On Monday evening, more than 200 people packed a City Hall meeting room to take part in a consultation event over Met Police plans to purchase three German water cannons costing £200,000 to be ready for use on the streets this summer.
The meeting was preceded by a small protest outside City Hall. It began nearly half an hour late due to chaotic registration and security arrangements.
Despite Boris’ assurance that he wants to hear the views of Londoners, he wasn’t present, and the meeting was chaired by Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime, Stephen Greenblagh, who, as well as earning almost £130,000 pa in his public post, finds time to run BIBA Medical Ltd, where he is managing director. He was flanked by three senior police officers: Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, Commander Peter Terry, and Chief Inspector Munns.
After a brief introduction, Mark Rowley began by outlining the ‘process’ so far. Apparently the Met Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, architect of “Total Policing”, along with the private limited company ACPO (linked with political surveillance, undercover provocateurs, and limited public accountability), together “identified the value of water cannons as a public order tool”. They’ve secured the enthusiastic backing of Boris Johnson, who is now “consulting Londoners” before they approach Therese May for the licence to procure and deploy the weapons.
Mark Rowley spoke about using water cannons to create a ‘safe space’ for ambulance and fire-fighters to work without being attacked by rioters. He said that current possibilities were dogs, horses, and even baton rounds, but that water cannons would be much safer than any of these.
He pointed to surveys showing that the public broadly supported the use of water cannons (66-90%), but then said in one of the surveys, at least 25% thought the police had already used them, so clearly not the most informed of members of the public then.
Although the uninformed public may hold these views, the London Assembly meeting was packed with people who were both well-informed, and clearly experienced in the reality of public order policing. When Rowley assured the room that the weapons would only be used in situations where there was a potential for loss of life, serious injury, or widespread destruction, someone called out “isn’t that what water cannons do?” receiving a laugh and long applause, and setting the tone for much of the following debate.
He then introduced Commander Peter Terry, who would show four clips of video which showed situations where water cannons might have been deployed.
Anyone who followed my Indymedia reports from Parliament Square many years ago, may remember that Mr. Terry was the cop who hounded Brian Haw during the SOCPA years. Brian’s many placards and artworks embarrassed the government by publicly exposing the horrors of their sanctions and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Peter Terry was the man who in 2006 authorised a massive police operation to steal the placards from this completely peaceful lone protestor in the dead of night – later deemed an unlawful seizure in the High Court. Is he to be trusted, when he’s on record as prepared to break the law at massive public cost (which the police also first lied about – turned out it was £180,000) to attack peaceful protest on the Government’s bidding?
The first clip showed a scene from the 1999 J18 anti-capitalist demos, where Terry said he was one of the officers shown under attack from protestors throwing bricks in an alleyway. Someone shouted out that it has recently been uncovered that one of the organisers of those J18 protests was a police agent provocateur, who also stole the identity of a dead child, was accused of planting a firebomb, and even formed sexual relationships with female protestors, having children which he then abandoned. Perhaps not the best example then.
After reminding us of his oath to ‘preserve the peace’, the next clip Terry showed was of skirmishes against police outside the Israeli Embassy. This might also have been better chosen, given the various comments from the floor about the Israeli treatment of Palestinians, and the completely unlawful and non-peaceful occupation of Palestinian territory.
Moving on, the third clip was from the student protests in Parliament Square. At the time of those demonstrations, I reported how the police committed a politically-motivated and wholesale indiscriminate attack on students, even hauling children out of a MacDonald’s outlet and forcing them into a kettle where they were then held for hours in freezing conditions. Terry showed the moment when horses were deployed against students who were desperately trying to break out of their kettle. He claimed that a water cannon would have been less dangerous. Again this was a shot-in-the-foot example, because there was clearly nowhere for the contained crowd to be dispersed to. While Terry claimed water would be less dangerous than horses, the audience questioned the premise on which the horses were deployed in the first place. Someone also pointed out that with half a million marching, there were only a tiny minority involved in violence, and that some of them were again undercover cops.
The final example was the 2011 summer riots. People shouted out about the widespread stop and search of minority young people, and of the killing of Mark Duggan that sparked the riots. When Terry described the huge fire at the furniture store, people who had been there shouted out that they witnessed the police only protected the police station and simply allowed the rest of Tottenham to burn. When Terry said the police job was to ‘preserve life’ various members of the public shouted out a few of the very long list of names of people killed in police custody.
Before questions from the floor, there was a report from Joanne McCartney, Chair of the Police and Crime Committee.
She said there had been three meetings of the cross-party committee looking at the issue, including one with the Mayor. After those meetings, 20 out of 25 members, from all four represented parties, supported a motion on budget process, to recommend the Mayor NOT to buy water cannons for London. The committee doesn’t believe a good enough case has been made, that no explanation has been given for why the decision must be rushed through ready for the summer this year (when there is no definite intelligence of likely disturbance), and that the Met must be clearer about the circumstances around when and how they might deploy such weapons.
She said she was surprised that the 2011 riots were given as an example, when it’s been shown that water cannons would probably not have been suitable, and even the Mayor said 2 weeks ago, that he would not have given permission for a water cannon to have been used in Tottenham. Even the supporters in the committee made the point that deployment after an event had begun would be a “waste of time” and that they’d have to be in place well in advance of any disorder. I guess immediately after the police next kill an unarmed black man then?
She commented that the Mayor and the Met seemed to have different views on deployment, with the Met seeing the decision as purely operational, and the Mayor demanding the last word on any such decision. Boris had apparently even disagreed with the Met over the examples given, saying for instance that the use of a water cannon at the students’ protests would have been counter-productive. The PAC report will be published next week.
The rest of the meeting comprised a question and answer session, although there were far more questions than answers.
Police seemed to have come with a very short script: that water cannons would only be used in very serious situations of danger to life and major destruction, that they would be rarely seen and rarely used, that they would never be used as a show of force at peaceful protests, and that they’d been used many times in Northern Ireland without reported injuries. These points were repeated over and over again despite a wide range of questions and observations from the public. Many of the public questions remained unanswered.
A journalist raised concerns over the indiscriminate force of the water jets, and whether the police could prevent injury to press or to “peaceful” protestors in a crowd. He spoke of his own injuries (arm broken in two places) by a cop’s baton AFTER showing his press card, and he told of his experience over and over seeing kettling raise not lower the temperature of a crowd. He thought water cannons would do the same. This was, according to the guy from Network for Police Monitoring, backed up by research showing that kettling tended to unite a crowd to anger – he suggested water cannons would escalate any conflict. Third was Elizabeth Meadows, mother of Alfie who was seriously injured by police at the student demos and later acquitted of violent disorder by a jury.
She agreed that when the police become violent, protestors experience great loyalty to one another, and the tension rises. She said that the student disorder was a result of bad policing, not violent intent. She also asked for the apology she still awaited from the Met.
The police ignored Mrs Meadow’s request, with Commander Terry simply commenting that when police and demonstrators are in close contact, injuries can occur, citing this as another example of why water cannons were good! Rowley spoke of its use to disperse crowds, and people asked him to replay the student video and show where students could have dispersed to – he ignored this.
Terry also claimed the police always tried to diffuse tension and cited the work of Dr Clifford Stott (the man behind the intel gathering “Police Liaison Officers” in their blue tabards). He said that Stott had organised a PhD student on contract to the Met to work on crowd psychology and officer training.
The next round of questions began with Dietrich Wagner, whose flight from Germany was crowd-funded. He’d also addressed the protest earlier outside City Hall. He was blinded and almost killed by a water cannon in Stuttgart at a large peaceful protest against the destruction of trees and new building works.
As a result of the incident, a couple of weeks later, a sixth of the population of the city came out to protest the police tactics. He spoke of the lack of respect and distrust of police since this event, and agreed with previous speakers that protestors would be galvanised against police as the cannons look like military weapons. He said people in Britain were being naïve about the dangers and that he had come to try “stop this nonsense”. A heckler shouted “why isn’t Boris here to hear this?”
A woman then asked why so many countries that deployed water cannons had terrible human rights records, and why did London want to follow that route, especially when police are “not very good” at admitting mistakes. She alluded to deaths in custody and spoke about how historically, black people were always the first to suffer police attacks.
The next speaker pointed out that peace has never been achieved through violent means, and that London tourism would suffer if the police turn it into a war zone.
An OccupyLSX protestor spoke about narrowly escaping an unlawful police kettle, and talked about violent disorder generally being caused by police cracking down on democracy. He said police were under the control of war-criminals and millionaires in Parliament, while London is governed by a wife-cheating stand-up comic for whom 80% of Londoners didn’t even vote. He asked the police to start fighting for justice before more riots hit London, and to promise the meeting that they would stop using and inciting violence on behalf of establishment criminals. (They didn’t).
Mark Rowley answered that the police aimed to prevent disorder and maintain the Queen’s peace. He agreed that the police record on relations with minorities was “not as good as it could be”, but said ‘stop and search’ was being reduced and going in the right direction. On accountability, he said the water cannons would be fitted with videos, so that any use would be transparent. Various audience members shouted comments that the police were above the law anyway, so it wouldn’t help. On the point of escalation, he just repeated they’d only be used rarely in extreme situations.
People were not satisfied the questions were being answered, especially Dietrich’s, and Rowley said he couldn’t comment on German deployment. His assurance that an independent committee would assess the dangers of water cannons, was met by shouts about the IPCC and Mark Duggan, and jeers about the reality of ‘independence’. He said the UK use would follow the Northern Ireland model where he claimed no significant injuries had been reported despite tens of uses there.
A Hackney man asked what the real agenda was – why the rush to get these weapons by summer this year? This point was echoed by the next speaker from the StWC, finishing with a lovely bit of rhetoric. Quoting Rowley saying “We don’t want to change the way we police demonstrations”, he said “YOU DON’T, BUT WE DO!” – this got a roar of applause from the delegates.
Rowley claimed there was no agenda behind the timing, only that police wanted this to happen as soon as possible.
The final round of questions began by raising how the UK would look if it deployed these weapons, comparing it to Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. The next speaker noted the police were asking us to trust them, but said that we can’t trust them at protests, we can’t trust them with stop and search, we can’t trust them in hard stops, so why would they think we could trust them with such dangerous weapons? The last speaker said she sometimes took her daughter to protests, and it was hard to explain when police violently disperse a peaceful sit-in, dragging people away. Despite all the careful regulations in Germany, a man had been blinded – couldn’t the same thing happen here?
Stephen Greenblagh asked Dietrich whether there had been any consequences in Germany as the police had appeared to have operated outside the rules. His claim that UK police operate according to the rule of law got jeers and laughter from much of the audience. Dietrich said a few police had been investigated, but the State authority was still refusing liability and it would have to go to the European Court of Justice.
People shouted out about deaths in custody.
Greenblagh said that Boris was interested in the views of Londoners (resulting in shouts of “where is he?”), and that 3000 Londoners were going to be surveyed, but that the final decision to license would be with the home secretary.
I came out feeling sure that water cannon deployment will go ahead, but also feeling very inspired by the solidarity, unity, and confidence of the audience. By the end of the evening, the police looked a little shell-shocked at the onslaught of distrust, tough questions, and the cynicism of the public. Their paltry script, poor evidence, and refusal to properly engage and respond to questions made the police look weak and untrustworthy, while the audience showed a range of intellect, imagination, and creativity that was empowering.
The GLA consultation is open for all to submit their views until 28th Feb
Full details can be found at http://www.london.gov.uk/priorities/policing-crime/mission-priorities/water-cannon
‘Defend the Right to Protest have organised a public briefing on the impact of water cannons on civil liberties and protest. It’s on Mon 24th Feb at 18:30