Tuesday, 12 March 2013

student protests postscript

Since my last post on the acquittal of the 2010 student tuition fees protestors, fresh coverage of the case has emerged that raises some interesting points regarding the policing of such protests and the legal processes often used against those arrested at them.

An article by Nadine El-Enany (a lecturer in Law at Birkbeck University), argues that this trial highlights a current crisis in public order policing. She points out that the charge of Violent Disorder (Section 2 of the 1986 Public Order Act), emerged in the context of widespread unrest in the UK in the early-mid 1980s, and argues that this legislation was part of an ongoing political attempt to criminalise such protests and deter people from attending them. However, juries do not seem to have agreed, and of 19 defendants who contested violent disorder charges after the tuition fees protests, 18 have been acquitted.

Coverage in the Independent, and the Socialist Worker newspaper, also show that both defendants in this case (Alfie Meadows & Zak King) were acquitted on the grounds of self defence, as the jury accepted their argument that they were defending themselves and others in the crowd from police attack. Zak King’s legal representative in court argued that the use of such charges shows a failure to differentiate between the actions of a crowd and individuals within it; 

With violent disorder it’s the actions of a number of people taken together that the jury is encouraged to look at. And one of the difficulties the prosecution – and to an extent the police – have in these sorts of cases is that they view the crowd as one unit. They fail to see there are individuals within that crowd, like these two young men, who were trying to protect people and stop them getting hurt. They just viewed them as one large anonymous block.”

This fits with numerous psychological studies of collective disorder (see below) that argue it is often the use of indiscriminate police public order tactics that psychologically unites previously disparate groups within crowds. This can result in increased (and not less) disorder, as people who were previously strangers can come together and collectively resist what they perceive as indiscriminate (and illegitimate) behaviour by the police, and seems to explain quite well this notion of collective self-defence amongst crowds that were previously predominantly peaceful.

Cocking C. (2013) Crowd flight during collective disorder- a momentary lapse of reason? Journal of Investigative Psychology & Offender Profiling. DOI: 10.1002/jip.1389
Reicher, S. (2001). The psychology of crowd dynamics. In M. A. Hogg, & R. S. Tindale (Eds.),
Blackwell handbook of social psychology: Group processes (pp. 182–208). Oxford: Blackwell

Reicher, S., Stott, C., Cronin, P., & Adang, O. (2004). A new approach to crowd psychology and public order policing. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management, 27, (4), 558–572.

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