Before stating the motive of a demonstration, news reporters have usually unveiled the number of arrested protesters. This evocative topic regurgitates any previously circulated footage of police officers dragging activists into the back of armoured vans, immediately suggesting those arrested are lawbreakers.
Yet, the majority of the time those detained are never charged, which leaves room to question the purpose behind these empty but emotionally strenuous arrests. A Freedom of Information request from a member of the public shows that out of 221 arrested during the London student protests in November and December 2010, only three people were charged. This overwhelmingly demonstrates that arrests are often unjustly made.
So how must it feel to attend your first protest and see yourself or fellow demonstrators end up in handcuffs?
The perception may still be that activists are full-time jobless hippies, but the reality is they have real responsibilities and have to consider the impact making a stand for what they believe in, will have on their ordinary life and employment.
Protests are notorious for unfair arrests and as we are in no political climate for dissent to suddenly cease, having an understanding of your rights is essential for demonstrators.
Know Your Rights
On 27 February, Leeds Green and Black Cross (GBC) held a ‘know your rights’ workshop for local activists. They put them on around the country at the request of groups or organisations and recommend everyone attends at least once.
The group are there to hand over some basic but necessary knowledge of the law, the power of police officers and their own rights. Around 50 activists attended the workshop at Ebor Court, Leeds.
As an independent grassroots project, GBC was set up to support social struggles within the UK by providing legal support for protests.
The workshop covered the rights you have during a stop and search and rights you can exercise when getting arrested. It also went through the arresting process and laws commonly used on protesters, so activists are not surprised by any of the procedures.
They encourage learning key messages: ‘No Comment’ which advises activists not to answer police officer’s questions as it could affect their case, ‘No Personal Details’ in regards to having no obligation to give details during a stop and search, ‘No Duty Solicitor’ as it is suggested to use a recommended solicitor with protest experience, ‘No Caution’ as it admits guilt for an alleged offence that might never get to court and ‘What Power?’ which challenges a police officer to act lawfully.
The above advice is there to ‘prepare’ activists in case of dealings with police, as they often expect people to be uninformed and naive about their rights. The sessions are there so people are not left vulnerable with their unawareness being manipulated.
GBC describe themselves as a ‘solidarity organisation’ that do not participate in the actions they support and have a policy of not talking to media as it could interfere with the service they offer. They are a participant group of Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol).
Kevin Blowe, Coordinator at Netpol, said: “Know Your Rights training is really helpful in conveying some key messages to people taking part in demonstrations.
“What training can also offer is reassurance – that the sudden appearance of more police is probably just a shift change, not the prelude to arrests, or that if a police officer tells you to move, you can ask ‘am I legally obliged to?’ It can tell you why it is important not to talk to the friendly-sounding Police Liaison Officers, who are in fact intelligence-gatherers, or that you do not need to comply with intrusive police photographers and can cover your face. We have even started to give advice on private security staff, who demonstrators are increasingly coming into contact with.
“Police officers can only act based on legal powers granted to them, but often rely on demonstrators’ lack of knowledge to threaten arrest or insist people move on when they have little authority to do so.
“Equally many officers seem to know remarkably little about the limits of their powers and if they are unsure, a little preparation by demonstrators can offer a way to assert your rights. Ultimately, however, the police can and often do whatever they like: it is what happens afterwards, when their actions are scrutinised and, in some cases, legal action is brought against them, which is just as important.
“That is why we also hope some demonstrators will also think about training as Green & Black Cross legal observers. These volunteers are what make a real difference in the long term.”
In general, the number of arrests is not the most useful indicator of either repressive policing or levels of political dissent. There were more protests in 2015 in the UK than at any time since the 1970s, but the protest movements were also broader, more disparate. Kevin added: “There are no statistics we use on arrests but we do know, from people’s experiences, that there was more police surveillance, but also better organised monitoring of the police and more people whose arrests never lead to charges or a court appearance. Arrests are not always a question of policy: sometimes they are just because a police officer exceeds his or her authority.
“In those circumstances – unlike, say, in 2010 – demonstrators now have a well-developed infrastructure of support, including groups like Netpol, Green & Black Cross, Legal Defence & Monitoring Group and others, who are experienced in resisting injustice and are working closely with each other and with lawyers.”
Kevin talks about the growing trend of police using mass arrest, which he says is often a means of gathering intelligence on new and emerging protest movements. He said: “It is certainly designed to intimidate. Mass arrests have become more of a burden to the police financially because they are challenged in the courts: many cases are settled at considerable cost and we await news on a number of potentially major settlements soon.”
In 2013, 286 anti-fascists were mass arrested whilst on a counter demonstration against the English Defence League (EDL) in Tower Hamlets, London. Protestors were arrested under Section 12 & 14 of the Public Order Act as they had breached conditions of police confining the anti-fascist protest away from the areas which the EDL were due to march. Out of those arrested, only three were charged.
A 28-year-old living in South Yorkshire, who would like to remain anonymous, was one of the anti-fascists arrested. His arrests has since been successfully challenged and deemed unlawful and is in process of receiving compensation.
He said: “I was aware of my rights and I’ve been very pro-active at getting information before going on demonstrations. I was aware of GBC when they first started around 2010 so got to know their work, and, thus, made myself aware of my rights and I was therefore more confident of my position when I was arrested. I was relatively calm up until the point in which I was incarcerated in a cell. The overwhelming sense of losing one’s freedom was particularly strong.
“Generally, we were not treated well. There was lack of facilities available whilst in the ‘kettle’ and we were held in corridors before processing and booking at police station for a number of hours.”
Getting arrested has a variation of consequences besides the legality issues. “There certainly is an element of mass psychology at work in terms of deterrence – and ultimately censorship. The conditions under which protestors are arrested, flexible use of the law in order to detain and arrest, have a subsequent effect on mental health as a result of protesting.”
He added: “In regards to antifascist protests: self-defence and defending communities from threat of violence should not be a crime. Such protests are legitimate in that they protect people from violent acts and hate speech.”
Dru G, a 22-year-old student in Sheffield was one of 18 who were arrested at the ‘Grants Not Debt’ protest organised by National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts in November 2015. He was arrested under Violent Disorder, for running from the police and wearing black, which is a practice exercised by those who are a part of the black bloc on demonstrations, as it conceals their identities making it more difficult to distinguish between protesters. He was released on bailed to return as well as having items such as his phone, flag and bandana confiscated.
“I attended the Green and Black Cross legal observer training at Goldsmiths University around August last year. I was aware of ‘No comment’ and not to use a duty solicitor as it was kind of drilled into me by GBC which was reassuring because the eight hours I was in the cell, I knew what I was going to say – nothing. I’ve been going to demos since I was 15 so have read a lot of ‘bustcards’ and it sticks with you,” he said.
“I asked under what power are you arresting me but the police weren’t really fazed because they had obviously had the order to arrest on sight so they wouldn’t get the blame no matter what happened. The sessions did definitely help though. It’s just reassuring knowing that other people are active in helping people who get into bother with the police and to advertise rights.”
Dru exercised his right to a phone call and contacted a recommended solicitor, Bindmans, who supported his decision to a no comment interview. He explained: “Being an anarchist the number one rule is never talk to the police, grass or comply.
“Nobody knew I had been arrested at the time, but I gave my name to GBC who were able to tell people I know that called them where I was. I was pretty gutted and exhausted. I knew it would eventually be fine but I knew that it was going to be a lot of hassle.
“In the cell I would ask for water which they only brought about once for every two times asked. I was very dehydrated, which I think was intentional so I wouldn’t be fit for the interview. Overall, I didn’t cope great. Being in that cell from 5pm-1am meant that I had intense claustrophobia. Even taking showers can be difficult to do without having a panic attack. Putting my family through all the worry too also took its toll.”
Talking about the reasons behind his arrested, he said: “I don’t think it was fair, it wasn’t something I’d heard of before, and getting arrested based on clothing, so I was quite surprised. It goes without saying that it’s an arbitrary reason. Most had their cases dropped, and for those that didn’t I can’t speak on their behalf so can’t add any more.
“In the short run, it has deterred me from protesting, but in the long run it won’t. Police arresting people may not deter them from protesting, but it will put people off taking risks or taking more direct action.”
He added: “I’m concerned about the effect on the arrestee’s mental health. It’s an unforgivable abuse by police.”
What is it like when you are not so confident of your rights?
Unlike Dru, Jon Wood, 27, who lives in Leeds, had not been to a GBC workshop when he was as 20-year-old student at Leeds Metropolitan University. He had attended an antifacist ‘Antifa England’ demonstration in opposition to a Blood & Honour gig in Welling, Kent. Blood & Honour are neo-Nazi music promoters and a political group composed of white power activists. There were seven arrests that day and a further 16 arrests were made during dawn raids orchestrated simultaneously across the country.
At the time, Jon was arrested for breach of the peace. He said: “I think it can only be expected that when confronting fascists in this type of setting you are likely to be arrested, I believe the police in this situation acted as expected.
“I had never attended some sort of ‘Know Your Rights’ workshop prior to getting arrested. I used a duty solicitor as I didn’t have any other choice. He did ask me to give a statement but I refused and simply answered no comment as I knew this is the golden rule of being arrested during activism. I wasn’t as aware or confident of my rights as I would have liked to have been.
“It does cross your mind to be cooperative. They try to make you offers and you fear they’re going to go hard on you, perhaps because I was so young, it made it easier for the police to pull this. I was allowed to call my mum from the police station and I was very anxious but you have nothing to do but try and sleep until you’re released.
“I’m aware more of my rights from attending further demos. I find legal observers on the ground at demos are the most helpful, they can give up to date info on what you should and shouldn’t do such as when a section 60 is applied.”
Whilst held in custody in a cell, Jon heard police officers using the violent disorder charge.
“I was scared but believed I would be soon released, this was not the case and I was detained for almost the full 24 hours.
“I then became extremely scared and felt very vulnerable. The police pretty much ignored me for the entire time except for when they came in to photograph me and when they interviewed me.”
Jon was placed on bail, and remained on bail for 29 months until he was tried in Blackfriars Crown Court in London. His bail conditions began strict and he was prevented from being in train stations, in London, outside of the house between 7pm and 7am, outside in a group of more than three, having any contact with other people who were arrested and was required to sign on daily at the police station. These were then relaxed to being in the house between 9pm and 9am and signing on twice weekly and was further relaxed to unconditional bail by Westminster Magistrates Court on his first magistrates court appearance after he’d been charged with conspiracy to commit violent disorder. He was later found guilty.
“One person, an 18-year-old woman, had charges dropped, the rest of us were charged with conspiracy to commit violent disorder. We believed that the prosecution thought it easier to convince a jury that we were a bunch of violent antifascists out for blood when we were all male, mostly large and with shaved heads, than if there was also an 18-year-old woman who had never been in trouble before. Seven of us were found guilty, the rest acquitted,” he explained.
The six men Jon was on trial with got prison sentences. As he was the youngest by many years and had caring responsibilities, he was given 12 month suspended sentence and 150 hours unpaid work.
He admits that getting arrested has definitely deterred him from protesting. He said: “Being sat in the box waiting to hear my fate as my friends are dragged off to prison was the most terrifying moment of my life. I have strong principles and do still attend demos, including some demos where I’m aware I may be arrested but it does make me a lot more apprehensive and cautious.”
Jon believes a lot of policing of this type is done as evidence gathering. “While in court the prosecution barrister was overheard saying he didn’t care of the outcome but was satisfied he’d put an end to Antifa, the barrister was name Mark Trafford and had links to the Conservative Party, he obviously had a political interest in the case, I believe the police do also.
“Mark Kennedy the undercover police officer was aware of the demonstration and was involved in the planning of the demo, we didn’t realise he was a policeman until years later but our arrests were obviously made on his tip off, we believe it was done as a means to stamp out militant anti-fascism in Britain at the time by identifying and removing those most active from circulation.”
Arresting protesters is essentially a form of censorship. This form of policing has evolved in a way which is silencing those who do not agree with the state’s interests.
Dr Lucy Finchett-Maddock, a Lecturer in Law at Sussex University, primarily works on human rights, property within law and resistance and squatting. On knowing your rights in other political circumstances, she said: “It certainly surprises the authorities when protesters are legally informed, particularly with the example of squatters, as they have to be legally savvy to be able to stay within the building for any amount of time in the first place. Knowing your rights and the legal frameworks can stall proceedings in eviction defences, the more protesters who ensure they know the legal loopholes, the more likely there can eventually be a triumph of protest over property ownership in the long run, for the further development of the right to protest in general, against the current status quo of overbearing private interests.”