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Unmasking the State

A climate of suppression

Pre-emptive policing aimed at suppressing dissent and frightening people so that they will think twice about taking part in protests, is fast becoming the norm in a Britain more unequal and divided than ever before.

The student demonstrations last November against the stupendous rise in tuition fees imposed by a government with no mandate, was met with police violence not seen for some years. Since then, the tactics have shifted towards curtailing protests altogether.

On March 26, the day of the 500,000-strong TUC march against the cuts, some 138 peaceful protesters from UK Uncut were seized as they left Fortnum & Masons after an action designed to highlight the group’s campaign against tax avoidance. The aim of the operation was twofold: to get everyone’s name and address and to put the frighteners on. They face charges of aggravated trespass.

In the run-up to the royal wedding, a number of campaigners, including veteran activist Chris Knight, were seized from their homes by hordes of police. A total of 55 people were arrested on the day of the wedding and nearly 25 people were arrested before most planned demonstrations had even taken place.

The majority were either detained on conspiracy to cause a public nuisance, or were held under Section 60 stop-and-search rules on the day itself. Almost all of them were released without charge once the events drew to a close. Hannah Eiseman-Renyard went to Soho on the day of the royal wedding, dressed up as a zombie bride. She was talking to four friends when she was approached by more than a dozen officers and arrested for suspected breach of the peace.

Meanwhile, in Bristol recently, police launched a ferocious pre-emptive raid on a squat after protests about a new Tesco shop. Riot police were then brought out to deal with angry street protests. The courts have been “setting examples” by handing out jail sentences to protesters who may have damaged property.

Labour MP John McDonnell, one of the few parliamentarians to express solidarity with the protests, said today that these were examples of

a new climate of suppression of dissent that has emerged since the government faced demonstrations against its policies last November. Expressions of dissent are now met with heavy-handed policing tactics and example-making by the courts. It doesn't matter what the peaceful intent of your protest is, as members of UK Uncut discovered when they were sprayed with mace and arrested after a peaceful occupation of a shop in London.

He added in an article in The Independent:

The government's new fear is that street demonstrations are about to be joined by large-scale co-ordinated industrial action. That is why further anti-union legislation is being increasingly mooted and the squatting laws are to be reviewed for fear of occupations. It is rational for a Government forcing deep cuts in public services and creating mass unemployment to protect itself by suppressing dissent. The dictat to the police after the attack on Milbank was clearly to do whatever is necessary to prevent this from happening again. For those who believe the government has no electoral mandate for its policies and refuses to listen, it is also perfectly rational for them to use the only mechanisms left open to them: strikes, direct action and the streets.

McDonnell is right and calls for an end to "political policing" and for them to facilitate protests, by some activists are sorely misguided. The police, as part of the capitalist state, are always the government’s boot boys in times of crisis. Under Thatcher, for example, they arrested and jailed thousands of miners in the 1984-5 strike.

The best way to defend the right to protest, and against planned new laws further curtailing the heavily-restricted right to strike, is through a mass movement aimed at removing the reactionary ConDem government from office. That would open up the possibility of transforming the present authoritarian state into a democratic, accountable body that serves rather than oppresses ordinary people.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
10 May 2011

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