Silencing the Streets: From Covid Exceptions to Police Crackdowns

Roxana Pessoa Cavalcanti, Deanna Dadusc, Raph Schlembach and Lambros Fatsis

Previously published by the Centre for Spatial, Environmental and Cultural Politics, University of Brighton

As news of the kidnapping and murder of Sarah Everard by a Metropolitan Police Officer became a headline story, a vigil held in her memory was violently suppressed by the very same police force on Clapham Common in London. Both incidents should shock us, but they should occasion no surprise. The world may have suddenly woken up to the reality of violence against women — as it belatedly grappled with police racism after last summer’s #BLM protests — but institutionalised misogyny and police violence are nothing new.

Rather than representing an exception, these events confirmed once more that police violence is not the result of “bad apples” of “isolated accidents”. Migrant women, Black women, women of colour and those who are non-normatively gendered are subject to  racist policing and patriarchal violence every day. For decades, they have been saying that the police are not the answer to gendered and racist violence, but part of the problem. The strength of this political moment — however delayed — is that many (carceral) feminist groups who still addressed the police as a solution to gendered violence and who called for more security, more police and more prisons can now learn from the demands and struggles of social movements and community groups that call for the abolition of the police and the criminal legal system as a whole.

These new alliances, coalitions and the protests they inspire are powerful, but they are already targeted and pursued as “dangerous” and “threatening” by the state and its law enforcement institutions through the introduction of the UK government’s Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Rightly nicknamed the “crackdown bill” by those who oppose it, this 296-page document parades its anti-protest stance with pride — raising concerns over its illiberal, undemocratic and discriminatory nature from leading human rights organisations, charities, campaigners and more than 700 legal scholars who (rightly) fear that that aspects of the current emergency powers included in the Coronavirus Act are here to stay. Introduced as a piece of legislation that gives new protections and powers to the police, this new Bill allows senior police officers and the Home Secretary to restrict protest activity in unprecedented ways, while also criminalising the living circumstances of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.

When Protesting Became a Crime

Under the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the police can now impose conditions on static assemblies, including timings and approved noise levels, even when the protest is held by just a single person. It will now become a crime to fail to follow police restrictions that protesters “ought” to have known and it will become an offence to intentionally or recklessly cause public nuisance as part of a protest, however vague or ill-defined this phrase is. Such authoritarian crackdowns on the right to protest are hardly unexpected and entirely consistent with the government’s “law and order” agenda, whose enmity towards protest has been expressed in public statements that described the most recent wave of the Black Lives Matter protests as ‘dreadful’ and labelled Extinction Rebellion activists as ‘criminals’ who ‘disrupt our free society’. Such inflammatory remarks could be ignored as mere reactionary ramblings, yet they threaten to become law. A recent HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) report, which accompanies and complements the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, describes ‘activity that seeks to bring about political or social change but does so in a way that involves unlawful behaviour or criminality’ as ‘aggravated activism’. Adopting a Counter Terrorism Policing definition of activism as a form of domestic extremism, such language signals an era of renewed expansion of surveillance on political and social movements.

The criminalisation of dissent that such new legislation further enables is an assault on everyone’s protest rights. The violent suppression of last weekend’s vigils, however, reminds us that men and women are policed differently, as a national study on anti-fracking protests revealed. Scenes of police officers barging into a crowd of mourners, throwing women to the ground and making arrests — as eyewitnesses report — are of a piece with groping and the pulling of clothing to reveal women’s breasts by police officers. A public inquiry is currently investigating the extent to which secretive undercover policing units permitted police officers to deceive female activists into long-term, intimate relationships. Those women who have found that they had been targeted for such operations after their partners’ sudden departures from their lives have long accused the police of institutional sexism and are seeking redress. The practice of having sexual relationships with women in protest groups was apparently so common that some of the victims have spoken of officers conspiring to rape.

As a group of Criminologists at the University of Brighton, we are deeply concerned and angered by tactics used to clamp down on the women-led vigil in Victoria Gardens by the local police force. Neither the statement from Sussex Police, nor the silence from Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne fill us with confidence that lessons will be learned, or decision-makers will be held accountable. It comes as no surprise to us that further protests have been held outside Brighton police station. Many messages and notes left at the temporary memorial to Sarah Everard in Brighton reveal the deep-seated distrust of policing solutions to male violence. “Police don’t protect”, reads one. “You can’t trust the police anymore”, says another. And “more police powers is never the answer”. As many claimed: “We do not want your protection – just stop killing us”.

Policing Protests and the Politics of Disposability

Making sense of these events, urges us to set up before us a broader canvas for a better understanding of policing and violence against women than conventional portraits of the matter allow. It is worth remembering that the protest vigils were met with police violence because they were against police violence. Such attempts to control, limit, silence and dilute dissenting voices is part of a long process of serving, protecting, maintaining and enforcing an unequal social order that is marked by hierarchies of gender, class, sexuality and “race”. What the policing against last weekend’s vigil and the introduction of the crackdown Bill as an extension of police powers and emergency government reveal, is an attempt to dismantle political opposition and social movements. This political logic exposes the State’s hostile relationship to those who are racialised, gendered and classed as subordinate by ensuring that they feel the full force of the law. Such politics of disposability, or what Achille Mbembe calls ‘necropolitics’ encourage us to understand policing, state violence and gender-based violence as interrelated. Defining ‘who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not’, as Mbembe notes, reminds us that the social order we are educated and socialised into is racial, as it is gendered and classed. To maintain such an order, an order maintenance institution is required, and the police are happy to oblige. This helps explain why those who are policed and treated with violence; physical, psychological or structural are Black people, those who are non-normatively gendered and those who are classed as a precarious and disposable workforce.

As we grapple with the implications of the current moment and the intersectional thinking that it requires of us, it is imperative to recognise, as the Combahee River Collective Statement compels us to do four decades after its publication, that ‘the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy’. Rethinking our current political moment, therefore, requires us to think about capitalism, imperialism and patriarchy as political economic and cultural systems of oppression that share a common language, ethic and purpose. The policing of protests against police violence therefore illustrates what policing is, what it does, who does it do it to, and who does it do it for; urging us to understand policing as an order maintenance institution that serves and protects a social order that is racialised as “white”, gendered as male or divided into heteronormative binaries and classed according to economic status. If we are to understand policing, we also ought to understand state violence. And to understand state violence, we need to understand that state formation itself is violent, depending as it does on an extractive and repressive logic that is imposed and therefore coercive by its very nature. And this extractive and repressive logic is disproportionately exercised on those who are racialised, gendered and classed as subordinate. As the State proceeds by arming itself with extra powers, empowering ourselves with the knowledge that “toxic masculinity kills” and that “police don’t keep us safe” is the first step towards making our demands heard and remaking the world we want to live in by mobilising our energies to create the conditions for the abolition of interlocking systems of oppression.

Originally published by the Centre for Spatial, Environmental and Cultural Politics, University of Brighton

The not-so-public inquiry into undercover policing has started its evidence hearings

BSC member Raphael Schlembach reports on the oral evidence hearings of the Undercover Policing Inquiry in England and Wales.

Raphael Schlembach is a Principal Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton. His research interests span social theory, criminal justice and political protest.

The Undercover Policing Inquiry, set up in 2015, finally has begun to hear oral evidence. Yet, most participants remain side-lined and national security considerations dominate the proceedings. This article argues that the inquiry’s chairman, Sir John Mitting, has lost the confidence of the majority of those with an interest in the scandal of undercover policing – victims, campaigners, journalists, academics – with the exception of the police and state representatives. Nevertheless, criminologists and policing scholars should follow the proceedings with interest.

A grainy photograph (see above) released by the Undercover Policing Inquiry shows the first undercover police unit set up in 1968, led by chief inspector Conrad Dixon with the blue jacket, deployed to spy on potential ‘subversives’.

It took a while. After some five years, £30million in mostly staffing or legal costs, and over a hundred anonymity orders preventing the publication of the names (and sometimes cover names) of former undercover officers, the Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI) has held its first set of evidence hearings in the first half of November 2020.

The inquiry, chaired by Sir John Mitting, a former High Court judge, had been set up in 2015 by Theresa May as a public inquiry according to the 2005 Inquiries Act. Three home secretaries later, the UCPI finally has had its first police witnesses on a zoom call, though unless you are one of the few registered parties allowed to view the stream in a four star London hotel, you are restricted to follow a live transcript. That’s one of the many reasons, as its critics assert, that the inquiry is “public” in name only.

According to his remit, Mitting is tasked to ‘inquire into and report on undercover policing operations conducted by English and Welsh police forces in England and Wales since 1968’. But the context is much more specific and inherently political, as the first three weeks of evidence hearings confirmed.

In this first phase of its work, the UCPI considered evidence about the period from July 1968 to the end of 1972. In March 1968, following a large rally to protest against the Vietnam war, a large part of the demonstration entered Grosvenor Square in Mayfair, home to the American embassy. Protesters pushed back police lines and mounted police responded with charges and mass arrests. It was the impetus for a new, secretive unit reporting to Special Branch, eventually called the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS).

SDS officers grew long hair and beards and adopted the cover identities of progressives and revolutionaries. Their first target was the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and its key figures, including Tariq Ali and Ernie Tate. During the 1970s and 1980s followed long-term infiltration of the Socialist Workers Party and other socialist and anti-racist groups. Later they also included animal rights groups, environmental protesters and some far right groups.

Giving his evidence over a full day of questioning, Tariq Ali, the Trotskyist author and intellectual, said that he has been spied upon by at least 14 undercover police officers over several decades. The surveillance continued until at least 2003, when Ali was on the national committee of the Stop the War Coalition mobilising against the invasion of Iraq.

There is considerable public interest in undercover policing, especially the targeting of so-called subversives and political radicals by the SDS and its successor organisation, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), which apparently disbanded, or rebranded, in 2011. Over the next two years, the public inquiry will hear further evidence from former police officers and from those subjected to intrusive surveillance about the undercover deployments and their effects. Of particular concern are:

  • The deployment of undercover officers to infiltrate and monitor primarily left-wing political groups and individuals, including elected representatives
  • Methods of deception that included long-term friendships and sexual relationships with activists
  • The creation of cover identities based on the details found on the birth and death records of deceased children, without their parents’ knowledge or consent
  • The monitoring of trade union activity that led to the blacklisting of workers
  • Officers attending criminal courts in their cover names, contributing to large-scale miscarriages of justice

I have followed the work of the UCPI for almost five years, observing most of its preliminary hearings held in the Royal Courts of Justice from 2016 to 2019. I witnessed delays and legal arguments that some said were deliberate tactics of obfuscation and obstruction on the part of police lawyers. The inquisitorial process quickly turned adversarial, with activists, researchers and media representatives arguing for full disclosure, while those representing the Home Office and various police bodies attempted to guarantee maximum secrecy, anonymity and document redactions.

The start of the evidence hearings did not settle the concerns of non-state non-police participants that their participation mattered only as an afterthought. One recalled ‘the impression that the Inquiry believes it can do its work without the non-state non-police core participants if needed’. Another, the blacklisted trade unionist and author Dave Smith, compared the inquiry to the Magisterium in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, clinging on to an outmoded and alternative truth.

As an academic observer, I had intended to follow evidence hearings as best as possible. Already before the Covid-19 pandemic, public access to the proceedings looked to be severely restricted. Crucially, the Chair ruled out a live stream, as is now customary for example in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. Observers had to attend in person. Due to the pandemic and in order to comply with social distancing measures, the UCPI then decided to conduct this phase of hearings virtually. Instead of a publically accessible video or audio feed, a single live stream of the oral evidence was transmitted to a venue in a central London hotel. Even senior media observers complained, with the BBC’s home affairs correspondent Dominic Casciani tweeting that the lack of a video link to the virtual hearings ‘basically means, from a practical perspective as a working reporter, that a public inquiry becomes largely impossible to report.’ Anyone who wanted to follow the proceedings had to apply to attend each day separately, with limited places to maintain social distancing.

And just as England was placed into a renewed lockdown, the Chairman, in his interpretation of the Public Health Regulations, withdrew attendance rights from members of the public. Although journalists and recognised core participants received exceptions, academic researchers did not.

Beyond my professional engagement, I admit to a personal interest in the inquiry’s work. As a student activist for a variety of political causes, I now know that I encountered at least three undercover police officers who had infiltrated the groups that I belonged to. As fellow activists, they were passing acquaintances, rather than friends. On one occasion, an undercover officer going by the cover name Marco Jacobs acted as an agent provocateur to involve me in a protest and we were both arrested for a conspiracy offence. Though never charged, it allowed police to search my house and confiscate, as ‘evidence’, materials for the PhD that I was working on at the time.

There are thousands of such stories of ‘mundane’ uses of undercover policing employed as a mechanism to control protest and activism. Current estimates have it that over 1,000 political organisations were reported on between 1968 and 2011, though only a fraction of them are currently named.

This is a major public inquiry, which allows us to revisit policing history over more than 50 years. It shifts our attention from the ‘policing by consent’ model, to policing by deception. It also demonstrates the difficulty in holding secretive policing functions to account, even when they apparently covered deeply un-democratic roles.

Few, if any, on the non-police side the proceedings so far, have faith in the ability of the Undercover Policing Inquiry to deliver truth and accountability. It appears to be left to campaigning groups and non-academic researchers to find their own ways to scrutinise the role of undercover policing. Using the hashtag #SpyCops on Twitter, they shine a light on the police infiltration of political movements and demand a genuinely public inquiry.

Contact

Raphael Schlembach, University of Brighton

Email: r.schlembach@brighton.ac.uk

Twitter: @raphschlembach

Images: Courtesy of author

After the Pandemic: Criminology and Social Harm after Covid-19

We are in the extraordinary position of being able to observe the genesis of change that is affecting all aspects of our social world

ADiaper

Andy Diaper MA (Crime and Justice) works with vulnerable and excluded people within the community. His research interests are what he calls ‘street life’:  Homelessness, drug dependency/dealing, street drinking, sex work and people who for a variety of reasons enact most of their lives on the street.

 

We are living in exceptional times as Covid-19 appears to be running out of control throughout most of the world. The death toll rises daily at a frightening rate, the fear and tragedy touches everyone’s lives. It feels ever more difficult to get clear and trustworthy information as scientists and politicians in England and indeed from around the world give out contradictory statements. Globalisation has never felt more real or terrifying.  How do we keep ourselves and loved ones safe? Will life ever return to ‘normal’ again? Our collective ontological security is fast slipping away.

Is this a good time to contemplate change? Or to begin planning future research whilst we are surrounded by so much death and pain? The short answer is yes but care and empathy are called for. We are in the extraordinary position of being able to observe the genesis of change that is affecting all aspects of our social world. It is far too early to speculate what changes will occur in the long term but that should not stop tentative exploratory work being carried out now. What better time to start collecting data such as ethnographic inquiry, diaries, collating statistical information now be it false or accurate, the truth can be looked for later.

It is a time of thinking out loud, time to look for the questions to ask, not a time to formulate answers. Perhaps the best way of achieving this is in the form of blogging and social media as opposed to the more formal academic paper. This is also an effective way of reaching a wider audience because of this it is also important to write in an accessible way. Greater reflexivity is required to place us within the research, the epidemic will have touched all our lives. It can be argued that for too long criminology has produced important work deserving of better dissemination, but never gaining the wider recognition it deserves. We are on the cusp of the ‘new normal’ it is an opportunity that cannot be missed.

There has been much speculation on the value of social science during Covid-19. It has been argued that the only science of value concerning the pandemic is medical or related fields such as epidemiology.  This may well be true at the most fundamental level in saving lives and understanding the nature of the virus. The function of the virus is to find hosts to make reproduction possible. However, how the virus can move through populations, who is most vulnerable and at risk is very much the domain of social sciences.

So where does criminology come into play?  At the simplest level it can be seen to fulfil two functions. Firstly, the study of the introduction of the new  ‘The Coronavirus Act 2020’  (2020, Act) and the scope of the effects on our civil liberties. The 2020 Act touches on many aspects either by amending existing statutes or creating new ones. These changes affect many facets of our lives removing some fundamental freedoms: one being the power to restrict public gathering or to prohibit them entirely. It can be argued that when emergency powers are introduced  they can often outlive the original phenomena. Leading to the danger of using the legislation in ways that the Act was not originally created for. There is also the examination of the effects of Covid-19 on crime in general for example the rise in domestic abuse and how some volume crimes appear to have decreased. It will be a time to revisit how we theorise crime.

Secondly there is the social harm perspective to the pandemic. It should be remembered that a zemiological perspective can be used to analyse crime as well as social harm. David Downes famously stated that criminology was a rendezvous discipline and as such zemiology should now be embraced in the same way as sociology or social psychology to give two examples. This is not the place to put a full argument forward on whether it should become a discipline or not. At the time of writing this piece the four nations of the UK are beginning to lift the lock down incrementally. Business and schools  are being urged to re-open despite concerns from elements of the public, press, opposition MP’s and scientists.  On the effect this may have in creating a second spike to the virus, we cannot predict the future, but we can prepare the groundwork for future research. At this time, we do not know what effect this lifting the lock down will have on people’s lives. However, it is not difficult to speculate if this lifting is too early and a second spike is created the devastation could be horrific. It is already tentatively coming to light that the pandemic has affected the vulnerable in society the most. The elderly in care homes, those in poor housing and the lowest paid doing the most dangerous jobs with insufficient protective equipment. Social harm has already occurred, but it could become far worse. It is the time to begin to gather the evidence to build future research even if it does feel very ‘raw’ now. It is also a good time to consider Engels concept of ‘social murder.’

As was said at the beginning this piece contains no answers only questions. By beginning the process when many are struggling to simply get by daily is a big ‘ask’. However, by formulating the questions whilst the pandemic is still all around us, we will form better questions, leading to better research and who knows, answers to better understand and control future disasters.

I will finish on a famous saying from a 1980’s American cop show ‘Hill Street Blues’

‘Let’s be careful out there’

Contact

Andy Diaper, Independent Researcher

Email: Andy.diaper@btinternet.com

Twitter: @andy_diaper

 

Images: courtesy of the author