A British police unit is demonising peaceful protesters to stay in business.
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian, 23rd December 2008.
When you hear the term “domestic extremist”, whom do you picture? How about someone like Dr Peter Harbour? He’s a retired physicist and university lecturer, who worked on the nuclear fusion reactor run by European governments at Culham in Oxfordshire. He’s 70 next year. He has never been tried or convicted of an offence, except the odd speeding ticket. He has never failed a security check. Not the sort of person you had in mind? Then you don’t work for the police.
Dr Harbour was one of the people who campaigned to save a local beauty spot – Thrupp Lake – between the Oxfordshire villages of Radley and Abingdon. They used to walk and swim and picnic there, and watch otters and kingfishers. RWE npower, which owns Didcot power station, wanted to empty the lake and fill it with pulverised fly ash(1).
The villagers marched, demonstrated and sent in letters and petitions. Some people tried to stop the company from cutting down trees by standing in the way. Their campaign was entirely peaceful. But RWE npower discovered that it was legally empowered to shut the protests down.
Using the Protection from Harrassment Act 1997, it obtained an injunction against the villagers and anyone else who might protest. This forbids them from “coming to, remaining on, trespassing or conducting any demonstrations or protesting or other activities” on land near the lake(2). If anyone breaks this injunction they could spend five years in prison.
The act, parliament was told, was meant to protect women from stalkers. But as soon as it came onto the statute books, it was used to stop peaceful protest. To obtain an injunction, a company needs to show only that someone feels “alarmed or distressed” by the protesters, a requirement so vague that it can mean almost anything. Was this an accident of sloppy drafting? No. Timothy Lawson-Cruttenden, the solicitor who specialises in using this law against protesters, boasts that his company “assisted in the drafting of the … Protection from Harassment Act 1997″(3). In 2005 parliament was duped again, when a new clause, undebated in either chamber, was slipped into the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act(4). It peps up the 1997 act, which can now be used to ban protest of any kind.
Mr Lawson-Cruttenden, who represented RWE npower, brags that the purpose of obtaining injunctions under the act is “the criminalisation of civil disobedience”(5). One of the advantages of this approach is that very low standards of proof are required: “hearsay evidence … is admissable in civil courts”. The injunctions he obtains criminalise all further activity, even though, as he admits, “any allegations made remain untested and unproven.”(6)
Last week, stung by bad publicity, npower backed down. The villagers had just started to celebrate when they made a shocking discovery: they now feature on an official list of domestic extremists.
The National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit (NETCU) is the police team coordinating the fight against extremists. To illustrate the threats it confronts, the NETCU site carries images of the people marching with banners, of peace campaigners standing outside a military base and of the Rebel Clown Army (whose members dress up as clowns to show that they have peaceful intentions). It publishes press releases about Greenpeace and the climate camp at Kingsnorth(7). All this, the site suggests, is domestic extremism.
NETCU publishes a manual for officers policing protests. To help them identify dangerous elements, it directs them to a list of “High Court Injunctions that relate to domestic extremism campaigns”, published on NETCU’s website(8). On the first page is the injunction obtained by npower against the Radley villagers, which names Peter Harbour and others. Dr Harbour wrote to the head of NETCU, Steve Pearl, to ask for his name to be removed from the site. Mr Pearl refused. So Dr Harbour remains a domestic extremist.
It was this Paranoia Squad which briefed the Observer last month about “eco-terrorists”. The article maintained that “a lone maverick eco-extremist may attempt a terrorist attack aimed at killing large numbers of Britons.”(9) The only evidence it put forward was that someone in Earth First! had stated that the world is overpopulated. This, it claimed, meant that the movement might attempt a campaign of mass annihilation. The same could be said about the United Nations, the Optimum Population Trust and anyone else who has expressed concern about population levels.
The Observer withdrew the article after NETCU failed to provide any justification for its claims(10). NETCU now tells me that the report “wasn’t an accurate reflection of our views”(11). But the article contained a clue as to why the police might wish to spread such stories. “The rise of eco-extremism coincides with the fall of the animal rights activist movement. Police said the animal rights movement was in disarray” and that “its critical mass of hardcore extremists was sufficiently depleted to have halted its effectiveness.”(12) If, as the police maintain, animal rights extremism is no longer dangerous, it is hard for NETCU to justify its existence: unless it can demonstrate that domestic extremism exists elsewhere. A better headline for the article might have been “Keep funding us, say police, or civilisation collapses.”
NETCU claims that domestic extremism “is most often associated with single-issue protests, such as animal rights, anti-war, anti-globalisation and anti-GM crops.”(13) With the exception of animal rights protests, these campaigns in the UK have been overwhelmingly peaceful. As the writer and activist Merrick Godhaven points out, the groups whose tactics come closest to those of violent animal rights activists are anti-abortion campaigns(14). The UK Life League, for example, has published the names and addresses of people involved in abortion and family planning(15,16). Two of its members have been convicted of sending pictures of mutilated foetuses to doctors and pharmacies(17). Anti-abortionists in the US have murdered doctors, nurses and receptionists. Yet there is no mention of the UK Life League or anti-abortion campaigning on the NETCU site. This looks to me like partisan policing.
Just as the misleading claims of the security services were used to launch an illegal and unnecessary war against Iraq, NETCU’s exaggerations will be used to justify the heavy-handed treatment of peaceful protesters. In both cases police and spies are distracted from dealing with genuine threats of terrorism and violence.
For how much longer will the government permit the police forces to drum up business like this? And at what point do we decide that this country is beginning to look like a police state?
2. The High Court of Justice. Order arising from Case HQ07X00505. para 6.4 http://www.netcu.org.uk/downloads/injunctions/rwe_npoweplc.pdf
3. http://www.lawson-cruttenden.co.uk/, viewed 22nd December 2008.
4. Sections 125-127. http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts2005/ukpga_20050015_en_12#pt4-pb1-l1g125
5. Timothy Lawson-Cruttenden, 2007. Injunctive Relief Against Harassment and trespass. Case Commentaries, p194. Environmental Liability. http://www.lawson-cruttenden.co.uk/articles/157_070601_environmentalliabilitiy.pdf
8. NETCU, November 2007. Policing Protest: pocket legislation guide, p51. It can be viewed here: http://www.indymedia.org.uk/media/2008/08/405435.pdf
9. Mark Townsend and Nick Denning, 9th November 2008. Police warn of growing threat from eco-terrorists. The Observer.
10. Stephen Pritchard, 23rd November 2008. Anonymous sources and claims of eco-terrorism. The Observer. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/nov/23/readers-editor-climate-change
11. NETCU, pers comm, 22nd December 2008.
12. Mark Townsend and Nick Denning, ibid.
14. Merrick Godhaven, 15th November 2008. Civil Disobedience is a Terrorist Threat. UK Watch. http://www.ukwatch.net/blog/merrick_godhaven/civil_disobedience_is_a_terrorist_threat
15. Leading article, 12th March 2006. Email campaigns. The Observer. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2006/mar/12/observerpolitics
16. Linda Harrison, 9th July 2001. Anti abortion activists step up UK Net campaign.
17. Jeremy Laurance, 8th May 2006. Anti-abortionist jailed for photo protest.