Tessa Myer finds the arm of the law getting longer and longer
Three's a crowd
On the hot bank holiday Monday in May, the family of a friend of mine drove to Southend in Essex for a picnic by the sea. At least, they tried to. A short distance from the beach, they met a road-block: a 'no entry' sign flanked by a couple of policemen and a barrier. Finding an alternative route proved impossible as all the main junctions were sealed off in similar fashion. The police had turned the coast at Southend into a no-go area.
'My first impression', said my friend's mum, 'was that something unusual had happened, like a bomb had gone off'. But they could see other holiday-makers enjoying the sun behind the barriers. 'People weren't panicking; it all looked very normal.'
The explanation from the police was that the sea-front car park was full. They were told to turn back. My friend's mum was unconvinced. In the 30 years the family had travelled to Southend, they would simply drive around looking for a vacant parking space. 'I asked the policeman whether he thought I should take my food back home and eat it in the kitchen.'
An hour after being redirected a mile away, they walked past empty spaces in the car park on their way to the beach. The family laughed about it at the time. 'But it's also strange that they were doing that. There's no need for the police to tell us that the car park is full. We can find that out ourselves.'
These days, even if you want to 'get away from it all' and enjoy a picnic or a relaxing weekend, the police turn up and tell you how to do it. Pleasurable activities from picnicing to partying are becoming subject to increasingly rigid control. It is now considered normal that the police should organise people's movements.
A decade ago, when the police started developing modern public order tactics for controlling crowds, their use was restricted to major industrial disputes. During the 1984-5 miners strike, police imposed unprecedented (and often illegal) controls on movement. Kent miners were banned from using the Dartford Tunnel. Northern motorways were closed to stop flying pickets, and Scottish miners were arrested for the crime of travelling on a bus. The police arrested and charged more than 10 000 people, almost half of them under the old Public Order Act (1936).
After the miners' strike, the 1986 Public Order Act codified existing police practice. Under the act, the police can arrest anybody deemed a threat to general order. They can impose conditions on the location, numbers and duration of gatherings. Meeting more than two people can be termed a 'public demonstration' and liable to a fine. If three people make a fuss it's 'violent disorder', and the penalty is up to five years. A charge of riot can result in life imprisonment.
Public order policing is now used against an expanding list of people, as the authorities crack down on almost any crowd.
After the strikers, the first targeted group were football fans. They became the guinea pigs in a law and order experiment which culminated in the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy, when police packed Liverpool supporters into a suffocating terrace at the Sheffield stadium and even pushed back those who tried to escape; 95 died. The police then had the nerve to use Hillsborough as the pretext for imposing further controls on movement. Later that year when Middlesborough played Sheffield Wednesday at the stadium, the police set up road-blocks outside Sheffield. Anybody with a Teeside accent who could not produce a ticket was refused entry to the city.
'Free' summer festivals used to involve liaising with farmers or choosing grassy areas with public right of way signs. Today they are effectively organised by the police and local authorities. In May of this year, four west country police forces launched Operation Nomad to prevent Avon Free Festival from happening on common land. All police leave was cancelled and travellers were confronted with road-blocks.
In the same month, 20 000 new age travellers, ravers and hippies descended on Castlemorton Common for a festival. They were greeted by a ring of 400 police and the buzz of helicopters. West Mercia police called this a 'low-key approach'. 'The immediate thing', said local Tory MP Michael Spicer, 'is to get these people off the common quickly'. The police did as he suggested. Castlemorton Common turned out to be less than common ground for all.
Stonehenge summer solstice in June is now an annual exercise in crowd control. The other name for the festival is Operation Solstice. Since 'the Battle of the Beanfield' at Stonehenge in 1985, when police first showed their intention to control events by beating and arresting festival-goers, and impounding vehicles, National Heritage has closed the site for the summer festival. For 11 months of the year the stones can be viewed at close hand. During June, however, even catching a glimpse of the sunrise through the ancient monument is a crime.
This year the Home Office banned 'processions' within a four-mile exclusion zone around the stones under Section 13 of the Public Order Act (1986). A 'procession' was defined as more than two people. A convoy of about 18 vehicles on the A30 at Barton Stacey travelling in the opposite direction to Stonehenge was stopped by Hampshire police for obstructing traffic. Asked if there was a difference between a group of people taking a stroll and a procession, a Wiltshire police spokesman replied 'not necessarily'.
The bank holiday road-blocks which my friend's family came across in Southend were another small example of this same pattern of crowd control. It seems that whether you are a 'hooligan', a hippy or even a holiday-maker, you are increasingly likely to be pushed around by a police force obsessed with public order.
The emphasis on public order policing is a sign of the underlying insecurity of the British establishment today. Even though they do not have to contend with any political opposition movement, the authorities seem afraid of just about any crowd. With their economy in ruins and nothing positive to offer people, they are resorting more and more to enforcing regulations and restrictions, regimenting society. 'Public order' has become a catch-all label for ordering about an ever-wider cross-section of the public.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 46, August 1992