Critical Mass versus Whose Games? Hard and soft policing in action

This post was written by Matt on July 31, 2012
Posted Under: East London,London,Police,Sports,Uncategorized

I couldn’t make it to the Critical Mass last Friday. Judging from the reports that are coming out, though, the riders’ treatment by the police was terrible. Compare and contrast this with Saturday’s Whose Games? Whose City? protest, which I did attend. While the Critical Mass was given the full Hogan-Howe style Total Policing treatment (complete with strict bail conditions and injunctions for those arrested, despite no charges being brought for the majority), we had some open and friendly Protest Liaison Officers to talk us through ‘any issues’ we might have with the organisation of the demonstration. The protest passed off peacefully, in the sense that we were kept on the route that the police wanted us to take, we didn’t get near the Olympic park and the police only attempted to arrest one man, apparently for cutting some meat with a penknife.

We passed through very mixed neighbourhoods in Mile End and Bow and the majority of bystanders I saw were broadly supportive of the ethos of the demo. International press was well-represented, but of the British media I only saw Channel 4, and they weren’t interested in talking to any of the organisers. It’s good to make the point and do the march anyway, though, and Julian and all involved in organising the protest should be thanked (though I think the weekend before would have been a better date for the march – now that the games have started, the sport itself is too much in the spotlight for a protest which doesn’t break its boundaries to have any traction in the mass media).

I’d like to think about the Protest Liaison Officers, though. It seems that the two protests this weekend show the two faces of protest policing at the moment: on one side, the full force of the police’s power to arbitrarily determine what is legal or illegal at a given time, and against that, their ability to smooth over the distance between themselves and those to whom they are opposed, via ‘soft policing’ tactics like the PLOs (and speaking of arbitrary decisions, Wail Quasim has written a good bit for CiF explaining what the state of exception actually means)

Photo from Rikki at Indymedia

[Photo by Rikki at Indymedia]

My friends and I had a chat with one of the Liaison Officers, and he appeared (erscheinen) to be a reasonable person – he used that conversational technique that police often employ, where they say, ‘oh but of course I would agree with you, but I’m in uniform so I can’t’: we’re all the same underneath, let’s just get on with our jobs. But they’re not the same as us.

What is it that the police actually do? They enforce the current social order, whether it’s by total policing and violence or by subtler forms of discipline. In order for this to work most effectively, they need to be relatively autonomous from their command structure. Richard Seymour at Lenin’s Tomb has currently the best analysis I’ve seen of the role of the police in Britain (here he is talking about police racism and the relative autonomy of their officers). The point he’s making here is that in structural terms, we shouldn’t think of ‘rogue officers’ and ‘bad apples’ as something separate from the normal operating of the police.

I’d suggest that we need to see the role of the Police Liaison Officers in the same light. They’re autonomous to the extent that they can empathise and sympathise with protestors, and they’re mostly officers with London accents seem local and friendly when opposed to the bussed-in forces from Kent, Manchester, South Wales – not to mention squaddies – who are policing the rest of the games.

They also serve the useful role of drawing flak away from the rest of the officers: if there’s a Liaison Officer present, the rank and file can direct you to them (this is a more advanced form of the strategic ignorance that officers manning a kettle practice). And most importantly, as well as drawing attention away from other officers on the protests they attend, they also help us to forget the kind of violent policing that took place at Critical Mass. I don’t know if there were any PLOs at that event, and I’d be interested to hear from anyone who saw or spoke to one there, but somehow I doubt it.

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Reader Comments

Lyons Maid

Can you guess where this came from?

“Critical Mass is essentially a monthly bike ride through busy city streets. With cyclists taking up the whole road space, the city slows to a crawl. What is the purpose of this collective ‘one-fingered salute’ to every other road user? Here’s what Critical Mass London says on its homepage: ‘Who are we and what are our aims? We are not sure, opinions seem to differ. There are probably as many aims of CM as there are participants. Each individual comes there with his or her own idea of what it’s about, and the sum of this makes up the Mass. We have no organisers and no planned routes and this website does not try to be representative of CM in any way.’

So basically, our fearless two-wheeled friends are pissing off the rest of the world for no clear purpose whatsoever, a kind of Occupy movement in Lycra. When the riders decided – again, for who knows what reason – to cycle in the direction of the Olympic Park on Friday, they knew they had been specifically warned not to by police. The inevitable result was that they were contained and arrested. This was then used by some as an illustration of the neo-fascist, corporatist state-within-a-state behind London 2012, rather than the police, in a fairly risk averse way, preventing disruption of a globally viewed event.

Dear Critical Mass, if you are going to stage a protest, at least work out what you are protesting about. It’s much more effective if you do. Secondly, grow a pair. If you’re taking on the police in such a manner, accept that you might get arrested in the name of the cause. Of course, it helps if you know what the cause is in the first place.”

Written By Lyons Maid on July 31st, 2012 @ 8:05 pm

So the fact that the Critical Mass cyclists had been ‘warned not to’ was enough reason for the police to use such heavy-handed tactics against them? And are we really supposed to think of that containment and arrest as inevitable? I’ve got my issues with CM, but this is steep.

They’re not really taking on the police, and if we’re being strict about it, they’re not protesting. That’s key to how they organise: they’re just going for a ride, and playing with the distinction between association (a bike ride) and organisation (a protest).

The point is that insofar as you can call CM a protest (which it’s not[!]), its aim is to defend the right to assemble and use the city differently than usual, and to do so without clearing that action with the police beforehand. In that sense, they probably did expect to get harrassed and arrested this Friday, but that doesn’t mean that the type of policing they saw is justified. The cops did what they always do, which is to arbitrarily decide what is criminal and what isn’t, and come down like a ton of bricks on anything which makes that arbitrariness obvious.

In the parts of your own comment piece that you didn’t quote, you seem to be suggesting that the fact that the Olympics is in town trumps our right to use the city as we always do, even if the way that we do use it might annoy some people. In practice, of course, the Olympics does mean that our relationship to the city is different (due in a large part to the extremity of policing we’ve seen), but to naturalise it or to take it as a real basis for determining how we should act is frankly nonsense.

Written By Matt on July 31st, 2012 @ 11:37 pm

There were indeed Liaison Officers present at Critical Mass last Friday. I can’t be sure how many there were in total. I had no interaction with them and left the mass quite early so I don’t know what role, if any, they played later on in the evening in Stratford. Here are two pictures of the same officer, the first just south of London Bridge and the second just south of Tower Bridge.

Written By Mat on August 1st, 2012 @ 3:00 am

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