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Activism

The ‘paramilitary’ tactics used by police to suppress protest

For the last 40 years, protest has been brutally suppressed by the police, finds a new investigation from Matt Foot and Morag Livingstone.

Without protest, we wouldn’t have many of our most fundamental rights. The right to vote, the right to have unions and the right for equal pay were all won through protest. Demonstrations took down the Poll Tax (and soon after, forced Thatcher from office), and more recently citizens have taken to the streets to force climate change and institutional racism onto the political agenda.

Yet, for the last 40 years, protest has been suppressed by the police, in often brutal ways. A new investigation by criminal defence lawyer Matt Foot (son of socialist journalist Paul Foot and great-nephew of former Labour party leader Michael Foot) and award-winning documentary maker Morag Livingstone reveals the “paramilitary” tactics used by police – and sanctioned by government.

Through eye-witness testimony and previously unseen documents, their book Charged: How the Police Try to Suppress Protest uncovers organised police violence against miners at Orgreave, print workers at Warrington, anti-Poll Tax campaigners, student protesters, and Black Lives Matter activists.

Police claim that they are “operationally independent” from government, but they actually work from a 500-page manual, developed in the wake of the 1981 Brixton Riots and secretly released by the Home Office to senior officers in 1983. “It sanctioned dogs, horses, using vehicles against crowds,” says Livingstone.

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That manual is still in use, but its powers have since been bolstered by the newly enacted ​​Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. Among other changes, the new law gives the police more power to arrest protesters and punish them more harshly.

While protestors may face increasing risks, people can still act together to make a difference. The people who showed up to Sarah Everard’s vigil, even after being (incorrectly) told it was illegal, is a good example, says Foot.

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This is an abridged version of the interview on this week’s BetterPod, The Big Issue’s weekly podcast. Listen to the full interview below, or at your normal podcast provider.

Why is protest an important factor in building a better society?

Matt Foot: All the most important rights we have are won by protests. One part of our education system suggests that they’ve been handed down to us by important kings and queens. The reality is that the right to vote, the right to have unions and the right for equal pay have all come about through rigorous, exciting and difficult protests. People have committed themselves, sometimes over many years, to radical protest in order to win these rights. 

Take one example: the suffragettes fought for many years, 1,000 suffragettes went to prison for the cause. Women never would have won the vote if the suffragettes had not fought for those rights. It’s an essential and exciting part of British history, which needs to be cherished and celebrated.

Morag Livingstone: It is an enshrined right, and it’s an excellent way for parliament to hear what the public are thinking.

Why is it important that people, especially young people, understand the history of protest in the UK?

MF: Part of the reason for writing this book was for young people. We’ve seen these wonderful protests from Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter happening across the country. When they’re part of a movement, people sometimes can feel that they’re the first people to experience that. 

The reason for the book was to explain to people that some of the things they’re going through during these protests have happened before. And to teach us that we all need to learn from our history in order to be able to carry the arguments today in terms of what the police are up to, and how they’ve done this before, and how it’s an ongoing process to try and undermine dissent. 

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What are the essential ways the right to protest has been undermined?

MF: The use of brute force and the use of kettling are probably the two key things that have happened in the last 40 years. The ability of the police to use paramilitary tactics against protesters to literally smash protesters, whilst hiding the fact that that is what’s going on. 

Kettling is a tactic of surrounding people in a very tight circle for hours with no ability to eat or drink. What that does is it makes people not want to turn up again. 

ML: They’ve been able to get away with it because of the collusion that’s gone on behind closed doors. I’m sure that you’ve seen the government say the police are operationally independent during protests. One of the things that the book addresses quite early on, is that actually the Home Office instigated the handbook [a secret manual for the policing of public disorder] and these new tactics. They even celebrated its creation with a party.

Tell us more about the protest manual used by police.

ML: In 1981 there were race riots in Brixton, in London, but also elsewhere in the UK. After that, the government commissioned a report by Lord Scarman, and Scarman’s recommendation was to have a more collegiate approach to communities in terms of protests and policing. Publicly, the Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw was very much in favour of this approach. But as at the exact same time, the Home Office decided to introduce much more paramilitary powers for the police. 

The police and the Home Office met over a number of months to create a new, 500-page manual. This handbook was released in 1983, only to senior chief police officers. So the rank and file didn’t even know of its existence. It sanctioned dogs, horses, using vehicles against crowds. This was confirmed by the Home Office but it did not go through Parliament. It wasn’t scrutinised by Parliament.

A mass protest at Warrington was the first application of the handbook. At the end of the protest, the police shouted for the cameras to be switched off. After that, Range Rovers were driven into the crowd across wasteland. If you imagine that it’s pitch dark, you’ve been there for hours, you’re cold… It was described to us as terrorism because it was designed to terrorise.

What are your thoughts on the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act?

MF: It is appalling. As the book says the police have already got far too much power, and where they’ve got discretion, they use it unfairly and aggressively. We have a home secretary who says in writing she supports protest. What she means by that is that we’re allowed to protest if we are silent, don’t cause any disruptions and if we turn up for 10 minutes, which is not any sort of protest. The worst thing about the new act is that for obstructing the highway, which used to mean a fine if you were convicted, now you can face up to 12 months in prison. [If you’re found guilty of wilful obstruction of the highway, you now face up to 51 weeks in prison or an unlimited fine, or both. The previous sentence was a fine of up to £1,000.] You can’t even have a jury trial because they’ve extended the powers of the magistrates. 

Police kettle protesters on Westminster Bridge CREDIT Flickr Bob Bob
Police kettle protesters on Westminster Bridge, December 2010. CREDIT Flickr / Bob Bob

It’s easy to feel powerless. How can we find hope? 

MF: It’s a brutal story. And part of the story is powerlessness, but we also were trying to avoid the idea that we live in a police state where you can’t do anything. So what’s wonderful as part of this story is the protests that win or that win something. 

The Poll Tax protest was a tremendous success. Margaret Thatcher, on the day of the protests, went to Cheltenham, to a safe Tory seat, to make a public speech saying, ‘I’m not coming here to retire’. Within five months, she had to retire because the fallout from those protests was so big. The first thing that John Major’s government did was to employ Michael Heseltine to find a way to get rid of the Poll Tax, which is what they did. That was entirely down to 200,000 people turning up at Trafalgar Square to protest. 

ML: It’s the protesters that are vilified and the police are extolled at the end of every protest. But after the Sarah Everard vigil, and the Bristol 2021 protests, the narrative was very quickly turned around because of people that were there. 

MF: The fallout from those brave people turning out [to Sarah Everard’s vigil] was massive. That’s an example where people who’ve been brave in standing up have overcome draconian policing to make a better society.

Listen to all BetterPod episodes here.

Charged: How the Police Try to Suppress Protest by Matt Foot and Morag Livingstone is out now (Verso)

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