Protesting and Policing  October 24, 2009 London Protest

Demonstrators march during an anti-war rally in London, October 24, 2009. Thousands of people took to London

10/27/09- The media in the UK are reporting police efforts to tag and track political activists as “political extremists.” The police not only use the most aggressive techniques at political gatherings and demonstrations but compile a database of activists to facilitate targeted arrests and intimidation.

We can presume that the police are building the same databases and conducting the same kind of surveillance here. There is much less media coverage of the protests and of their politics. You’ll have to go to Democracy Now for any kind of similar coverage from a U.S. news outfit. The received wisdom of the president, the political class, and the media is that public protests do not make much of a difference, and you’d be better off, as Obama said before the G20, concentrating on local issues.

The president really insults the people who care enough to get out and protest about progressive issues here. Contrast his rejection of progressive and anti-corporate protesters at the G20 with the warm approval given the teabaggers by the GOP leadership. Despite his celebrated background as a community activist, the president is much further from the protesters on the left than the GOP is from rabble rousing anti-taxers, people who want immigrants to die in gutters outside emergency rooms.

So how is it that the politicians allow the police to tag progressive and humane anti-corporate and pro-environment protesters as dangerous extremists, while regressive anti-health care rioters are feted in the media as an aggrieved constituency with legitimate gripes?

Undoubtedly, part of the establishment’s paranoia of the progressive left comes from the fact that the left really does want to eliminate inequalities in health, welfare and condition, changes which would require social transformation. The anti-health care protesters ostensibly only want to preserve the inequalities of the present. The present situation in health care may result in tens of thousands of needless deaths every year and reduced quality of life for millions, but it is not threatening to the current politics. So protesters in favor of the status quo and socio-political inequality are permitted to bring guns to political protests, whereas anti-war protesters in New York were not permitted to mount posters on card-board tubes.

National government departments Homeland Security down to local police divisions like NYPD’s Tactical Assistance Unit, observe and track public protest. The U.S. media is not so keen on oversight of police surveillance, so its hard to know the extent of the activity. However, we can see echoes of the UK officer’s justification for the political surveillance in the FBI raids on G20 protesters in Pittsburgh last month.

In the quote below the picture, the UK police officer says that the police target only a few individuals who may turn to violence “outside the normal democratic process”. Thus, although UK protests increasingly resemble social get-togethers, the attribution of menace to the protesters by the police serves as an excuse to envelope an ever larger number of political and social-activist organizers into a police surveillance scheme. Emily Apple, who appears as “Suspect A” on one of the police spotting cards, writes on what happened when she and others began to track the activities of police surveillance crews (called forward intelligence teams or Fits) at protests:

Fit officers were taking photographs outside meetings, and then greeting me by name in crowds of thousands of people. Before long, they were at every meeting, every demonstration, calling me by name, making derogatory comments, and following me long after a protest had finished.

During 2002, they arrested me four times in three months, raided my house, seized my personal diaries and tried very hard, but unsuccessfully, to have me remanded.

Activist Spotter Card used by UK Police

Eleven of the people pictured on this card subsequently contacted the Guardian newspaper. You can read their reactions to being profiled via this page:

From the 10/25/09 UK Guardian article “How police rebranded lawful protesters as domestic extremists”:

The term “domestic extremism” is now common currency within the police. It is a phrase which shapes how forces seek to control demonstrations. It has led to the personal details and photographs of a substantial number of protesters being stored on secret police databases around the country. There is no official or legal definition of the term. Instead, the police have made a vague stab at what they think it means. Senior officers describe domestic extremists as individuals or groups “that carry out criminal acts of direct action in furtherance of a campaign. These people and activities usually seek to prevent something from happening or to change legislation or domestic policy, but attempt to do so outside of the normal democratic process.” They say they are mostly associated with single issues and suggest the majority of protesters are never considered extremists.

Police insist they are just monitoring the minority who could damage property or commit aggravated trespass, causing significant disruption to lawful businesses. Activists respond by claiming this is an excuse that gives police the licence to carry out widespread surveillance of whole organisations that are a legitimate part of the democratic process.

They also warn that the categorisation carries echoes of the cold war, when the security services monitored constitutional campaigns such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Anti-Apartheid Movement because alleged subversives or communists were said to be active within them, although they said the organisations themselves were not subversive.

Spotter cards:


Posted on October 27, 2009, in national health care, protests and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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