Friday, 15 January 2010

Hoping for a peaceful demonstration on Monday...

After years of watching - and taking part in - peace protests against Brighton's very own arms factory, EDO-ITT in Moulsecoomb, and the role it plays in providing parts ultimately used, it seems, by the Israeli military against children and civilians in Gaza and Lebanon, I must confess I'm always a little nervous before a big SmashEDO demonstration. The next such demo is on Monday - I'll be joining protesters from 1pm at the cafe in Wild Park - so, as usual, I'm a little jittery.

Mainly I'm nervous because I share the aims of the peace group - but the peaceful aims of the events are usually overshadowed by the fears of disruption to business as usual in the city. The message can get lost in the noise. I think most people in the city are, like me, sympathetic to the protesters, but wish they could take a more, well, peaceful,  approach to their peace campaigning.

And there's always some disruption: as often from the way marches are policed as from the actions of the demonstrators themselves. In short there has been a complete breakdown of trust between the demonstrators and Sussex Police, with most of the city's residents, and even some workers at the factory, caught right in the middle.

Despite repeated requests from the police, no-one from SmashEDO has come forward to liaise with officers - and let them know what the group's got planned. Police commanders say they'd like to deploy fewer officers and make the whole policing operation much lower key, but the lack of dialogue makes that impossible.

So we end up with vanloads of coppers on standby (here's a few, pictured, from last year's Mayday demo) - and tensions are ratcheted up, meaning trust between police and protestors is further eroded, increasing the likelihood of trouble before anything's even started.

But none of this is the protesters' fault. It's no wonder, really, that they don't trust the police. In the past Sussex Police have been seen to be taking sides in the way it has policed SmashEDO's regular vigils at the factory (do watch the cracking film 'On The Verge' to see for yourself).The lack of dialogue has led to a sometimes heavy-handed response from the police, further eroding trust and making it less likely that we'll ever break out of this vicious circle.

But, as I said today to Chief Inspector Simon Nelson, the man in charge of police relationships with the wider community throughout Monday's events, I'm hopeful that this trust can - and one day will - be restored.

Of course it takes two to tango, as they say, but I reckon the police - as the bearers of state sponsorship, so to speak, must have the courage to show the trust first. The trick, surely, will be to take a human rights based, and proportionate, approach to the way such marches are policed. The police need to get it in perspective: no powers intended to prevent terrorism should be used. No cameras or recording equipment should be confiscated. No-one should be kettled or contained against their will - unless, of course, they are being arrested for a criminal offence.

The police must remember that peaceful protest is as lawful - and important in a free society - as the activities of any single factory. Above all, all police officers must treat all demonstrators with dignity, and remember they are motivated, in the main, by the noble desire of trying to prevent civilian deaths in war.

I've made these opinions known to several senior officers - from the Chief Constable down - in recent months. And, actually, I'm quite confident that my views, as a member of Sussex Police Authority, are having some effect.

I've known Chief Inspector Nelson, a senior police officer with a poster of Ghandi on his office wall (have you ever heard of such a thing?) for a few months now - and he's genuinely committed to allowing, and even encouraging, peaceful political protest in Brighton.

I hope his approach continues to inform the way that future SmashEDO protests are policed - if it does I think we'll see less crime, less violence, fewer coppers (and those that are out and about wearing fewer riot helmets), more trust on all sides, more sympathy for the protestors objectives and, ultimately, a speedier end to bamb-making here in brighton and Hove.

But as I said to Chief Inspector Nelson today: the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I know of at least two members of Brighton and Hove City Council, and two members of Sussex Police Authority, who'll be at Monday's demo. We'll all have our fingers crossed that the protesters, and the police, behave peacefully and proportionately.

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