Tuesday 19 May 2009

More police words that say it all

In a couple of posts recently I've drawn attention to the way the Metropolitan police have expressed themselves about policing of the G20 protests. I've shown how they have chosen words to give misleading impressions, without exactly lying ('Metspeak'), and the way they have said things that are unintentionally revealing of the Met's mindset - for example, when one senior police officer recently implied that the criteria of successful protest policing are wholly about public order, ignoring the right to peaceful protest.

Well, it looks like the problem isn't confined to the Met.

We had some evidence of this back in April, when the police in Nottinghamshire preemptively arrested 114 people about to demonstrate at an E.ON coal-fired power plant. According to one report of the events: "[Protesters] had their hands cuffed behind their backs and were left standing there for an hour and a half while the police searched the building. There were lots of people there who had never had so much as a parking ticket and some of them were really quite shaken...."

Tellingly, according to this report, 'one protester was allegedly asked: "Are you proud to be a terrorist?"'

OK, you could put that down to individual stupidity.

However, George Monbiot's column today indicates that this particular officer may have been voicing a mind-set that is more widely shared in the police. Indeed, it looks as if it could be akin to an 'official' view.

According to Monbiot:

'A few weeks ago, like everyone in mid-Wales, I received a local policing summary from the Dyfed-Powys force. It contained a ­section headed Terrorism and Domestic Extremism. "Work undertaken is not solely focused on the threat from ­international terrorists. Attention has also been paid to the potential threat that domestic extremists and campaigners can pose." '

Monbiot filed a Freedom of Information request to find out what the phrase 'domestic extremists and campaigners' means. The police have told him they will not be replying within the statutory period - er, in what sense, then, is this a 'statutory period'? - or given any indication when they will tell him.

This is pretty amazing in itself. The police wrote this document. Just how hard can it be to tell the public what they mean by words that they themselves penned? Have they been reading some complex literary theory, provoking a crisis in their ability to pinpoint their own authorial intent?

Monbiot refers us to the Dyfed-Powys police website where the force gives an example of policing what it calls 'domestic extremists and campaigners': overseeing the killing of a TB-infected bull which a Hindu community regarded as sacred. As Monbiot points out: '[The bull's] defenders sought a judicial review and launched a petition. When that failed, they sang and prayed. That's all.' These people are 'domestic extremists'? They are somehow a domestic equivalent of the threat from international terrorism?

Finally, Monbiot reports a recent Welsh police bulletin which identifies a new challenge in the form of 'eco-terrorism'. No examples of anything resembling terrorism are given to illustrate what this means. 'It appears,' writes Monbiot, 'to refer to any environmental action more radical than writing letters to your MP.'

What we have, then, is a gradual accumulation of evidence pointing to a widespread and high-level failure of police officers to make elementary distinctions between terrorism, civil disobedience and (in the case of the Hindu community) simple conscience-driven protest.

This is no small point. It amounts to the demonisation of legitimate protest.

And stepping over that line marks a crucial difference between a democratic police force and one operating on the assumptions of an authoritarian state.

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