It has emerged in the last couple of days, as the occupation outside St Paul’s Cathedral has reached something of a stalemate, that Liberty have offered to act as mediators. There seems to be a bit of confusion here, as the Guardian are reporting that Shami Chakrabarti (director of Liberty) is offering mediation, whereas some protesters are saying they have just offered space and not mediation. Whatver is the case, it seems important to outline some of the problems with protesters working in any way with Liberty.
Liberty does, indeed, have a good left-wing heritage, but today it is not what it once was, and perhaps the key to understanding why it probably isn’t a good idea for #OccupyLSX to engage with any mediation that involves them is to look at the last time they engaged with protest in London, on March 26. In that case they were called upon jointly by the TUC and the Met Police to provide legal observers for the occasion. Liberty, called in by the police, were given access to what’s called the “Special Operations Room” from which central command in large police operations is given (Richard, here on the Third Estate, wrote a report on this at the time).
Notably in the adverts that went out to recruit these “legal observers”, Liberty said:
You should be aware that if you witness an incident which leads to court proceedings, you could be asked to give evidence in court. As an independent legal observer you will need to give unbiased evidence of what you witnessed, regardless of whether bad behaviour is alleged against a police officer, demonstrator or other member of the public.
That’s right. Liberty, called in by the police, given access to central command, were then acting as evidence-gatherers for the police against protesters. This is extremely strange behaviour for an “independent” group that focuses on “civil liberties.” Indeed, the problem here is that Liberty has failed to achieve any “independence” from the police, and instead, on the day, acted as something like a Big Society voluntary police force.
Asst Comm Lynne Owens said in evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights in the run up to the protest:
We have been, alongside the TUC, engaging with Liberty who are working with us on the planning process. A number of our Liberty colleagues will have access to the intelligence we have in the run up to event, they will be involved in planning of the event with us and based in our specialist operations room, our control room for the event, and they will also have observers working alongside us on the streets, watching how our strategic intentions are put into practice and providing us with advice and guidance post the event.
The Network for Police Monitoring wrote an extremely good critique of this at the time, which was sadly willfully ignored by Liberty.
And indeed, somewhat unsurprisingly, when Liberty came to write a report of what happened on March 26th, their commentary didn’t really say a great deal about the police. Ok, so it said a little about kettling, except their legal observers somehow failed to observe any of the kettles that happened that day (incidently I happened to be in one on Piccadilly until we broke out of it), but they do make rather a lot of remarks about the behaviour of demonstrators. A few examples:
One observer stationed in Hyde Park remarked on the “good relationship” between police and protestors and that they were “engaging in a positive way”. Another, stationed on the Embankment close to Savoy Street noted officers’ “regular friendly interaction with protestors (giving directions, answering questions etc.)”. A third commented that officers were “very pleasant and smiling”, another that they were “relaxed”, that the atmosphere was “very good natured” and that the crowd was “generally well managed.”
Another observer recorded at 4.25pm that the police response was proportionate, noting that: “police officers pushing against protestors who are pushing back outside Fortnum & Mason… force used by police not unreasonable.
(Perhaps I shouldn’t expand on the extent of injuries sustained by friends in this particular skirmish, needless to say there was rather a lot of blood coming out of a few peoples heads.)
By far the greatest policing challenge was the presence of violent individuals and groups who had infiltrated the demonstration but periodically separated from the main route in order to attack high profile commercial properties and the police before melting back into the demonstration. Overall our impression was that the police reacted proportionately and gave appropriate consideration to the rights of the peaceful protestors on the TUC march who were affected by such incidents. As we have underlined above, we did not observe events which took place after the official march had ended and therefore this report contains no comment on them.
That is, Liberty failed to pick up on a great deal of police violence throughout the day. They bought in, totally, to a police narrative in which a peaceful protest was “infiltrated” by others (a standard police line used to divide social movements.) And then said that the policing was proportional, in the process managing to ignore the mass arrest in Fortnum and Mason, and ignoring a whole number of situations of extremely brutal police interventions throughout the day, not least the all out attack on protesters in Trafalgar Square once night fell. The expression “turning a blind eye” comes to mind. (There is more critique of this report from Network for Police Monitoring here). And we know full well that this so-called “independent” account of the proportionality of police actions is used in court as evidence in the prosecution and sentencing of protesters.
Interactions with the police at #OccupyLSX have often been rather strange. I was there legal observing (as a Green and Black Cross observer) on the first Saturday, and watched 40 Territorial Support Group coppers bash their way through the crowd to form a line at the top of the steps of St Paul’s. And yet such needless violence has not seemed to impact on protesters with regard to their interactions with the police. Indeed, many have had to be warned time and time again that they probably shouldn’t get chummy with officers in the square, and many do not fully understand the argument that the police, acting as the executive force of the state that guarantees the maintenance of the political-economic status quo are not part of “the 99%”. Nonetheless if one is to be anti-capitalist it seems that a somewhat antagonistic stance towards police officers qua police is totally necessary.
Hence there ought to be some serious problematisation of the offer of Liberty to mediate this. They have shown themselves to be seriously compromised with regards to their supposed independence from the police. They have shown themselves to act effectively against protesters and activists, and have defended the state. They are not, and cannot ever be, an independent mediator here as they have already shown too clearly this year whose side they are on.