The days that followed the general election did not lack for frustrated emotion, with dissatisfaction across the political spectrum. That Saturday London’s streets played host to two significant events, in North London and Whitehall. Responding to StrifeBlog’s piece on the 9th May’s anti-austerity demonstration at the latter location, I would like to amplify the points raised regarding behaviour, particularly focusing the attention on the police and the role of theirs within the swirl of protest. Recent research on crowd behaviour and perceptions of police legitimacy suggest this is an area ripe for critical attention.
Protest is a fraught event. The passions which drive citizens to the streets in common voice are not to be trifled with. However, while the emotions of distress are an expected part of such events, my observations from 9th May solidified the conceptualization of the tactical relevance of another emotion, charm, and I would like to discuss here a place for it in British public order policing. It is not news to suggest that polite chat – if not outright charm – is a feature of British policing. If current research is correct, that characteristic is a significant strength against the landscape of policing practice, an asset at the strategic and tactical levels. Moving forward into a period of uncertain funding and even more uncertain political and security challenges, the need to effectively use that strength exceeds that which is merely good practice. While putting a premium on charm in public order situations might accord with the best of emerging scholarship on the subject, in fact these more critical issues may argue for its necessity.
It is first necessary to set the terms of public order policing. For the British police especially, the emotional context of protest places their role on a knife’s edge. On the one hand, there is the policing standpoint on protest. Whether any individual officer or force agrees with those passions, British policing adheres to the standard that the first objective of their efforts is to facilitate the right to protest. Before going further I should point out that I think that this is an excellent starting point for the police role in protest. On the other, hand, the “toe to toe” tactical approach means that they do so at closest proximity to the participants. That is, British public order policing is designed to operate in the face of society’s distress. The challenges of such an approach are significant and it is not unexpected that the police at times struggle to get the balance correct. Much work has been done within policing in the last several years to refine their implementation of the facilitative approach as part of their public order doctrine in response to official critique and public concern. HMIC’s reviews following the 2009 G-20 demonstrations focused on the relationship of that approach with the culture of British policing. Within that framework, and in support of facilitation at close proximity to the protest, increasing consideration is being given to how force, communications, appearance, and other markers of the policing approach to protest influence events and rights. In sum – and it is no small task – British police aim to facilitate protest within the intimate emotional space of the protesters while balancing their actions against a culture which relies upon public consent. Influencing all of this is a growing body of literature regarding the police role in crowd behaviour. The damaging correlation between police hostility and discord or disorder is becoming clear, whereas the banner of respect is linked to positive shaping of events.  Events at Whitehall offer an excellent perspective on the role of demeanour – of all involved but especially for the police on the frontlines – as it was a dominant theme of what I saw over the last two hours of the day’s events. Through that frame I would like to consider a few key points which were defined by the interaction of police and protester emotion.
To begin, the onset of the disorder sustains the focus on the interaction between police and protester across emotion and action. From the videos widely circulated online it is possible to form several impressions. Key among them was that whereas the police intention at the start was to facilitate the march decrying the politics of austerity that aim was derailed by events. A minor incident which should not but does often alter the course of events, the “snatch,” (4:05), was the immediate spark to the day’s extant tinder, unleashing the disorder which rightly or wrongly has characterized impressions of the event. In itself, the arrest did not merit the response it invited. But this is the nature of such events and large groups, that simmering passions await the least inspiration. It is the sort of phenomenon which led the United States Marine Corps to imagine the character of the Strategic Corporal. That is, under the right circumstances even minor tactical actions can have significant strategic and political effect. I do not suspect that the officers involved in the arrest intended to unleash the havoc which followed, but rather were simply focused on the task at hand. And what the video fails to show is the act which had led these officers to decide this individual needed to be apprehended at that moment.
Omitting negativity and judgement, it is worth consideration of the balance of value in taking such actions during protest. There is very obviously a trade-off in costs and risks for certain activities in public order policing. Where crowd perceptions of legitimacy and police action matter, especially with regard to their behaviour in the moment and the hair’s breadth difference between calm and disorder, how arrests are carried out is a matter for discussion, with minimum distress a necessary element of success.
But if the early afternoon’s events sustained the negative consequences of the relationship between police behaviour and crowd dynamics in protest, the evening offered a glimpse at the potential of the positive influence. Having spent the afternoon trapped in the office, listening wistfully to the sound of NPAS London circling nearby, when my day’s writing completed at six I made it to Whitehall for final act of the day’s drama ending at Westminster Bridge.
Things had gone to disorder earlier, but by this time in the day the mood had calmed considerably. Although many of the police were in public order kit at that point, this was not how the policing had begun the day. Despite the earlier disorder, there still remained on the streets officers in nothing more than their hi-viz jackets, stab vests and soft caps. Nevertheless, the tone along the lines was at least polite, if not friendly, most officers in helmets had the face shield up and were perfectly willing to engage members of the public.  I will admit that in support of my research I take full advantage of the opportunity this presents. But even some of the protesters were enthusiastic with their engagement, and these interactions of the police and protesters was instructive to watch. One exchange stands out. When challenged to confront what had happened there earlier in the day and whether what the police had done was right or fair, one officer smiled and replied “I don’t know, we came down from Walthamstow an hour ago.” The failed attempt to burden the officers with blame was poignant and defused somewhat the protester’s confrontation with the officer. It also was a moment to consider what sort of cognitive impression the day’s contrasting and similar activities would leave on some of the officers.
After an hour or so, the decision was taken to end the protest in front of the MoD. I was made aware of this with a polite notification by one of the officers. Although tempers had moderated he did not expect the remaining protesters to take the news well. As I was stood in the path of the intended police movement, it was clear that members of the public wishing to do so would be allowed to pass around the police lines. The officer’s assessment of the temper of the crowd was not inaccurate, and in response to the effort to disperse the lingering crowds the police again had to contend with emotion. Meeting police instructions for the crowd to step back, the chants of “Fuck the Police” echoed down Whitehall. Finding myself behind the police line of march, as they began to walk the crowds west I was able to observe the process from this perspective. The struggle here was not only to move the protesters but to keep control over the metal barriers which had been deployed along the streets. Used by the protesters to confound police efforts to move them along, it was a mildly frantic effort to move the barriers to the rear. Of the many things which the public order leader on the street must consider in such moments, even when the disorder is minor, this is not likely to enter the mind of anyone save those with practical experience. This effort was handled by every officer present and possible, rank notwithstanding.
Perhaps I followed a little too closely, because at one point, a rather flustered Chief Inspector turned and noticed I was right behind their lines. Finding that I was not a member of the press, she requested that move off to the side a bit. I am relentless about my research, but equally I do not wish to become part of the problem, so to the sidewalk I went. The view was just as good, if not quite as direct. From there I watched the last push to move the protesters towards Parliament Square. Not long after, with the remnants of the protest finally arrived at Westminster, the police quickly regrouped and dispersed them across the bridge.
Observing at close range, across a variety of interactions and emotions, the contours of British policing practice and scholarship on crowd psychology and public perceptions of legitimacy merged conceptually. Watching the exchanges between police and crowd, the strength of this culture of policing which provides ample space for individual diplomacy to shape events should be reckoned as a strength against the academic findings on legitimacy, compliance, and consent generally.  And it seems to me that public order policing specifically could harness the influence of this geniality. Without being flippant or unserious, it is worth considering what value there would be in the first line of action in public order policing was chat. Echoing the ancient Roman military principle of placing experience to the rear to shore up the resolve of less experienced troops, in this case we would call for charm to the front to minimize the friction between police and protesters, moderate the latter’s distress of the protesters and public, thus lessening the public order burden overall. The police position in close proximity with protesting crowds is a challenge, but it offers as well an opportunity. Arrayed as the face of protest policing in its first effort, chatters and charmers could do much to maintain the equanimity of those they confront. The most recent protest was not the first I had seen of the value of such efforts. During the Guy Fawkes demonstrations last November I stopped to watch a line of officers manage the flow of demonstrators. You cannot see it in the picture, but the officers have their visors up and are smiling  and talking to several of whom they are keeping from heading towards Westminster and Trafalgar Square. The effects were palpable. At the tactical level in the moment, although thwarted in their attempt to join the fray, the individuals were largely mollified to have at least an open “ear” to their sentiments and reasons for protest. More broadly, considering the terms of legitimacy, by treating these individuals with respect, explaining the police reasons for stopping their progress, and listening to their cause, these officers served the legitimacy and perception of policing.
Balancing the needs of protest and expression against those for order and safety has never been easy and seems only to be increasing in complexity. The British police will have to confront this, as well as the broader challenges to their relationships with communities and ability to work effectively as a function of that. Seemingly out of place within this world, it may be that charm is a necessary part of the public order kit.
1 See, eg, Lawrence Singer, “London Riots: Searching for a Stop,” Policing, V7, No. 1, pp 32-44.
2 The number of times I watched an officer ask politely several times for a protester to do something was remarkable. Nothing anyone was asked approached onerous, but the mood was simply to oppose.
3 See, eg, Andy Myhill and Paul Quinton, “It’s a fair cop? Police legitimacy, public cooperation and crime reduction,” NPIA, September 2011.
4 This accords with research on kit, as a reduction in force can signal positively to a protest crowd and facilitate communication. See, eg, Stephen Reicher, Clifford Stott, Patrick Cronin, and Otto Adang, “An integrated approach to crowd psychology and public order policing,” Policing, Vol 27, No. 4, 2004.