The Police and Public Protest: A Very Short History


‘Police, n.

II. Organisation, or a controlling body within a community’

Commentators upon the incidents of alleged police brutality against G20 protestors and bystanders have asked what has gone wrong with British policing. But the assumption of columnists such as Timothy Garton Ash, that the police are there to protect the public is fundamentally misguided. The role of the police is to maintain public order (a quite different thing). They are not there to uphold the public’s right to free association.

In the wake of Ian Tomlinson’s death, there has been a notable volte-face, even from the right-wing press, in the treatment of the protests. The coverage prior to April 1 concentrated on the threat of attacks on city workers from crazed anarchists. The message was repeated by Cabinet ministers such as Ed Miliband who spent much more time expressing concern over the potential for violence than they did engaging with the arguments of the protestors (a point I made at the Demos discussion of movement politics on 30 March).

As it turned out, the destruction meted out by a tiny minority of G20 protestors was pretty pathetic, (remember those images of a couple of hooded idiots smashing in the windows of a branch of RBS, massively outnumbered by massed ranks of photographers, cameramen and reporters?) Only as the video evidence relating to Tomlinson’s death (footage, it should be remembered, taken by a member of the public, not a journalist) came to light did this story slowly begin to change.

Nobody should really be surprised at this. The history of public protest in Britain demonstrates that it is almost always the protestors who suffer the violence, not the forces of law and order. ‘Peterloo’ is, of course, the most famous example of this, with fifteen known fatalities and a further 654 injuries (most of them serious). There are, though, many other incidents of this kind. In November 1887, three people were killed and another two hundred were injured on ‘Bloody Sunday‘ as police charged a meeting to defend the right of assembly Trafalgar Square. One leader of the protest, Robert Cunninghame Graham, then a radical Liberal MP, was badly beaten by police after he had been arrested. A young writer, Alfred Linnell, was killed by police at a meeting the following Sunday held to protest at the outrages of the previous week. One rationale for the suffragettes move towards more violent acts of militancy (still directed at property not persons) was the increasing danger they were exposed to at mass meetings, including physical assault by the police, as on ‘Black Friday’ November 1910. There are, of course, more recent incidents of this kind, like the so-called ‘Battle of Orgreave‘ during the Miners’ Strike of 1984, as police support units, first deployed during the Toxteth and Brixton riots, were used to ‘mop-up’ the remaining strikers following a cavalry charge by mounted police. The extent of this police over-reaction to the actions of the strikers was revealed as prosecution after prosecution for ‘riot’ against the miners was thrown out and the South Yorkshire constabulary was forced to foot a hefty compensation bill. Little, though, was learned from this incident. A year later, at the Battle of the Beanfield, the Wiltshire police used similar tactics to prevent travellers from entering the area around Stonehenge.

What the above shows us is that we certainly do need a change in how our police approach public protest. But that change needs to be far more drastic than simply abandoning tactics such as ‘kettling’. Policing needs to strike a balance between public safety (not that invidious concept, public order) and the right to free association and expression. For too long, it has been order, not freedom, that the police have been protecting.


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