October 22, 2009

The police, the protesters and a public order problem

An old colleague of mine used to say "everyone knows how to control a runaway horse better than the poor devil holding the reins!" This was a home-spun metaphor to describe the propensity for the armchair critic to offer simple solutions to complex problems.

These easy critiques surround most professional activity. The Premiership football coach is just as likely to be offered lay "advice" as the police professional.

I recalled the observation this week when my postbag was inundated with letters advising me that I should simply ban a forthcoming demonstration proposed by the English Defence League in Leeds city centre. There has been a kind of chain-letter initiative whereby the recipient of the letter is asked to write to their friends imploring them to urge the Chief Constable and the Chief Executive of Leeds City Council to use "their powers" to stop the demonstration taking place. The "advice" is overwhelming. If only life were that simple.

The English Defence League is a protest group with "wings" in several major conurbations. They have only existed for six months or so. If people ignore them, they may disappear out of our consciousness just as quickly as their profile has risen. Their stated aim is to "stand up for Englishness against an Islamist assault".

After demonstrations in Luton, Birmingham, Manchester and Swansea, their apparent objective, which they have taken no steps to counter, is to provoke a reaction. The more violent the reaction, the more it plays to their apparent objective. The EDL is against Islamic extremism. The kind of Islamic extremism that is espoused by al-Qaida and other terrorist organisations is anathema to just about everyone.

But the EDL are less clear about where they draw the line in their objection. Turning up as they do, like a baying football crowd, they create a perception that some of their members, individually, might draw the line at a less extreme ideology. They imply intolerance.

Have they got the right, in Britain, to express their views in public? Of course they have, whatever we, personally, may think of those views. They would commit a criminal offence if they actively sought to incite violence or hatred on account of race or faith. The vast majority of their number usually avoid that threshold. There is absolutely no legal means to ban the proposed demonstration. The right to peaceful protest has been much in the news because of the reverberations from the G20 demonstrations in London earlier this year. Two inquiries followed, and have clarified the law on protest. They agreed that:
  • Peaceful protest should be facilitated and protected.
  • People who wish to protest peacefully should not have the impression that the police are attempting to stop protest going ahead.
  • Public bodies are required to demonstrate a degree of tolerance, even if these protests cause a level of obstruction or disruption.
  • Human rights law makes it clear that balance should always fall in favour of those seeking to assert their right to protest.
So far, so good. Except that when EDL come to Leeds at the end of the month, the United Against Fascism (UAF) crowd intend to demonstrate in opposition. They, too, have the same rights to carry out peaceful protest on public streets. In an ideal world, the two demonstrations could take place on the same day without causing alarm or concern to the public.

That is what my officers are attempting to negotiate with the organisers of the two groups involved. While consulting and negotiating with both groups, we are also putting in place a policing operation that is capable of responding to any attempt at public disorder and criminality.

The dilemma is that, while the law is clear that the police may not assume that protest will be other than peaceful and lawful, we also know that if a window gets broken or a stone is thrown there will be people who say: "I'll tell you what the police should have done..."

But would they put themselves in the position of the brave people in yellow fluorescent jackets and helmets who are there to ensure the rights of opposing protesters and who, when protesters cannot get at each other, become the unfair target for abuse and worse?

The police rely upon the "armchair observer" to support rather than criticise and I believe that we can count on that consent from what is often, these days, a silent majority.

In the meantime, I hope that two crowds of violently opposed ideologues come to Leeds, make their separate protests and go home without any reason for my officers to intervene. We don't always get what we hope for in life, hence why we are planning for every eventuality.

Note: Sir Norman Bettison is Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police.

Yorkshire Post

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