Thursday, November 17, 2011

Re-tooling up the Police

In April 1981, the Metropolitan Police Special Patrol Group were ordered into Brixton with instructions to carry out a dynamic 'stop and search' campaign among the youth of the community. A large number of arrests were made for various street offences by well-drilled officers, and the immediate effect among the Brixton residents was to cause enormous resentment. Police in surrounding districts watched in mounting disbelief as the SPG roared through Brixton like a hot knife through butter, and discussed among themselves who could possibly have ordered this campaign, which was guaranteed to cause social unrest of unrecognisable proportions.

Following the urban riots which inevitably resulted, Margaret Thatcher visited The Metropolitan Police Commissioner at the Yard, and discussed the additional training and the list of new riot equipment they needed, including a '...greater variety of riot shields, more vehicles, longer truncheons ...' (Margaret Thatcher 'The Downing Street Years, p.145.), equipment, they would very quickly receive. The riots, and the immense public fear they engendered, provided the political impetus for the Conservative Government to spend a significant sum of money changing the face of Police public order containment tactics. They knew they would not be opposed in providing the Police with the new, aggressive riot equipment, which up to that point had consisted of a rather cumbersome plastic shield, an acutely uncomfortable hardened helmet, and a cricket box!

It is of some interest to recall that in 1974, while the Tory Party were in Opposition, in the aftermath of the Heath government being brought down by the 1974 coal strike, the Ridley Plan (also known as the Ridley Report), reported on the state of the nationalised industries in the UK. The report was produced and drawn up by the right-wing Conservative MP Nicholas Ridley. In the report he proposed how the next Conservative government could fight, and defeat, a major strike in a nationalised industry. Among his many recommendations were the need to train and equip a large, mobile squad of police, ready to employ aggressive riot tactics in order to uphold the law against violent picketing.

These tactics, including the provision of more dynamic riot equipment (subsequently described as the 'tooling up of the police' by Sir John Alderson, Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall police), would later be successfully employed during the miners strike of 1984-1985, when the National Union of Mineworkers was defeated by the Conservative Government of Margaret Thatcher.

After the Miners' strike had been crushed, William Whitelaw was quoted as saying; '...Without Brixton, I doubt if we could have defeated Arthur Scargill...'

The riots of Brixton, and later Toxteth on Merseyside, fortuitously provided the requisite degree of public anxiety which would enable the government of the day to engage in a wholesale re-arming of the police, without attracting too much criticism from the Liberal Left who would see it as an anti-libertarian gesture. Police agencies which aspire to 'police by consent' are very sensitive to suggestions that their tactics could be making too great an inroad into possible areas of civil liberties, and how we arm our police in this country has always been a very contentious topic. If we are going to see our police being equipped with new and more aggressive weapons of constraint and coercion, we need to be provided with very good reasons for that change, and rioting, burning and looting can prove to be very persuasive.

In August this year, a black 'gangsta', Mark Duggan, was shot dead by police in Tottenham. He was found to have a converted pistol which the Independent Police Complaints Commission subsequently confirmed was a BBM ‘Bruni’ pistol containing live rounds and it was being carried by Duggan hidden in a spare sock, not one he was wearing.

He was shot dead by a police marksman in Tottenham, North London. He had been stopped by undercover officers as he travelled in a minicab and confronted because they believed he was on his way to ‘use the weapon’ he was carrying. Rumours that he had been ‘executed’ fuelled the riots in the North London community, which spawned copycat violence and looting across the country.

So, it was with no great surprise to hear immediate calls for the police to be issued with rubber bullets and water cannons, for use on the British mainland. The immediate calls for these items to be deployed followed hard on the heels of the inner city riots, when gangs of marauding youths ran amok in commercial centres, smashing windows and looting and burning shops. In the post-disturbances discussion, innumerable commentators have sought to find reasons for the riots and how they could have been better controlled, and among the many calls for action was to issue rubber bullets to the Police.

Ironically, the issuance of rubber bullets to confront the inner city rioters would have been a largely pointless exercise. Baton rounds are designed to disperse dangerous crowds, in static situations, where it is perceived that the threat of potential violence and danger to law enforcement is reaching an unacceptable limit. Then baton rounds are effectively used to break up large numbers of protesters gathered together to confront police. They are not prescribed for use against mobile, small running groups of people such as were seen during the looting sprees. Rubber bullets are a crowd dispersal agent, not a missile to be fired at running groups of youths, because they are ineffective against the mobile rioters, and dangerous to potentially innocent persons who might be inadvertently caught up in the fleeing melee.

So why were there so many dark predictions of the use of rubber bullets during the student fees demonstration on 9th November in London? Why were we subjected to the lugubrious face of Commander Pountain as he pontificated on the theoretical use of rubber bullets to protect his heavily armed and armoured officers. I say theoretical because nobody in the wildest extremes of their imaginations really believes that police are going to fire rubber bullets against students. It isn't going to happen.

This what the police spokesman really said about potential violence at the demonstration.

'... 'However, it would be negligent if we did not plan a response to the small minority who may be intent on disruption and may not intend to be peaceful...'

Regarding the potential use of baton rounds, a police spokesman said: '...There are a range of tactics available if there is criminality and violence associated with the event. One of these is the authority to deploy baton rounds in extreme circumstances. These are carried by a small number of trained officers and are not held and used by those officers policing the route on Wednesday...'

So, there you are, no-one policing the demo would carry rubber bullets. So why raise the issue at all?

Now, in the aftermath of the Tottenham and Manchester riots, the time is ripe for a new paradigm in public order management. It is simply all part of a campaign to 'soften up' the British people to get them used to the potential likelihood of the use of these weapons in the near future, so when they are used, no-one can say they were not warned! And when will that be...?

Well, it won't be very long. The impact of the economic austerity measures has not yet really begun to bite, and will not be truly felt until the first part of 2012. Then, when people begin to feel the true impact of the cuts to their living standards; when they see the inevitable upward spiral of fuel costs; the increases in the cost of food; the erosion of their savings, caused in a big part by the outright criminality of the banks and the savings' institutions as they reduce hard-earned savings by hidden costs and charges; the refusal of the big banks to cut their obscene payments to themselves while engaging in wholesale mis-selling practices, and the host of other issues they will have to face, including the increase in the costs of their children's educations, then we will see the emergence of the anger of the hitherto silent class, the group which up to now has sat silent and carried the financial burden through their taxes, while the government has laid billions of pounds of tax-payer's money on the banks, only to see it disappear again in more balance-sheet reconfiguring and bonus awards.

Then the ordinary people of this country will start to find ways of expressing their anger at the failure of the politicians to manage things equitably and fairly, and when they finally realise the growing disparity between those who are reaping millions in banking bonuses or other dividend windfalls and their increasingly straightened circumstances, then even they will move onto the streets. Oh it will all start peaceably enough, with orderly demonstrations, along the lines of the 'Not In My Name' marches prior to Tony Blair's taking us to war in Iraq, but it will not be long before these marches are hi-jacked by the agit-prop groups, the anarchists, the SWP and all the other groups of the political extremes, who long for physical confrontation with the agencies of control. They will gladly catch a free ride on the coat-tails of the respectable Middle Class, until it comes time to take over.

Remember the Poll Tax riots, which in effect proved to be the Rubicon which Margaret Thatcher could not cross, well these manifestations will be a great deal worse and they will involve very extreme violence. The rioters a few weeks ago learned a lot of lessons about successfully confronting the police, and those lessons learned will be re-enacted, as mobile squads of rioters group and re-group, not staying long enough to be 'kettled', moving from flash-point to flash-point, directed by messages promoted on social media messaging systems (are the police really going to shut down the whole mobile phone network, with all the commensurate costs involved to legitimate users?)

The riots will be coordinated and will involve the escalation of extreme violence on both sides, and as the violence increases, so will the calls for the use of the baton rounds, and the police will be hard-pressed to keep them in check. The Right-wing Press, eager to see these weapons used on the mainland for the first time will shout for their use, and they will be brought into the action. Their inexperienced use will lead to serious injuries, indeed, even possible fatalities, as in Northern Ireland, and this will, in turn, aggravate the whole situation. It will be inevitable as the less experienced and the legitimate protestors begin to witness the kind of violence which has marred so many police actions hitherto, they themselves will start to protest at the kind of behaviour being manifested by uniformed officers, as well as the new groups of plain-clothes snatch squads being increasingly used to take down individuals. In protesting at this kind of conduct, they are more likely to find themselves being 'kettled', manhandled, screamed at, violently pushed backwards, hit on the body and legs with long truncheons and even arrested and subjected to the use of 'reasonable police force', which will tend to have a radicalising effect on even the most moderate protestor!

It is only when the middle classes find themselves on the receiving end of police action that they begin to understand what others have experienced in the past, and usually, they don't like it, and they make their feelings felt at the ballot box. That is why the use of this 'Situationist' style methodology can be so effective and could so easily lead to the radicalising of a whole new group of hitherto unaligned groups of people, which will result in turn, in a fracturing of civil society unimagined in our time.

When politicians resort to tooling up the police, they do so for a very good purpose, and they intend the weapons to be used. We are fast approaching that time.

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