Protest is not “self-indulgent” by Fiona Donson

The cost of policing protests at the Corrib pipeline at the Shell refinery in Mayo was highlighted earlier this week in written answer to a Parliamentary question tabled by Sinn Féin TD Peadar Tóibin. Minister for Justice Alan Shatter reported that over €14.5 million were spent on policing operations between 2006 and 2011. The breakdown of costs includes overtime and allowances, travel and subsistence, employers PRSI, and other expenses incurred by the Gardaí. The costs do not include basic pay of members of the Gardaí.

The costs prompted Minister Shatter to comment on legitimacy of protest in today’s current economic climate. Having set out the costs he went on to state that

“at a time when many people are under severe financial pressure because of our very difficult economic circumstances, it is scandalous that some protesters behave in a self indulgent way that has no regard for the rights of others. “

The idea of protest being “self-indulgent” is attractive to politicians. The engagement of ordinary people in sustained campaigns of direct action and other forms protest offers a challenge to the established political system. Whilst they publicly accept that protest can be a legitimate form of political engagement it is also something to be limited and controlled, confined to the margins. Thus whilst we have a “right to protest” as citizens by engaging in free speech and free assembly (Article 40.6.1̊) this is restricted in a number of ways, not least by the limits set out in the constitution of public order. Firstly the law sets limits on protest including how, when and where you can protest. This is part of a balancing process between the right to protest and issues of public order, crime prevention and public safety.

In addition, private citizens and businesses who are the subject of protest can use the law to counter the harm done by such actions– actions for defamation, interference with trade, injunctions to prevent protest camps etc are common legal procedures used to control the troublesome public speech of protesters.

Beyond the legal restraints placed on protest there is also a public dialogue that engages in a consistent undermining of the legitimacy of such actions, a reframing of the legitimate as illegitimate. This is done by diminishing the credibility of those involved in protests, something which can clearly be seen in Alan Shatters comments when he claimed that many of those involved in the protests are engaging in “protest tourism” (the dreaded professional protester).

This attack on protest is further developed by suggesting that involvement in political activism of this sort is contrary to the national interest because it requires the spending of taxpayers money to police it.

“[Protest] requires the expenditure of a substantial amount of taxpayers’ money which could be devoted to far better purposes …. In addition, this type of behaviour runs completely contrary to the public and national interest and furthermore will act as a disincentive to inward investment and the development of our national resources.”

Both the Minister for Justice and the Taoiseach are on record upholding the right of the individual to engage in peaceful and legitimate protest. However, that right involves limitations based on assessments as to the peaceful nature and the legitimacy of action. Such assessments are not based on set criteria. The question is how far they leave space in our democratic state for dissent outside the regular orderly political engagement mechanisms of voting and writing letters (or blogs).

We can talk about respecting the right to protest but without some substance to that respect and a shift in perspective that leave space for political activism it is ultimately meaningless.

Dale Farm Evictions: policing protest and public order

The legal battles finally ended for the Dale Farm residents earlier this week when their application for an appeal against the High Court decision that Basildon Council could clear the site was rejected. The eviction was then only a matter of time, and residents accurately predicted that it would start today, 19th October.

However, whilst the residents expected the eviction, it is unlikely the expected the level of violence that is being reported from the site this morning. The reports and images coming from Dale Farm are, however, sadly predictable and reminiscent of brutal policing operations seen at anti-road protests and even “the Battle of Beanfield” in 1985.

Reports in the guardian describe the scene as “carnage” with violence being inflicted on residents and supporters. However, the reports also include particularly disturbing images and reports in of police using tasers on protesters.

The use of tasers in this context is entirely inappropriate, and has been stated as so by senior figures in the UK police and government. At the end of 2010 Christian Papaleontiou of the Home Office’s policing directorate told the Commons home affairs select committee that tasers should not be used “as a crowd control measure”. This has in recent times also been stressed in the ACPO guidance on taser use. In fact, there has been a “self-imposed ban” on the use of tasers in public protest situations. This was noted and supported by the Government in a response to the report on policing the G20 protests by the Home Affairs Select Committee which stated:

We recommend that the police continue their self-imposed ban on the use of Taser in public protest situations. More generally we urge the police to reject the use of “distance weapons” in policing demonstrations. Instead of investment in expensive equipment to give the police “distance” while policing large scale protests, we suggest that the money could be better spent on training for front-line officers and in the planning of operations, removing the need for such “distance weapons”. (Paragraph 75)   

Four days ago this rejection of taser use was again restated by Sir Hugh Orde, President of the Association of Chief Police Officers in the United Kingdom in an interview with the BBC when he said “[Tyasers are not used in public order situations in this country. They’re entirely inappropriate.” He went on to say that whilst taser’s “are present in policing in this country. We use them with a heavy heart quite frankly…. You need static crowds and extreme violence….”

Whilst the protesters at Dale Farm might well be static, it would be hard to describe them as “a crowd” given reports are in the tens rather than the hundreds and whilst the police may have been anticipating violence, the images of the use of tasers clearly show that they were being used as “distance weapons” to subdue protesters, and not in response to actual extreme violence.

The use of violence and tasers by the police in the UK is a sign that lessons from previous policing (G20, Battle of Orgreave, Battle of the Beanfield, and May Day protests) disasters have not been learned. Or perhaps it is that some groups are not entitled to receive the “Human Rights approach to policing protest” (the subtitle and focus of the Human Rights Joint Committee seventh report published in 2009 following the G20 protests).