Concerns about definition of “aggravated activism” are understandable but may not be well-founded
Concerns are continuing to be raised around potential developments in the policing of protests, the Guardian reports today. Two campaign organisations (the Good Law Project and Stop Funding Hate) have raised concerns that guidance produced by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and College of Policing proposes a highly restrictive definition of unlawful protest.
The guidance is referred to in a recent report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) on the police response to protest. HMICFRS recommended that the guidance document (which is described as containing “problems with some of its legal explanations” and having the potential to be misinterpreted by members of the public) be revised.
According to the Guardian’s report, the two campaign organisations have produced a joint letter arguing that the NPCC definition of “aggravated activism” might include people who organise boycotts of shops or businesses or engage in a range of other non-criminal activities. However, it is not immediately clear that these fears are well-founded. Whilst the over-arching definition of aggravated activism quoted in the Guardian does seem worryingly broad, when we read the HMICFRS report it clearly states (see page 21) that the NPCC recognises two levels of “aggravated activism” both of which involve “unlawful behaviour or criminality”. In other words “aggravated activism” is understood by the NPCC as activism which involves unlawful or criminal behaviour.
But there are issues with the HMICFRS report on protest policing
The above comment is not intended to suggest that we should not be concerned about the content of the HMICFRS report. The report raises a number of issues that require closer investigation and consideration. Two things immediately spring to mind for me on reading the report.
(1) Where exactly does HMICFRS stand on the issue of striking the right balance when gathering “intelligence” on protest movements?
“The police need accurate, comprehensive intelligence on aggravated activists from a range of sources. This may sometimes involve covert sensitive intelligence-gathering methods, which include surveillance and the use of CHISs.” (Page 21)
Given that the Mitting Inquiry into undercover policing of protest groups is ongoing I was surprised not to see this mentioned at all in the report. Not to acknowledge that the police have shown a tendency to deploy highly disproportionate, intrusive and even abusive tactics in the attempt to monitor largely peaceful protest groups seems a significant oversight. If a high-level report of this kind fails to even mention the significant judge-led inquiry underway in this area then what hope is there that the police (and the organisations supposed to be holding them to account) will learn lessons for the future?
(2) Does looking at the issue of policing protests primarily through a framework of individual rights offer sufficient protection for protest as a form of political engagement and expression in a democratic society?
The repeated focus on striking the right balance between the “right of the individual” to protest and the right of “the community” not to be disrupted seems to me to miss an important point about protest. Others (e.g. Jackson, Gilmore and Monk) have commented in the past about this misleading (and perhaps rather tactical) attempt to propose an artificial opposition between individual/community, protestors/locals, as if individual protestors are not also members of the community. It strikes me that it is also rather unhelpful to think about protest in terms of my individual right to protest. Perhaps it might be more useful to think in terms of the right, perhaps even the need, of the community to be exposed to protest.
New proposals on protest policing appear to privilege the right to remain in a state of denial
What I mean by this is that to talk about the need to ensure that the right of the individual to protest does not override the right of the community not to be disrupted or impacted seems to me to privilege the right not to be confronted with the ways in which our own choices, behaviours, privileges may come at the expense of others who may not even have a voice to protest. Because many, if not most, protestors are not seeking to draw attention to and assert merely their own rights or needs, but rather to draw attention to and register their opposition to injustices occurring to other people (and non-human beings) who are not in a position to do this.
The question then is this: should we elevate the right of the individual not to be informed or made aware when their way of life is predicated on slave labour, child exploitation, cruelty to non-human animals, environmental degradation or indeed comes at the expense of the survival of as yet unborn future generations, above the right of individuals coming together as protest movements to attempt to make them aware of these things?
20 years ago Stanley Cohen wrote about States of Denial. He argued that the most commonly used form of denial is ‘the maintenance of social worlds in which an undesireable situation … is unrecognized, ignored or made to seem normal’ (Page 51).
The way this HMICFRS report is worded it seems that maintaining a state of denial for the majority is at the centre of current police and government thinking about the role of the police in managing active modes of political expression.