Josiah Mortimer digs into a shocking new report on the challenges faced by those trying to defend our right to protest

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Legal observers have described being groped, followed home and spied on by police in a new report on the state of protest oversight in Britain.

The Article 11 Trust – set up to defend protest rights – has published shocking research into the treatment of legal observers by the police. 

While legal observers do not have formal legal status, their role is internationally recognised by the UN Human Rights Committee as necessary for the exercise of the right to peacefully assemble. They are often seen in high vis jackets at protests, handing out ‘Know Your Rights’ cards to activists and providing support to those arrested.

But police monitoring groups fear that they are targeted in the UK by hostile police officers – with legal observers who are females and people of colour at particular risk. 

The report, ‘Protecting Protest – Police Treatment of Legal Observers in Britain’, draws on the experiences of nearly 40 legal observers in Britain, a significant proportion of them still undertaking the role. They highlighted harassment, violence and discrimination by officers while monitoring police behaviour at protests. 

Several high-profile cases of police mistreatment of these volunteers have emerged over the past two years.

Last March, Greater Manchester Police sparked outrage after a woman was seen stripped down to her underwear and carried away by officers, during a ‘Kill the Bill’ protest. And following an incident on 1 May last year, three legal observers lodged complaints of assault against Greater Manchester Police, including one allegation of sexual assault where “a male officer grabbed a female legal observer’s chest”. On two occasions that day, an observer witnessed police pushing “two women [observers] very forcefully”. 


Sexist Policing

The Article 11 Trust found that more than half – 56% – of the legal observers interviewed faced gender-based discrimination from the police, ranging from patronising comments to sexual assault.

The vast majority of those interviewed also said that they had been deliberately obstructed in their work by the police, with participants describing being misled, threatened with arrest, or subject to use of force to limit their effectiveness. 

One woman – who stopped doing legal observing before the pandemic – told Byline Times that she was often intimidated by police at protests, in her eyes deliberately.

“At the G8 Summit in Cardiff [in 2014], I was parking my car and I was greeted by police officers. They knew I was going… I’ve been asked to leave places, and then followed. I have seen sexual assaults. You don’t have to grab women by the chests, you can grab them by the shoulders. You don’t have to intimidate them through physical contact.

“It’s the ‘innocent’ little conversations from officers: ‘hi Janie, how are you?’ when I hadn’t said my name. And calling me ‘love’. The Met Police’s intelligence on legal observers is appalling. There’s no guidance, and no training.”  

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One complainant said: “I am petite in size and find the male officers use their size to intimidate… At an anti-fracking demo, male officers were pressing themselves up against my back as well as female activists. It was disgusting and made me feel sick.” 

Another added: “I’ve witnessed sexualised actions by police, mainly on women – being grabby, lifting items of clothing… I have been followed and filmed by the evidence ‘gatherers’.”

Another observer interviewed for the report also said that they had been followed home – in their understanding, by a police officer – after observing a protest.

On one occasion “this really big male officer was shoving his body against me and kept saying that I couldn’t touch him and to stop touching him – I wasn’t,” one female legal observer told the report’s authors. “But if I pushed back I could have faced being arrested.” She said she was “shaking” after the incident.

Byline Times cannot verify the interviewees’ claims, but the Article 11 Trust says that all the testimonies are from legal observers with decades of collective experience monitoring demonstrations. 


Targeting Minorities

Racialised groups, including those at Black Lives Matter and Palestine solidarity protests, are more harshly policed than others, observers told the report’s authors.

In March this year, four Black Protest Legal Support (BPLS) observers – three of whom were non-white – were arrested under Coronavirus regulations at a London demonstration against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The observers condemned the move as “an attack on vital community movements that hold the police to account”.

In a recent essay, two members of Black Protest Legal Support – Patricia Daley and Queenie Djan – explained how “the police’s interaction with black and brown protestors and legal observers alike has been starkly different to their interaction with white protestors”.

They described police repeatedly threatening and mocking black and brown observers for noting officers’ badge numbers. 

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Who Polices the Police?

The report found that the policing of protest across Britain is “inconsistent” and influenced by the opinions and prejudices of senior officers – in other words, whether local police chiefs back the demonstrators or not.

The Article 11 Trust submitted Freedom of Information requests to the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC), the College of Policing (CoP) and 17 police forces across the UK for any documentation or policy relating to legal observers. Of the 15 responses it received, Police Scotland was the only force to formally recognise observers’ roles. 

The Tactical Aid Unit within Greater Manchester Police, London’s Metropolitan Police, the Ministry of Defence, Police Scotland and Merseyside Police were identified as particularly hostile towards legal observers and protests more generally. 

Griff Ferris, a volunteer with the monitoring group Black Protest Legal Support, was arrested by the Met Police at a Kill the Bill demonstration in London last April – despite being clearly identified as a legal observer. 

“Under the COVID regulations, there was an exemption for doing work, and that includes voluntary work,” he told Byline Times. “We spoke to the police… they said they didn’t care. They were told from ‘higher up’ that legal observers didn’t have an exemption.” He was arrested, held overnight, and strip-searched after refusing to give his personal information. 

Police scrutiny group Netpol is warning that, with the passing of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act this year, the protest landscape is set to worsen – and independent observers’ presence is “needed more than ever”.

Emmanuelle Andrews, policy and campaigns manager at human rights group Liberty, told Byline Times that the reports of observers’ experiences were “extremely concerning”. “Protest is a key way we can have our voices heard – and legal observers play a vital role in protecting the right to protest, ensuring the police act within the law and keeping people safe,” she told Byline Times.

“If the police and Government believe that they are respecting protest rights, they should welcome the scrutiny that legal observers bring. Instead of giving the police more powers which are being routinely abused – particularly against women and people of colour – the Government should roll-back the powers of the police to prevent these kinds of abuses taking place.”

A spokesperson for Netpol said: “The National Police Chiefs Council must end the kind of aggressive treatment this report has documented – and properly recognise that the right to monitor the actions of the police is an essential part of protecting human rights.”

The National Police Chiefs Council, the College of Policing and the Home Office did not respond to requests for comment. 

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