Sunday, 15 April 2012
Kettling by the police - and why it could cause real problems at next week's Brighton March for England
Last week, wearing my hat as Brighton Council Cabinet Member for Communities, I went to see the police to make clear that we are a zero-tolerance city for hate crime, and that anything which is, or looks like, racism or homophobia, should lead to a prompt arrest.
The police said they would indeed take action against any such hate speech (or gestures), but stressed they would take an even hand when it comes to dealing with any crimes apparently conducted by anti-fascist counter-protesters too.
The police have a duty to facilitate peaceful protest, and to prevent any lawful political march (and, since we live in a free democracy, it is quite lawful for fascists to make their political point by marching, as long as it doesn't stray into hate crime) descending into criminality.
As a council, we too think everyone should be free to peacefully protest, as long as doing so presents neither a threat to public safety or the threat of serious disruption to residents, visitors of businesses going about their normal business.
There will always be some disruption of course - the test is whether that disruption is serious.
Next Sunday's march will be a difficult test for both the council and the police - it is really rare to have to manage two sets of protesters at the same time, especially when a few members of each group are intent on disrupting the actions of the other.
I wish the police well - and really hope we do see some arrests if any of the marchers are guilty of bringing any unacceptable racist or homophobic bile to the streets of Brighton and Hove.
After last year's march (pictured) there was a perception (rightly or wrongly) that the police were ill-prepared and took the side of the nationalists. I hope we don't see a repeat of that perception - and I have been assured by the police that we won't.
But even if the police are able to act in an even-handed way, they will lose all credibility if they resort to any sort of kettling at Victoria Gardens as they did last year - especially if innocent bystanders are caught up in it: again, this is reported as having happened last year.
'Kettling' - the practise of keeping protesters captive in a public space, sometimes for hours at a time - is immoral, probably unlawful (as it represents a police mass arrest without charge - although this hasn't been properly tested in court), and has been condemned by human rights activists, lawyers and politicians.
I expect the police not to resort to any such tactics this year - whatever happens. If someone is reasonably suspected of committing a crime, they should be arrested, charged and detained. If they aren't, they shouldn't be held against their will. Simple.
If they get this wrong, they will have missed an opportunity to right some of the perceived wrongs from last year. I wish them luck.