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Should police curb protest?

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Issue 1715

what do socialists say?

Should police curb protest?

ONE remarkable feature of the fuel crisis was the police treatment of pickets outside oil refineries.

“The government and police have to respect the fact that these protests seem to have widespread public support,” said Kevin Morris, president-elect of the Police Superintendents’ Association.

Normally rabidly right wing commentators praised the police’s soft approach. The Sun’s Richard Littlejohn argued, “The Old Bill played a blinder. The officers policing the protests behaved with restraint, common sense and good humour.”

Some, such as home secretary Jack Straw, exploited the police handling of the protests by arguing to strengthen police powers against protests in future. The idea that the police do not already have powers to act against protesters is a joke. So too is the notion they have been reluctant to take action in the past.

Anyone involved in workers’ protests over the last 20 years can testify to that. I remember the first major protests I attended, in 1983 at Warrington, only a few miles up the road from Stanlow oil refinery where police and pickets got on so famously last week.

Print workers, trade unionists, students and others joined a picket of a printing plant where newspaper owner Eddie Shah was pioneering union busting. There was not much “restraint, common sense and good humour” from police then.

I remember being thrown to the ground and repeatedly punched and kicked by police within three minutes of getting off the bus. The person I was standing next to had his glasses pulled off by a policeman who then deliberately ground them underfoot.

Much worse went on for hours through the night, with dozens of arrests, and plenty of battered and bruised bodies on our side. Six months later in 1984 police showed even less “restraint” when miners began what proved to be a year-long strike.

Miners travelling from one coalfield to another to ask for solidarity were physically stopped by police. The miners were banned from travelling, on pain of arrest. The police action was almost certainly illegal, but it continued with full government support. Miners travelling from Kent through London’s Blackwall Tunnel were stopped right there and turned back-at least 150 miles from the nearest coalfield.

Others were pulled over on motorway slip roads and police took their car keys. That was just a mild foretaste of the police brutality that became a central feature of the strike.

Police savagery at the picket of Orgreave coke works in the summer of 1984 had to be seen to be believed. Mounted police rode down protesters, and baton-wielding helmeted riot police clubbed people to the ground. How a protester was not killed that day is a miracle.

The same treatment was meted out to miners and their families later in the year as police occupied and besieged pit villages to try to break the strike. Things didn’t get any better after the miners’ strike, as anyone who was on picket lines in the years afterwards can testify-the printers at Wapping, seafarers at Dover, or dockers across the country in their 1989 fight.

Nor have things improved in years since, or with the election of a New Labour government. The Liverpool dockers’ strike began in 1995 under the Tories but continued into the Labour government after 1997. Dockers and their supporters suffered a very different kind of police treatment from that seen at the refineries last week.

It is not just in strikes and on picket lines that police treat workers differently to the hauliers and farmers. When the Countryside Alliance marched in London in 1998 police helped the protesters. One account said, “Marchers stopped buses and blocked traffic.

Police sat in their vans nodding and smiling. They were assisting the marchers. Everyone was greeted with ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’.” Contrast that with what happened to trade unionists this year when they marched in London on May Day.

The trade unionists wanted to join up in Trafalgar Square with anti-capitalist protesters. Police simply barred the route, physically prevented the trade union march entering the square.

The police already have all the powers and, when they have the inclination, mete out savagery against protesters. Jack Straw talks of giving police more power to deal with a future emergency. But such an “emergency” is likely to involve police confronting workers and trade unionists.

That is why it was folly for some on the left and in the trade union movement to call for more police powers last week and demand police action against protests. Next time you are on a picket line, though, and police start pushing you around, you might well demand why they are not treating you with the same “restraint and good humour” they showed to protesters in the fuel crisis.

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