Policing protest: from Hackney to Hama

Theresa May has (ahem) poured cold water on the idea of water cannon being used to quell the disturbances.

Neither do we seem to be looking at the use of rubber bullets, tear gas or the possibility (as called for by my mum on the phone to me last night) that the army should be deployed.

Is May right to resist “get tough” measures? Well, I’ve seen criticism of the Home Secretary for being “aloof” – her press conference yesterday compared unfavourably to MPs interviewed out in the thick of it, eg Diane Abbott talking in my local streets in Hackney (though unfortunately getting thoroughly drowned out on BBC by a nearby helicopter).

But, though Ms May may not be very “street”, I think she’s got a point when she says: "The way we police in Britain is not through use of water cannon. The way we police in Britain is through consent of communities."

Policing protest/mass public disturbance is extremely difficult. Let’s not pretend it’s easy. It requires real professionalism from highly-trained police officers and a host of emergency services. Would you want to do it?

I was walking back home to Hackney at 8.30 last night and wouldn’t have fancied their job. Normal life was suspended. Buses not running, masked teenagers walking around with wooden poles in their hands, stretches of usually busy road totally empty, black smoke rising over housetops, helicopter rotor blades, constantly wailing police sirens. Forget about any “riot bravado”, this was a scary atmosphere.

Obviously we shouldn’t forget that a few days ago we had the death of a young man at the hands of the police in as yet unexplained circumstances. Without casting aspersions, this is cause for genuine concern and it’s right that it’s being investigated, including the circumstances after his death (the Met has already apologised for not communicating better with Mark Duggan’s family immediately afterwards). 

But policing mass gatherings of (sometimes) violent people is the key issue now. Some people have compared the seeming routine “kettling” of “political” protests like the anti-cuts or student protests with the “stand-off” policing tactics in Hackney, Croydon, Chalk Farm or Clapham. But this doesn’t seem to be comparing like with like, and would we want to see the sweeping, indiscriminate kettling technique used over large swathes of London?

We need proportionality in our policing, not overreaction.

Meanwhile, be careful what you wish for. You only have to look at how protests in the Middle East and North Africa have been policed to see the dangers of “militarising” crowd control/management. Most of the “Arab Spring” demos – in places like Manama in Bahrain and Hama in Syria – were perfectly peaceable (far more so than Clarence Road in Hackney for example) and should never have been met with (often lethal) force from the authorities. 

We should take a deep breath, call for restraint from all sides and be thankful that we’re not going to see tanks on the streets of Hackney any time soon.

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