How to protest safely on a protest march
With the recent events at the G20 protests, it’s probably worth taking a moment, and 500 odd words, on looking at how protests are policed and the best way to keep safe when going on a protest march.
The death of Ian Tomlinson, shortly after being beaten by a police officer in riot gear, raises very serious questions about how the police behave at demonstrations, which directly affect your safety at such demonstrations.
You should always treat any police officer with respect and follow most of their orders; however you should also have the freedom to question their decisions. If you don’t feel safe following their direction, let them know this.
Officers must always clearly display their identification numbers, or, if questioned, they must tell you this information. Any officer who does not do this should be treated as a potential threat, do not turn your back on them.
During the G20 protests, the method of ‘kettling’ was used to a great degree. Basically, the police keep a group of protestors in a cordoned area, refusing them the right to leave, for what can be several hours. This is effectively imprisonment of innocent individuals, which is against Article 5 of the Human Rights Act. It may not be wise to point this out to the officers who are holding you there.
The kettling tactic can just further aggravate the crowd. You want to protest but are being confined, possibly in an uncomfortably small area. Tempers can start to fray. If you find yourself in this situation, just find a spot where you feel safe, and keep yourself calm. Call or text your friends if they’re not with you to let them know where you are. Stay away from frustrated or angry individuals. Be patient and you will eventually be released.
Another thing we learned from the G20 protests was how invaluable a mobile phone camera can be. Without it, we would never have discovered the true nature behind Ian Tomlinson’s death. We would not have seen the YouTube footage of other protestors being beaten in other unprovoked attacks. The photos and videos captured are invaluable aids in showing the violent nature of some police officers. However, you should be fully aware that taking such footage could leave you in a lot of trouble.
Very recently, the Counter Terrorism Act 2008 has been abused to prevent citizens taking perfectly innocent photographs. Essentially, if the police so wished they could confiscate your camera, keep your details on file as a potential terrorist and you may even face a prison sentence. This is rare, but becoming more prevalent. Most instances are successfully challenged, but you need to be aware and you need to be careful.
Without wishing to undermine the police’s authority too much, it’s clear that what happened last April has cast a shadow on their actions. Respect the police at demonstrations, in much the same way you’d respect a wild animal, and you’ll be fine. Respect them, but don’t trust them. Don’t let them stop you demonstrating.
At the same time, go on a protest march with a sense of optimism about partaking in the event. Police are not the enemy. A poorly-functioning social system is the enemy. On most protest marches a friendly frame of mind won’t hurt you and might go some way towards keeping the atmosphere peaceful and safe, as it should be. However – as is the case with all wild animals – avoid sticking your fingers in a policeman’s mouth.