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3 May 2008

Is this what a police state looks like?

Claire Provost, reporting on a demonstration outside City Hall on the night of the London mayoral co

By Claire Provost

Hours before Boris Johnson took the platform outside City Hall to proclaim his victory as the next mayor of London, anarchists and anti-fascist activists assembled along the Queen’s Walk to protest the elections and in a bid to blockade Richard Barnbrook and other members of the British National Party from approaching City Hall.

Protestors trickled in down the path from Tower Bridge, dispersing among the crowds of camera-toting tourists and their toddlers, high school volleyball teams on school trips, students and local workers. But what was planned as a protest against the elections and a blockade of the BNP became little more than a demonstration of power by the London Metropolitan Police and the now-notorious Forward Intelligence Team (FIT).

The protest was planned as a targeted demonstration against the far-right ideology of the BNP and a wider protest against the lack of representation of working class by political representatives. Fliers for the demonstrations proclaimed London as a “playground to the super rich” criticizing the Mayor’s office for financially backing the 2012 Olympics against local objections, and for widespread privatization and gentrification.

However, despite the thousands of leaflets printed advertising the action, and despite the months of planning, postering and stickering, barely one hundred protestors gathered at City Hall for the demonstration. Many stayed home, or at a distance, soured by the persistent police presence at such widely-advertised protests, and wary of further encounters with the FIT team.

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At least two hours before the scheduled 6pm protests, police officers had already established a concentrated perimeter around City Hall, stretching beyond the borders offered by the picturesque London and Tower Bridges. “Suspiciously dressed” passengers were systematically stopped and searched by officers on foot at Underground stops. By five o’clock the small brownfield off the south side of City Hall was filled by 24 police vans encircled by police cameras mounted on tripods and multi-story cranes.

Police medics and hundreds of police officers swarmed around City Hall, patrolling the area in pairs, equipped with earpieces and accompanied by the FIT-team outfitted in blue vests. As demonstrators arrived in small groups, FIT-team officers slowed into motion, tailing individuals, photographing groups of would-be protestors, stopping and searching anyone wearing a black hooded sweatshirt.

I was asked by a German tourist if a riot was expected. In any other European country, such police preparations would be seen as the prologue to a street fight. Yet half an hour before the demonstration was set to begin, it became obvious who the real targets were: five FIT-team officers and a civilian photographer employed by the team had stationed themselves across the path from two fourteen year-old protestors waving flags. For ten minutes they stood photographing the teenagers, taking detailed notes about the clothing, shoes, and mannerisms of the next generation’s politically active.

Shortly after demonstrators assembled in front of City Hall, a number of people stooped down to gather and unfurl a banner from Antifa, a loosely-organized collective of activists committed to militant anti-fascism in opposition to the far-right in Britain and across Europe. The BNP is their current top priority. Meanwhile, they’re one of the FIT-team’s top priorities.

The FIT-team is a section of the Metropolitan Police, and part of the Public Order Intelligence Unit which first appeared targeting football teams in the early 1990s. Their coverage has since expanded to political meetings, protests and demonstrations, where they are tasked to identify, monitor and isolate potential “street activists” who have shown signs that they may be likely to “provoke disorder.”

The FIT-team is set into motion by buzz-words such as “anti-globalisation” and “animal liberation,” by the sight of black-and-white patches, dreadlocks, and most passers-by who dare look them in the eye.

Accompanied by civilian photographers employed to assist them, the FIT team has established an atmosphere of constant and targeted surveillance of known activists and “potential trouble-makers”. The effect on political protest is often debilitating. “We spend our time speculating what the police might do to us, rather than what we ourselves want to do,” said one protestor.

In response, a loose collective of free speech activists have formed “FIT watch” a program to monitor the monitors, to ensure the FIT-team stay within their legal limits, and to commit acts of sabotage against their relentless intelligence-gathering exercises and the cold, calculated intimidation game of constant surveillance and harassment. “FIT watch” members frequently move in front of photographers to block the activists being targeted, hold banners up in front of their faces, heckle the FIT-team, and photograph the photographers. They are frequently arrested with obstruction charges, the majority of which are dismissed as most of the photographers are civilians in police dress, not actual officers.

Inside the Pen

Shortly after banners were unfurled on May 2nd – with slogans such as “This is anti-fascism” and “No to the crook, the toff, the fascist or cop!” – officers from the Tactical Security Group (TSG) encircled the motley crew of barely sixty protestors, pushing their banners, masks and flags out of the brewing media circus and back away from City Hall. Within fifteen minutes, thirty-five people – including two unsuspecting Italian tourists – had been individually isolated from the crowds and dragged into a pen inscribing a temporary “Breach of Peace Cordon” constructed by interlocking metal gates and protected by up to eighty-two police officers – from at least four different boroughs – at any given time.

Under Section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986, a senior police officer has the power to impose a number of conditions on public assemblies, including the location of the assembly, the number of people who may participate, and the length of the assembly. Section 14 is frequently use to cordon off portions of demonstrations, under the justification that the cordon may help prevent a future breach of the peace by isolating dangerous elements of a crowd to “prevent serious public disorder, serious criminal damage or serious disruption to the life of the community.”

Taking photographs of the demonstration for this article, I was followed by three members of the FIT-team who were overheard debating how “suspicious” I was. “If she keeps taking photos, then yes.” Yes what?

Yes I would join the ranks of young people spread-eagle against the walls, being searched? Yes I would be interrogated regarding my involvement in the demonstration I was covering for an article? In the end, I was ordered to join the pen by Chief Inspector Michael Dod, who determined my detention necessary under the suspicion that I may join demonstrators in a future breach of the peace.

Those contained within the pen were subject to continual harassment by the FIT-team, who filmed us continuously and shouted at the seasoned activists, calling them by their first names. Other protestors experienced their first brush with FIT-team intimidation: “You’ve been identified by the photographer. You live in Brixton.”

In the pen the detained activists gathered in small groups to debate and lament the ever-increasing intelligence gathering exercises by the FIT-team. Several spoke of years of harassment and wrongful arrests, while others spoke of the war of attrition waged by intelligence teams against political activists who are increasingly less likely to attend high-profile demonstrations for fear of being followed, interrogated, and photographed by the FIT-team. “Many of us just keep on walking when we see the cops,” said one protestor, “we’re tired of being pushed aside, penned in, photographed, bullied and harassed.”

Kept for over three hours without water or access to a toilet, several people were forced to urinate within the cordon, and the eventual release of the detained activists was conditional on each leaving individually or in pairs, to be interrogated by the FIT-team, photographed, video-taped, and often escorted off-site by teams of police officers.

With demonstrators outnumbered by officers by at least 5 to 1, where and what was the threat to warrant such treatment? This form of pre-emptive policing, of intimidation before action, of often arbitrarily selecting and physically enclosing “potential threats” brings to the fore the dramatic need to re-evaluate tactics used by protestors in twenty-first century London.

New times, new tactics

As expected, the BNP won their first seat on the 25-person London Assembly with 130,714 votes and 5.33% of the share. Barnbrook finished fifth in the mayoral race, with an unexpected last-minute decline in electoral support, winning only 2.84% of the vote – down from 3.04% in 2004.
Meanwhile the BNP took additional council seats across the country, including two seats in Amber Valley, Derbyshire, the site of the upcoming BNP “Red, White and Blue” festival this summer.

Notorious for manipulating the disillusionment with Labour and tapping into concerns over immigration the BNP is a forerunner in the race to capture the “white working class vote.” The rhetoric of the BNP pushes an agenda to end what they see as anti-white discrimination and to protect the rights of the “indigenous British population.”

Following yesterday’s election results, anti-fascist groups – including Youth Against Racism in Europe – have begun planning and organizing rallies to protest the BNP’s new seat on the London Assembly. Yet future demonstrations must bear in mind the lessons of May 2nd, and the tactics of protest demand re-evaluation.

In a city with a history of radical and innovative demonstrations – from Reclaim the Streets to Critical Mass – new tactics for public demonstrations are desperately needed in order to preserve and assert free speech and political expression in the midst of increased harassment and surveillance by the police and the FIT team.

And these tactics must be developed quickly, before the fourteen year-olds of this generation are faced with the choice between succumbing to lives subdued by society’s endemic apathy, or lives as continual objects under scrutiny, subjects for constant surveillance, and projects for the newest wave of experimental state control.

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