Argus Title: We need peace, not power battles

Supt Graham Bartlett, Sussex Police’s new Head of Crime and Operations in Brighton & Hove, has been in post for approximately two months. He oversees all operational policing in the city.

I’ve known Graham for years. When I first met him I was working for a domestic violence charity and he was a talented young Detective Sergeant, on the cusp of promotion to Inspector. He had been brought into Brighton to develop work to combat hate crime.

Graham headed the new Home Office funded Anti-Victimisation Unit in its early days, before serious injuries from a car accident meant he had to leave and undertake more sedentary work.

He was knowledgeable about abuse issues and deeply committed to improving the police’s response to domestic violence. Prior his posting in Brighton he had worked at Police Headquarters with the then Assistant Chief Constable Maria Wallis.

Maria Wallis and Graham worked together to advise the Home Office on ways to improve the criminal justice response to domestic violence. They assisted in drafting the new Protection from Harassment legislation, designed to protect victims of stalking.

At that time none of us – including Graham – could have imagined that this progressive legislation would later be used to prosecute demonstrators – or that Sussex Police, with the armaments firm EDO, would (unsuccessfully) attempt to use it against peace campaigners in its own backyard.

In those early days, I remember inviting Graham to meet with a group of women survivors to explain the new legislation and discuss the changes planned by Sussex Police. Many of the women had been seriously let down by the criminal justice system.

The women’s testimony was forthright and powerful, including accounts of institutionalized sexism, collusion with abusers and failure to respond or gather evidence. I waited with interest to see how Graham would handle this measured onslaught from the women. I had watched other police officers in similar situations and while I’d seen some acquit themselves well, I’d watched others become defensive, patronizing or even aggressive.

Graham did none of these things. He listened intently and quietly to what the women had to say, at times obviously moved. When they had finished, he very simply said he was sorry. He told them the police were committed to improving their response and invited them to advise him how services should change.

As the women responded he sat forward in his chair, his eyes sparkling, listening with increasing fascination to what they said. He told them about the work he’d done with the Home Office and what Sussex Police hoped to achieve. The energy and excitement in the room was palpable It was one of those days when it seems for a while that you really can build a new world.

It was a tragedy that Graham was not able to develop the Anti-Victimisation Unit as he’d hoped, but even then, injured as he was, he returned to a policy development duties, retaining a particular interest in domestic and sexual violence.

We lost touch, but I did hear with satisfaction that he’d returned to operational policing.

A couple of weeks ago I met with Graham once again. This time the subject under discussion was not domestic violence , but the policing of demonstrations.

I’d written an article which criticised the police’s response to peace demonstrations in Brighton. I’d asked to see the city’s police commander Chief Supt Kevin Moore, and he’d allocated the task to Graham.

It was good to see Graham again after so many years, though frustrating. He’d been in post for only 6 weeks and therefore could not comment on issues I’d wanted to raise with Kevin Moore about policing of earlier demonstrations. However, he listened intently.

We discussed difficulties which had arisen for the demonstrators and the police. We agreed that trust and communication had broken down, with frustration and hurt on both sides.

I explained to Graham that many peace campaigners believe Sussex Police officers aren’t impartial, but have taken a political decision to oppose them, supporting states and organizations against which they protest. They believe there has been active collusion between the police and EDO and cite the injunction which was imposed against protesters.

More recently, campaigners feel police have deliberately misused anti-racism legislation to prevent and punish protest against Israel. They say they’ve been deeply insulted by police suggestions that a recent march was anti-semitic.

Graham explained that the Police are frustrated because organizers of demonstrations have refused to carry out their legal obligation to provide information about routes, rallying points and possible numbers attending marches.

He said that the police have to take seriously all allegations of racism. He acknowledged they have been shocked by the strength of feeling unleashed by Chief Supt Kevin Moore’s comments about the recent demonstrations.

I asked Graham what he thought police duties are in respect of demonstrations. He replied “We’re here to facilitate people’s right to demonstrate. We want them to be seen, that’s the whole point of demonstrating. We don’t want to push them down back streets. We want them to be noticed. However, we do need to speak to them about the route. We have to balance their needs against the other residents of the city”.

I come from a political era in which demonstrations were usually planned and carefully stewarded. So I have encouraged campaigners to liaise with police. I understand people’s anger that there is now a legal obligation to inform police and that this has criminalised spontaneous demonstration. However, protesters on unplanned spontaneous demonstrations have always run the risk of arrest. It’s nothing new.

The weakness of the Labour movement has meant that nowadays there are fewer organizations willing to undertake the organizational burdens of planning demonstrations – but that is not the fault of the police. So in theory this is one area in which compromise should be possible.
However, I have heard from some organisers that they are fearful of negotiating with police because they believe they will be “put in the firing line”.

An organizer told me that on one occasion when he did liaise with police he was repeatedly contacted by them, asked to leaflet buildings throughout the entire length of a proposed march and was strongly advised to “take out insurance” because he would be “personally responsible” for anything that went wrong.

Another organizer complained of rough and discourteous treatment by police during demonstrations (as did a city councillor to whom I spoke), collusion with a private security firm working with EDO and intrusive and aggressive use of police video cameras. She said “I was filmed for 3 hours by police officers with cameras. They watched as I went into shops and followed me home. How can that be justified? How can we trust them?”

As I described these concerns to Graham he began to look very perturbed. He is fiercely loyal to his colleagues – as indeed are the demonstrators to each other – and a consummate diplomat. However, his concern was very evident.

He said “It’s very important people complain so that these things can be investigated”. I told him I was aware of at least one complaint in preparation, but that I felt it would be useful for people to talk about these things and asked if he would be prepared to meet demonstrators.

He said “I will gladly do that. If we can deal with difficulties round a table I can then brief officers much more effectively both to make sure they fully understand the law and also the level of tolerance required. Demonstrators might also understand better why we do the things we do.”

Since our meeting, another march has taken place without liaison. It is reported that demonstrators chanted rather than listen to police who attempted to talk to them. As one regular demonstrator said “It was funny at times, but I felt badly. It did detract from the actual purpose of the demonstration.”

This is the key point. So long as this impasse between demonstrators and police continues it detracts from key issues about war and peace.

Both sides need to make changes. If the police are genuinely committed to defend the right to protest they need to ensure that protesters are not insulted, manhandled or unnecessarily or intrusively filmed.

In their turn demonstrators need to be clear about the purposes of demonstrations. They should not allow peace demonstrations to deteriorate into vehicles for power battles with the police or rallies about ‘ownership’ of the streets. The peace issues are too important for that.

Police and demonstrators should liaise. It won’t stop conflict or end civil disobedience. What it may do is allow larger numbers to safely attend demonstrations – and waste less of police resources and time.

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