Collective Punishment UK Style. We're All Palestinians Now

Collective Punishment is alive and well in Britain and legal too.

After experiencing it first hand as one of the stewards at the Gaza demonstration in London on Saturday January 10 2009, I can safely say that the British police have learnt the lesson of how to consolidate the radicalisation of a population well. I also learnt a few other lessons during that demonstration that were not ones I wished to see in Britain.

This is a longer version of the piece posted on my Palestine blog. I'm posting it here as my experiences on Saturday raise important questions about the behaviour of the British State towards its people.

Is the callous disregard for basic rights here in Britian the beginning of the slippery slope and is this really what we want for Britain in the 21st Century?

Some of the protesters at the demonstration.  From another of my flickr sites
Some of the protesters at the demonstration. From another of my flickr sites

“Collective punishment is the punishment of a group of people as a result of the behaviour of one or more other individuals or groups. The punished group may often have no direct association with the other individuals or groups, or direct control over their actions.”

The Wrong Place At The Wrong Time

The marchers were the most diverse I've ever seen. All nationalities and races. Men, women and children. Jews, Muslims, Christians, anarchists - all flavours of religious and political beliefs.

They came from everywhere around Britian. I met people from Wales to Lancashire and all points inbetween.

The majority of the march had been peaceful. We'd been held up a few times, initially because when we went past the Russian Embassy some people mistook it for the Israeli Embassy and staged a sit down protest and then when the march did reach the Israeli embassy we were delayed again while people burnt flags and placards and generally showed their disapproval.

There had been some violence during the march, but rather than tackling the violence that occurred when it occurred, the police chose to wait until the last of the marchers were close to the Israeli Embassy before they decided to lock down the area.

Then, for the next 4 hours we were trapped on the street outside the Israeli Embassy in freezing temperatures. We were denied access to water, food, shelter from the freezing conditions and sanitation. All because we were there when the police finally decided to do something about those who were causing trouble.

The First Lesson

A lot of the damage done to property occurred after we were detained. Despite the violence and the real risk of a further escalation and knowing that the rioters were young men, the police refused to allow the women and children to leave. Their bewilderment as they confronted the inconceivable refusal and their fear as they realised that they and their children were in danger from a situation they were forcibly detained in with no way to escape was sobering.

It’s easy to forget that most people in Britain have no concept of the heavy hand of the law and that the majority of people trust their government and the various arms of government to behave in an honourable and just way. It’s painful to see the reality of present day Britain being visited upon those who only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

What Were We Told When We Were Detained? Nothing, Well, Nothing True Anyway.

There was no explanation given of what we were to expect or the timeframes. The initial actions by the police were designed to intimidate and to incite. Initially there was the threat that the police would attack if the rioting escalated yet they moved the innocents closer to the rioters.

These people would have been injured as the police approach in these situations does not discriminate between women, children, non-violent men or rioters.

By pushing those not involved in the violence closer to those who were, they deliberately placed the non participants in the violence in physical danger, both from the rioters and by the police if they had chosen to move forward to quell it.

Our main focus was to get the women and children to safety. At one stage we were told that the women and children would be allowed to leave if they went to the cordon furthest away from the violence, so we sent them there. They were soon back and told us they had been refused exit.

Later we were told that people would be allowed to leave from the other end if they approached with their faces uncovered and their palms on display. That turned out to be untrue as well.

The Law and the Bits They Forgot About

 Supposedly we were held under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, also known as Stop and Search. Yet the procedures outlined in the Act were not followed nor did there appear to be even a token acknowledgement of the requirements of the Act.

When we were originally detained, we were not advised of the reason why. Voice amplification devices have been around for a while now, so it’s not inconceivable that the police have them. The final time we were told that we were to be released, it would be in groups of 10 and that we would all be required to produce our drivers licence, be searched and photographed and the procedure would take around 3 hours to process everyone. This included the stewards because, the police claimed, they had witnessed stewards involved in the violence.

Later we were told that the police had agreed that the stewards would just be required to provide their name and address and be photographed and if we refused it would be ‘difficult’ for us. So, after 4 hours of being held in deliberately uncomfortable circumstances we were told that the only way out was to give them the information that they wanted. As we were not advised of our rights and in fact were threatened with unspecified police action if we did not comply, we were effectively compelled to give the information under duress.

When I was finally processed the police officers completely failed to follow the procedure outlined in section 60. I was video recorded from head to foot as I was asked for my name, address and date of birth. I was not given any of the information required by the act nor was I advised that I could obtain a copy of the written record.

Excuses, Excuses?

The length of time we were held there was not due to the inefficiency of the police but was a deliberate tactic to demoralise and punish those caught up in this. I can see no other plausible explanation.

Section 60 has been used countless times down the years and inexperience in administering it or logistical issues cannot be used as a reason for the actions of the Metropolitan Police. With at least 100 police in attendance at the start of our detention, there was no justification for the slow processing particularly in light of the adverse weather conditions and the composition of the crowd detained.

For the innocents detained, it will be a deterrent in exercising their right to public protest and is just another step in the alienation and radicalisation process that occurs when collective punishment is visited on those who have nothing to do with the ‘crime’ they are being held accountable for.

The Final Lesson of the Day

When I was finally released and was walking away, a group of police strolled passed me and one said to the group in a disappointed voice “no rough today” and the others echoed his disappointment.

It tallies with the some of the behaviour and attitude exhibited by a tiny minority of the officers on duty. Just as some of those who participated in the march were looking forward to confrontation, there was an equal element of police who were also looking forward to a fun day out.

That was the final lesson I learned that day. No area of society is immune to the siren call of violence but when it is manifest in those who we task with administering the law dispassionately, it raises questions over whether the recruitment and ongoing management policies of the police are appropriate.

Britain in the 21st Century

Is this really what we want for Britain? Expediency overriding basic rights? Where collective punishment is government sanctioned? The police able to ignore the inconvenient parts of the laws they are tasked to administer? The resultant marginalisation and radicalisation of elements of our society?

How can we expect the British government to protest against collective punishment occurring in the rest of the world when they condone the same thing on our soil? The only difference is the degree.

I certainly expect better from those who are tasked with creating and administering the laws on my behalf and am extremely disappointed with what I see. It’s time for some explanations.

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