Police are struggling to keep up with protest in the digital age, according to a new report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC).
The report is interesting in two respects – first, it notes that protests are on the up ("after a few, relatively quiet years, this is a new period of public order policing"), and second, it explains that the nature of protest is changing.
On the second point, it says that "what seems evident is a willingness to disrupt the public and test police", and explains:
The character of protest is evolving in terms of: the numbers involved; spread across the country; associated sporadic violence; disruption caused; short notice or no-notice events, and swift changes in protest tactics.
. . . large numbers of protesters can be organised in hours and change their focus in minutes through the use of social media and mobile phones. Those responsible for commanding events must plan with this adaptability in mind.
Given that it warns that reforms to police tactics take about two years to filter down, this can only be good news for anti-cuts protesters such as UK Uncut (which I wrote about in the magazine recently) and students.
While the police can certainly work on their monitoring of social media, it is difficult to see how they can effectively police the rapid response garnered by "flash mob"-style protests in multiple locations.
HMIC notes that "adaptability and preparedness come at a cost", with some forces reporting significant increases in spending on public order. This is problematic, given government plans to cut police grants by 20 per cent.
But coming back to the first point – that protests are on the up – it is important for those on the left to remember that this isn't all the work of romantic would-be revolutionaries. Indeed, the most significant public order burden by far is presented by the English Defence League, which, HMIC says, is "test[ing] police resources at short notice".
The report's summary of significant demonstrations over the past 18 months shows that more than half were organised by EDL in small towns across the country. With the exception of one student protest, EDL required the largest police presence.
The recent use of CS gas against UK Uncut campaigners, and violence against student protesters in December, is clear evidence that the police are panicking in the face of a new breed of protest that they do not understand. It is essential that they adapt to the changed circumstances in a way that facilitates the public right to peaceful protest, and not simply by attempting to stamp it out.