Guy Taylor, angry about third-world poverty, the Iraq war and Britain’s treatment of asylum-seekers, was planning to demonstrate against the July G8 conference in Scotland. Now he has something else to be angry about: this month, after attending a peaceful demo outside the G7 finance ministers’ meeting, he was followed for five hours, across London, by two uniformed police officers.
“I walked from Trafalgar Square to Oxford Circus,” he told me, “got a bus to Euston, then got the Tube down to Bank, then got another bus to Liverpool Street and finally walked to Brick Lane. I was followed by two cops in Day-Glo jackets all the way. By the end of it I was on first-name terms with them.”
North of the border, it’s worse. Senior police officers have issued warnings about anarchist groups bent on hijacking peaceful demonstrations and turning them into orgies of violence. Politicians have announced Scotland is a global target. Newspapers have published alarming stories about G8 mayhem and rings of steel.
The largest police operation in modern British history is under way. An army of specialist officers from across the country is preparing to help secure the conference. Halls of residence at the Universities of Stirling and Edinburgh have been set aside as accommodation. Meanwhile, Special Branch is covertly monitoring activists throughout the UK and liaising with national and international security agencies. It is expected that once demonstrators start arriving, the Edinburgh authorities will cordon off the Scottish Parliament, the Palace of Holyroodhouse and other historical sites around the city. Tayside Police intends to issue residents near Gleneagles Hotel, the venue for the conference, with ID passes, and restrict movement throughout the week.
The chief constable in charge of the G8 policing operation, John Vine, told me these measures are justified because previous G8 protests, especially at the Genoa summit in 2001, descended into violence. He is considering using Section 44 of the Terrorism Act to allow searches without reasonable suspicion – and to prevent disruptive individuals entering the country.
This provokes everything from polite consternation to fury in the protest movement. The mainstream Make Poverty History campaign (a coalition of more than 200 charities, trade unions and faith groups) argues that talk of violence may discourage families from attending: “Our record is one of massive public mobilisations that have been completely peaceful.”
The previous G8 summit in Britain, in 1998, passed off without incident despite 70,000 people surrounding Birmingham’s International Convention Centre. It was a remarkable success for the global justice movement – ever since, the issue of developing-world debt relief has climbed steadily up the political agenda. But it is doubtful that protesters could ever get as close again to international policy-makers.
“We are drifting into a situation where certain measures are automatically put in place around large conferences,” said a spokesman for the civil rights group Liberty. The police argue that they are only responding to intelligence. Yet it is impossible to judge if their arrangements are proportionate, as they refuse to give more details. Vine told me that disclosure of intelligence would be unprecedented for an operation of this scale: “I’m very conscious of human rights and I’m not going to put in place these measures unless it is essential to secure the conference. That’s my call, that’s my judgement, so I suppose on my head be it.”
The anti-capitalist alliance G8 Alternatives intends to hold peaceful public demonstrations at the Faslane nuclear base, Dungavel detention centre and Gleneagles Hotel. A leading member, Gill Hubbard, insists that the 2001 G8 protests in Genoa suffered from heavy-handed policing rather than violent rioters. Indeed, more than 70 Italian police officers, including senior commanders, are about to go on trial, accused of orchestrating police brutality at that conference and then attempting to cover it up.
So who are the mysterious anarchists plotting to disrupt the summit? The police told me they are particularly concerned about the Dissent network – a very loose coalition of anti-war, environmental and anarchist activists. Yet this group does not have a central office, spokespeople or a membership list. Moreover the police admit they have no specific information about any plots, despite monitoring and surveillance.
After repeated attempts to contact some of the groups involved in the Dissent network, I spoke to a nice man from the London Action Resource Centre. He said he would pass on my interview request but couldn’t find a pen to write down my number. Bungling? Perhaps. Sinister network? Not really.