Having witnessed the Police presence in Brighton today for the “Smash EDO” protest, which led me to have to drive a 10-mile diversion to deliver my girlfriend to work, I read with interest the statement issued by the Brighton & Hove City Commander, Chief Supt Graham Bartlett, as follows:
“Once again, during a demonstration organised by Smash EDO, we have seen unjustified acts of violence aimed at premises and police officers, with some officers receiving minor injuries. Members of public including many visitors to the city have been clearly frightened and intimidated by a small minority of the group who have been verbally abusive, and throwing missiles at police.
“One member of public was struck in the face by a missile and had to be treated by a police medical team.
“Paint has been thrown at and daubed on a number of premises and a window at a boutique in Market Street was broken. There was also other reports of wanton criminal damage taking place.
“This is a tough time for businesses and this additional disruption, coupled with these criminal acts, only can only impact even more on vital commerce and tourism in the city.
“As at 7.40pm, there were three arrests – one man was arrested for assaulting a police officer, one for obstructing police and one for criminal damage. We will continue to investigate the other offences that have occurred and where possible bring those responsible to justice.
“Once again I urge those who wish to hold demonstrations in the city to abide by the law and notify the police of their intentions in advance so that jointly we can plan a safe but visible event which respects their right to protest and others rights to go about their business free from intimidation and violence.
“I would like to remind the people of Brighton & Hove and the rest of Sussex is that the officers involved in policing violent demonstrations such as we have seen today are the same officers who provide the local policing service you would expect from us. We would all rather see them helping to resolve local issues in their neighbourhoods than having to police such protests as this.”
Interesting, on a number of points. Firstly, I didn’t see the residents of the Fiveways area in fear of the protesters; on the contrary, it was the aggressive Police presence that was intimidating and scary for the people of Brighton. Literally scores of vans driving in at speed, disgorging vast crowds of police with helmets, batons and shields – that’s what people find scary. I witnessed one cyclist being physically, bodily stopped by a motorcycle policeman. It’s all so physical, rather too paramilitary, and wholly disproportionate. I also wonder what would have happened if the protest hadn’t been policed at all; would we end up with massive criminal damage in the town, or a largely peaceful protest? Do the Police contain violence, or provoke it?
The last paragraph is inaccurate at the very least. Many of the police officers in vehicles involved today appeared to have been drafted in from Kent, and therefore aren’t our friendly local bobbies. I just wonder how much it all cost. And why I haven’t seen anyone I could describe as a friendly local bobbie for years.
So you might expect me to be vehemently anti-Police, or sympathising with the protesters. Actually, neither is true. Truth is far more complex than that. For example, “What is the most dangerous animal in Africa?” I ask my children, who correctly avoid the obvious answer “the hippo” and instead go for the far more accurate “homo sapiens”. Yes, people kill far more people than hippos. But it’s rarely private individuals who are dangerous, it’s institutions, governments, armies, and warlord-led militia. EDO is a legitimate business which operates within the law, in a country which remains a parliamentary democracy. That is a true statement. “Smash EDO” is an apparently an organisation that stands for anarchy, not democratic rights, and appears to place far more emphasis on criminal damage and denial of service aimed at private enterprise than on protesting against wars. The ultimate truth is best represented perhaps by that old cliché that goes “weapons don’t kill people, people kill people”. But helmets, batons, shields and Police vans are weapons too, and as we saw in the recent G20 protest, they can hurt and even kill people very effectively in the hands of a small violent minority. But they have the power to scare people even if they don’t hurt them.
The Police should ensure therefore that they conduct themselves proportionately, appropriately, and remembering their origins as “civilians in uniform” rather than embracing paramilitary style tactics, or else they risk alienating the very people they are meant to serve. Alas these days, from personal experience, I wouldn’t naturally trust the Police to tell me the right time, let alone deal in the truth. Am I unusual? Alas, probably not. Mr Bartlett and colleagues have a mountain to climb, but they can’t even seem to find the right path to the foothills.