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How should the police handle protests?

Police at the G20 protests

There is an unequivocal agreement that the primary role of the police is to uphold and implement law and order.

However, implementation of order has always been a contentious issue especially when it appears to go against the concept of liberty, and freedom of protest.

This moral issue has been brought to the forefront of discussion, and it is increasingly evident that the answer is not as clear as we would hope.

The protest at St Paul’s is an interesting case to consider when discussing this issue, for police action has yet to be implemented, and moral objections have been raised over the possibility of forceful removal.

The message we can draw from former Canon Chancellor Glenn Fraser’s resignation is a vital one: that you cannot allow force to be used against a peaceful protest under the name of an institution which is suppose to uphold moral concepts, such as justice and liberty.

This applies to both the Church and the government.So it’s clear that you cannot advocate freedom of protest and then use force to silence it without endangering public safety. So what is reasonable for the police to do when public safety is in danger?

The student protest in London during December 2010 is a key example of when both the protestors and the authorities hold a degree of moral standing, and yet both are vulnerable to criticism.

I don’t think you could reasonably argue that it’s wrong for the police to use force to combat those who were guilty of vandalism, assault and arson. However it is more difficult to defend when the tactics utilized affect those who are protesting peacefully.

To confine a group of students by kettling, the majority of whom had no link to, or advocated, the violence occurring, in the freezing cold without toilet facilities, food, water or any information of when they were to be released, is not what would spring to my mind when thinking about the police morally upholding law and order.

Despite this fact it would be unscrupulous to not consider the alternative view that these actions were taken during an atmosphere of hostility, and these measures were to prevent further social disorder.

Both views have value and the facts to support either one are hard to distinguish in the turbulent events. There are cases, though, in which maintaining the peace is no longer the principal aim, instead it is to restrict the protest with severe repercussions for the liberty and safety of protestors.

The G20 demonstrations highlight these repercussions with video evidence of peaceful protestors being beaten by batons and riots shields, with the tragic death of Ian Tomlinson epitomizing the police brutality. It was at that moment history had repeated itself, and protestors were facing the same ruthlessness experienced during the Thatcher era.

Though one could well ask, can we expect the authorities to consider liberty, human rights and respect as well as upholding the law whilst in the midst of a crowd of 50,000 protestors?

The answer is an obvious yes! When the police have not considered these notions we have experienced the same result every time and that is further disorder, resentment and casualties.

Admitting the obvious however, does not necessarily give us any clear direction of how to balance the demands of liberty for freedom of protest, and the requirement of the police to have the ability to uphold law and order.

Whilst the actions taken at the G20 were an abuse of authority and planned to be so, the actions at other protests such as the student protest are more morally ambiguous.

For while I would instinctively disagree with kettling, within a stressful and volatile environment I would concede it could be a better alternative than letting events take their course, if we were to judge from the recent riots.

With more protests surely to occur as defiance against government cuts to public services increases, it is imperative that the police maintain a balance between the rights of the protestors and public safety.

Yet the charged nature of large-scale protests means disorder can easily transpire, and if turbulent events occur it becomes the most important time, as well as the most difficult time, to obtain the balance between liberty and the implementation of order.

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