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Defend the Right to Protest » Uncategorized » Little Has Changed Since The Death Of Blair Peach

Little Has Changed Since The Death Of Blair Peach

Read Nadine El Elenany’s article on the policing of protests from 33 years ago to now.

By Nadine El Elenany

33 years ago, anti-fascist activist and teacher Blair Peach was killed by the police. Peach died after being struck on the head by a Met police officer during a demo against the National Front, the precursor to the BNP, in Southall, west London. Despite a Met report confirming that Peach was almost certainly killed by an officer from its elite riot squad using an unauthorised weapon, and that officers had lied about their whereabouts on the day and harboured illegal weapons, no police officer was ever prosecuted.

Little has changed since the day Peach died at the hands of police while exercising his right to protest. Cases alleging police misconduct show no sign of abating. Indeed, the Met police are currently experiencing a gathering crisis of legitimacy on multiple fronts: racism, corruption and oppressive public order policing.

The policing of protest is in a state of deep crisis, from the death of a bystander at the G20 protests in 2009 and the injuries sustained by students resisting the rise in tuition fees at a series of demos in 2010, to the use of undercover agents and the numerous individuals criminalised for participating in public protest. Last month we learned of three more protesters (co-defendants in the case of Alfie Meadows) cleared of charges of violent disorder relating to the student protest of 9 December 2010, a verdict that is not only a victory for the acquitted protesters, but for all those fighting to defend the right to protest at a time of unprecedented cuts to education and the public sector.

The police’s record at public order events is in tatters, and it is not helped one iota by their attempt to lay charges of violent disorder on those exercising their right to protest.

All this has occurred on the watch of Silver Commander Mick Johnson, whose CV boasts a series of major public order events he has overseen at various levels, including the Poll Tax riots in 1990, the May Day protest of 2001 during which protesters were kettled in Oxford Circus, demos outside the Israeli embassy, the G20 protest and the student demos of 2010, where protesters were charged with horses, beaten with batons and kettled in below-freezing temperatures for hours in Parliament Square and on Westminster Bridge. The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights has added its voice, expressing concern about the police’s use of batons and kettling at the student demos.

Johnson has been tasked with determining police tactics at the Olympics, which are to entail a 64 day long police operation. In view of his track record, we can expect more of the same in the way of over and aggressive policing this summer.

The Met is not however facing a single-issue crisis. Last week we learned that the Home Secretary, Teresa May, is considering launching a second inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence following allegations that police corruption may have been the reason why the racist gang which carried out the murder evaded justice for so long.

While a second inquiry is long overdue, the lessons of the first inquiry – the Macpherson report that identified a deep-rooted institutional racism in the Met police – have yet to be learned. The recent spate of allegations of racist abuse against Met officers suggests the response to Macpherson has been woefully inadequate.

The situation was not helped by an unprecedented move in 2010, in which the police charged anti-racist demonstrators with conspiracy to incite violent disorder at an anti-EDL demo in Bolton. Even though the police dropped the charges, the overzealous charging for offences committed at public protests threatens the right to voice dissent and to mobilise against racism.

This is all the more poignant given that the anniversary of Peach’s death came on the day France’s equivalent of the National Front, the target of Peach’s protest all those years ago, has made record gains in the first round of the presidential elections. It is in part thanks to anti-racist activists like Blair Peach and Doreen Lawrence, the mother of Stephen Lawrence, that far-right parties in the UK do not enjoy such electoral success.

If the police continue to act with impunity, their crisis of legitimacy will deepen. The police must be held accountable for their actions, whether these be racist behaviour, corruption or repressive public order policing.

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