongside these secret police operational methods were the actions of the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS). This was set up within the Metropolitan Police and its aim was to spy on the Vietnam anti-war movement in 1968. The SDS is now subject of a long-running enquiry into undercover policing, in which several Militant/Socialist Party members, including former MP, Dave Nellist, are core participants. As Matt Foot and Morag Livingstone point out in their excellent book, Charged – How the Police Try to Suppress Protest: “Both the 1983 manual and the SDS are central to how protest would be policed. While we ostensibly live in a parliamentary democracy, parliament had no knowledge of or involvement in either of these decisions”.

The events forensically discussed in the book, where police violence on the basis of the secret manual was used, include the Warrington printers’ dispute, 1983; the miners’ strike, 1984-85; the Battle of Stonehenge, 1985; the Wapping dispute, 1986-87; the ‘poll tax riot’, 1990; the Welling anti-BNP protests, 1993; the Battle of Park Lane – concerning opposition to the Criminal Justice Act – 1994; the May Day protest, 2001 – where police kettling was used for the first time; the G8 summit, Gleneagles, 2005; the G20 protest, 2009; and the student fees protest in 2010.

In all of these industrial disputes and protests, supporters of Militant, now the Socialist Party, were active and, in some cases, played a leading role. Militant supporters established the anti-poll tax unions, which saw mass non-payment alongside mass protests lead to the eventual scrapping of the tax, and was a key factor in the removal of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister. Militant/Socialist Party members were also playing the lead role in the Welling anti-racist protests in 1993, and during the May Day protest in 2001.

The Stockport Six disputes in 1983 are termed “the guinea pig” by the book’s authors, as far as the new repressive policing was concerned. Six workers at the Stockport Messenger newspaper were sacked by its owner, the so-called maverick entrepreneur Eddie Shah. Shah opened a typesetting plant at Bury, Greater Manchester, and used non-union labour to produce the pages of the Stockport Messenger. For months, the sacked workers protested outside their former place of work. Trade unionists from across the country began to arrive at Warrington, outside Shah’s operations, to give solidarity to the local workers. In line with the new public order tactics manual, riot police with batons drawn charged against the pickets. Observers from the National Council of Civil Liberties counted over 100 civilians injured.

In a chapter entitled, ‘Maggie’s UK war, the miners, Orgreave, 1984’, the authors describe how at Orgreave on the outskirts of Sheffield, on Monday 18 June 1984, 6,000 police confronted 6,000 striking miners. Short shields and truncheons were a new police tactic in the 1983 manual approved by the Home Office and used here for the first time. The miners showed incredible resilience to fight for a year on no pay, facing the full might of the capitalist state. In the end, they were betrayed by the lack of action by the Trades Union Congress and the leadership of the Labour Party. The authors conclude: “The secrets and lies of police and government during the miners’ strike opened the door to a further increase of police powers through the Public Order Act 1986. This codified the common law charges of riot, unlawful assembly and other public order charges, making them easier for the police and the courts to use”.

In the 1980s, the UK national newspaper industry was based in and around Fleet Street, London. It was a highly unionised industry. In his drive for profits, Rupert Murdoch’s corporation set in place plans to use the law to get rid of his trade union workforce in Fleet Street and replace them with a new and non-unionised workforce at another location, in Wapping, East London. At the end of January 1986, the trade unions called a strike over the move of operations from Fleet Street to Wapping. Murdoch’s News International sacked over 5,000 workers without notice or redundancy pay. Around 100 journalists decided they would not go and work at the new Wapping plant. Demonstrations outside the plant in Wapping grew to 10,000 following sequestration of trade union funds in February 1986. By mid-February the police began to use riot equipment and horses against the pickets and their supporters. Again, the sacked workers bravely resisted state repression but they did not get the full backing of the trade union movement and were left to face defeat.

Heavy-handed policing was not just used against striking workers. In the early 1990s, the far-right British National Party (BNP) won a by-election in Tower Hamlets. This emboldened racists, leading to an increase in serious and fatal racist attacks. In South East London, racist incidents rose by 300% in 1993. This followed the opening of the BNP’s so-called ‘bookshop’ in 1989, in Welling. Lois Austin, a local activist in the Labour Party Young Socialists, and a supporter of Militant, is quoted extensively in the chapter that refers to this.

In 1993, Lois was national chair of Youth against Racism in Europe (YRE), organising locally against the BNP bookshop. On 22 April 1993, a local black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, was stabbed to death in a racist attack just a few miles from the BNP offices. On 8 May, 6,000 people marched to the BNP bookshop demanding it should be shut down. A national demonstration was called by YRE and other organisations on 16 October. The police blocked the protesters from reaching the BNP bookshop and also cordoned off all exit routes. They brutally attacked the anti-racist protesters. Most of the mainstream press went along with the police lie that the violence was due to the protesters. Lois is quoted in the book: “We got to the crossroads and there’s a police blockade but they blocked off every road. There is nowhere to go; we couldn’t go back because we had 60,000 people behind us. It was a police trap… I had been flattened twice, riot police hitting me. I said to them – the police – this is a death trap. Someone’s going to get killed. In the end they opened up Lodge Hill. We are the last to leave… Police horses are still going on to us… No one in the media told the truth”.

Months after the protest, a World in Action TV documentary confirmed that exit routes were closed off by the police. Foot and Livingstone point out that a police operation in Welling was orchestrated in the weeks before. In 2014, Peter Francis, an undercover Met officer, revealed he was present at Welling in 1993. He believes that the Met was seeking to protect one of their own, who was embedded in the BNP in the bookshop – one of seven undercover officers present in Welling. Paul Condon, Met Commissioner, visited the secret Special Demonstration Squad, a week after the Welling demonstration and gave each a bottle of whisky as a thank you for the apparent accuracy of their intelligence.

According to the book’s authors: “The MacPherson inquiry into the killing of Stephen Lawrence revealed overwhelming evidence of police officers’ lack of respect towards the Lawrence family. The police’s treatment of the family came at exactly the same time as the hostility and dishonesty towards 60,000 anti-racists seeking justice”. The Lawrence family would have to fight on for another 13 years until, finally, two of the original suspects, Gary Dobson and David Norris, were convicted of the son’s murder. Foot and Livingstone point out that the Welling protest spurred a movement that helped marginalise the fascists. Finally, in 1994, the BNP bookshop was closed. Lois Austin commented: “Welling was a victory. The BNP were pushed back for a decade”.

After Tony Blair’s New Labour won a landslide election in 1997 none of the new repressive police powers were removed. Between 2000 and 2008, more than 100,000 people were stopped and searched under the 2000 Terrorism Act, and not a single one led to conviction. On May Day 2001, there were protests on the streets of central London, campaigning against capitalism. Tony Blair denounced the campaign as “idealism” and “idiocy”. As thousands of protesters moved to Oxford Circus, the police blocked off all exits and penned in the crowd. The protesters were kettled – confined to a small area – which was a tactic not before used by the Met police.

The authors point out that the kettling tactic was not improvised on the day; it had been meticulously planned. Lois Austin was at the May Day protest and helped to lead opposition to the police tactic, negotiating to ensure that the protesters were eventually released. Along with others who were kettled, Lois took a legal test case against the Met police. Her lawyer, Sadiq Khan, who has since become the Blairite mayor of London, said: “The actions of the police were neither necessary nor proportionate”. Keir Starmer QC, known as a radical human rights lawyer at the time, was instructed to lead the challenge. His submission was that the “police tactic was a deprivation of the protesters liberty and therefore a breach of article five of the human rights convention”. This case was to make its way through four different courts over many years. 

Keir Starmer has since become a new version of Tony Blair; under his leadership of the Labour Party, Labour MPs were told to abstain on the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill (known as the ‘spycops’ bill) as it went through parliament in 2021. Labour also planned to abstain on the Police Bill – which allows police to limit how long a protest can be and outlaw noisy dissent – until a huge outcry over the policing of the vigil in memory of Sarah Everard forced a change.

These measures must be resisted by the workers’ movement and all other campaigners. Yet, as Charged describes, despite repressive laws and police brutality, draconian police laws introduced by governments over the last 40 years have not shut down protest or stopped victories, like the scrapping of the poll tax. The best way to defend the right to protest is to protest; combining mass action with class policies that can unite working-class communities and campaigners.