In the line of fire
November 19, 2003 / The Guardian
The policing of mass demonstrations is becoming increasingly repressive and politicised
As President Bush arrives in London amid unprecedented security, the politicisation of policing across Europe has never been clearer. This is a lesson Simon Chapman, a young British man detained on charges of carrying petrol bombs during anti-EU summit protests in Salonika in June, has learned to his cost.
Now on the 44th day of a hunger strike in a prison hospital in Greece to protest his innocence and demand bail, Chapman has lost two-and-a-half stone and is in a serious condition with respiratory and liver problems.
Meanwhile, evidence that the police framed him is mounting. On November 12 his lawyers handed over new footage from a private Greek television channel showing police filling a black rucksack, identical to the one used to incriminate him, with explosives. Other TV footage shows him being arrested carrying an entirely different blue and purple rucksack.
Chapman faces 18 months in jail awaiting trial and between seven and 25 years in prison if found guilty. There are seven other Salonika protesters detained on lesser charges who are also on hunger strike: two are now in the emergency ward of an Athens hospital; one is in a critical condition.
Italy gained the EU presidency after the Salonika summit and immediately introduced proposals for strengthening EU-wide surveillance of those believed likely to attend protests. While styles of policing vary from country to country, Chapman is just one victim of a pattern of repressive, politicised policing at mass protests, as fabricated evidence, abuse of anti-terrorism laws, flimsy pretexts for arrest and the use of provocateurs have become the norm.
In a raid on a school during the protests against the G8 summit in Genoa in July 2001, the Digos anti-terrorist force, on the pretext of discovering two Molotov cocktails, beat and kicked activists in their sleeping bags, injuring more than 60 of the 92 arrested. During an inquiry in which 77 police officers were eventually disciplined for brutality, senior officer Pietro Troiani admitted the petrol bombs had been planted by police to justify the raid. Another senior police chief, Franco Gratteri, said that the stabbing of police officer Massimo Nucera during the school raid had been faked in order to justify the use of force.
Given the huge cost of policing large summits and the extension of police powers through the use of anti-terrorism laws, it is often a political necessity to have visible punishments in the aftermath of protests, especially those that, as in Salonika and Genoa, did include violent factions.
In theory, the police are there to keep the peace and catch the perpetrators of violence. In practice, they have often allowed the most extreme factions amnesty while cracking down on ordinary protesters. For example, it emerged after Genoa that known neo-Nazis had been allowed to cross into Italy with impunity while other protesters faced closed borders. The faction that smashed bank windows and set cars alight roamed the city untouched. Police then beat the crowd indiscriminately. The more violent a protest is seen to be, the easier it is to justify heavy-handed policing and discredit protest in the eyes of the public.
The manufacture of evidence linking all protesters to violent factions has become a regular feature of anti-capitalist demonstrations. In 2000 in Washington DC, police shut down the activists’ convergence centre because they discovered equipment to make “pepper spray” (a bag of dried chillies in the kitchen) and “petrol bombs” (paint thinner and rags in the area where banners were being painted). In Barcelona in 2001, police were reprimanded after they were discovered dressed as activists and breaking the windows of a Burger King.
The association of protest and terrorism has opened up even more possibilities for this kind of abuse. If the population is warned that al-Qaida will attack, then protesters can be subjected to draconian anti-terrorist measures. British police used the Terrorism Act to search anti-war protesters and prevent them travelling to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, from which B52s were taking off to bomb Iraq. Protesters against the recent arms fair in London faced similar measures.
We can expect another crackdown on dissent during President Bush’s visit. London is currently at two-and-a-half times the level of security there was at the height of the Irish terror campaign, at a cost of £5m. Last week, during a visit by the president to Little Rock, Arkansas, police moved anti-Bush protesters to an Orwellian “free speech zone” well away from both his route and the cameras. Similar measures will be in place tomorrow. Those who attempt to breach the Bush security bubble will face heavy policing.
In the face of attempts to demonise protest in the eyes of the public, it is important to remember one thing. While there certainly are frightening men dressed in black and prepared to kill swarming all over London this week, they are guarding the president.
· Katharine Ainger is editor of New Internationalist magazine and co-editor of a new book on global resistance, We Are Everywhere