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Pro-Palestine Activism and Critical Issues in Contemporary Policing




Editor’s Note: This article was written and edited before Israel began its genocidal onslaught on Gaza in October 2023. However, its discussion on the policing of pro-Palestinian protest as reflective of macro-scale political agendas, has become even more relevant in light of both the mass protests taking place nation-wide and globally in solidarity with Palestine, and the UK government's failed attempts at undermining and criminalizing said protests. With this in mind, the author wishes to highlight the astounding bravery of Palestinian resistance – as well as the persistence of global allyship – in the face of backlash at the hands of the police or otherwise. May Palestine be free, within our lifetimes.


Introduction

On the 1st of May 2023, UK-based direct action group Palestine Action launched a siege on UAV Tactical Systems’ factory in Leicester. This was done in anticipation of the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, the mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948 at the hands of Zionist militia (Haddad, 2022). UAV Tactical Systems is a subsidiary of Israel-based Elbit Systems, Israel’s biggest private arms company (Ridley, 2022). It is responsible for 85% of the Israeli military’s drones and 85% of its land-based equipment (Corporate Watch, 2019). Israel’s drone technology was used extensively in its assaults on Gaza in 2008, 2014 and 2021 (Human Rights Watch, 2009; Rielly, 2022) in which thousands of Gazans under siege themselves were killed. Calling on volunteers from across the country to join the campaign, Palestine Action has vowed to “[stay] put day and night, for weeks on end” and not leave “until Elbit does” (Palestine Action, 2023a). Only two days into the siege, Leicestershire Police arrested 33 Palestine ‘Actionists’. According to Palestine Action’s subsequent press release, these arrests were “disproportionate” and made “indiscriminately, without evidence and with the clear motivation to repress the growing mobilisation” (Palestine Action, 2023b). A spokesperson applauded the activists’ resilience, stating “[the siege’s] success also lies in the response we have seen: people stand defiant in the face of police repression, a community in opposition to Israel’s arms trade” (Palestine Action, 2023b). 


This essay seeks to show that Palestine Action’s characterisation of the police is not merely based on a biased and predictably anarchist rejection of authority. In actuality, it is substantiated by criminological literature mapping trends in the police’s varied responses to protests (Smith, 2019), as well as critical theory shedding light on the intersections between – and indeed, the co-constitution of – police repression and the state’s political and financial interests (Shantz, 2012; Garland, 2012; Davenport 2000). Simultaneously however, since Palestine Action’s siege is still evolving, there is understandably no specifically related academic literature to refer to. The essay therefore also wishes to explain this gap in the literature and respond to it by carving out an analytical space that problematises the police’s criminalisation of pro-Palestinian dissent. By applying existing criminological theory to the particular context of Palestine Action’s transgressive protests, I hope to “defend the breathing spaces needed for the building of resistance, relationships and a better world” (Fortier and Wood, 2014, p. 145). 


The critical issue

Palestine Action’s siege provides us with a helpful case study with which to identify and consequently explain the mismatch between the police’s official position of “facilitating peaceful protest” (HMIC, 2009) and the empirical proof that the police actually disrupts peaceful protests and subjects protestors to disproportionate state violence. This particularly occurs in response to direct action protests marked by transgressive tactics (Mansley, 2014; Gilmore et al., 2020). 


This discrepancy is revealed through a quick review of the existent literature on police protesting’s supposed evolution. Many criminologists have understood this evolution as “sequential” (Smith, 2019, p. 34), perhaps in accordance with a liberal tendency to believe in the linear progression of humanity – or in this case, police reform (Tremaria, 2021; Freeden, 2015). From the late 1960s through to the 1980s, the police’s previously preferred “escalated-force model” gave way to the “negotiated control model” (Della Porta and Diani, 2006, p. 198), also known as “negotiated management” (McPhail, Schweingruber, and McCarthy, 1998). The escalated-force model does not tolerate “innovative forms of protest” and frequently uses “coercive means or even illegal methods” (Della Porta and Diani, 2006, p. 198). In contrast, it is argued, negotiated management allows the police to tolerate “even disruptive forms of protest” and avoid “coercive means” as much as possible (Della Porta and Diani, 2006, p. 198; McPhail, Schweingruber, and McCarthy, 1998). The shift was welcomed – indeed “uncritically” so (Gilmore, 2013, p. 87) – as evidence of the public’s denunciation of coercive policing of protest and, concurrently, the police’s acceptance of and dedication to reform (Della Porta and Reiter, 1998). The new commitment to a “human rights compliant framework” is encapsulated in the police’s official and publicised Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary’s (HMIC) report (2009). Here, negotiated management is framed as a way for the police to adapt to the “changing world of protest activity whilst still maintaining a commitment to the core values of the traditional ‘British model’ of policing based on ‘independence, impartiality, discretion and accountability” (Gilmore, 2013, p. 23). 

Yet empirically speaking, the evidence suggests that the police’s newfound approach to policing protests did not actually result in less coercive policing. It also did not facilitate peaceful protest (nevermind disruptive or innovative ones) or engender a more collaborative and “dialogical” (Smith, 2019) attitude to protest policing (Gilmore et al., 2020). Although the supposed application of negotiated management-inspired tactics was credited with “substantially decreasing the number and intensity of street clashes between police and protestors'' (Gillham and Noakes, 2007, p. 342; McPhail, Schweingruber, and McCarthy, 1998; Della Porta and Reiter, 1998), it is worth questioning whether a lack of violence on the protestor’s end is the best way to gauge the civility (or success) of a protest. Indeed, Mansley (2014, p. 12-15, 135) reports that despite the publicised adoption of negotiated management, the police actually moved towards “hard policing” and “paramilitary policing.” Gilmore (2010) describes a turn to an “authoritarian style of protest policing in Britain.” She cites the murder of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests in London and the 2009 Gaza protests in which around 3,000 protesters were “[subjected] to violent baton charges” by the police as two illustrative examples. The decrease in protestor violence during the studied period is attributable to said hard policing, not to a successful dialogue between the police and protestors.  


Police strategies towards policing protests have therefore not evolved past coercive policing. Despite the breadth of academic work suggesting so, there was no sequential progression towards a human rights approach. Instead, “a variety of approaches have been implemented at different times'' according to circumstance; “the different approaches to the policing of protests are a tool kit of possible responses available [...] and police commanders utilised the approaches most applicable to achieve their strategies” (Smith, 2019, p.35). Gillham and Noakes (2006, p. 111; 2007, p. 341-343) suggest that a third response to political protests, “strategic incapacitation”, has emerged in response to “tactical innovations introduced by transgressive protestors'' and is aimed at “temporarily incapacitating” them. Its paramilitarism has a “demobilising effect” (Mansley, 2014, p. 119). As I further unravel in the next section, this demobilisation is the police’s primary objective, and not the curtailment of protestor violence or the protection of public order. Crucially, the violence of strategic incapacitation is routinely if not systematically obscured by the police’s continuing appeal to negotiated management’s false promises: I argue that the mismatch between the police’s PR position and the empirical realities of its violent response to protests (in particular those transgressing the limits of political acceptability) is crucial for the maintenance of police and state legitimacy. 


Understanding the origins of the problem

In order to identify the critical criminological issue(s) at the centre of this equation, it is vital to first contextualise Palestine Action’s protests against a backdrop of intensified anti-protest legislation in the UK. The new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 (PCSCA) has been criticised as a serious curtailment of the right to protest and as a step closer towards the “criminalisation” and legally-entrenched “delegitimation” of dissent and activism (Cristiano et al., 2023). Through its purposefully wide and ambiguous scope, the legislation expands the definition of serious harm, gives the Home Secretary “sweeping new powers” to decide what “serious disruption” to “the life of a community” and to “the activities of an organisation” can mean. Crucially, it also provides the police with the discretion to define what would be “necessary” to maintain an already ill-defined “public order” (Gilmore, 2021). The Government further doubled down on their efforts to pre-emptively silence dissent with the Public Order Act 2023 (POA), which received Royal Assent on 2 May 2023. Already sparking political controversy and debate (Neame, 2023), the POA has been deemed “incompatible with the UK’s international human rights obligations regarding people’s rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association” (OHCHR, 2023). Together, the PCSCA and POA “constitute a drastic, further expansion of police powers” and “exacerbate legal uncertainty” (Amnesty International UK, 2023).   


The impact of this legislation is already reverberating across the country. Indeed, it is being felt not just by Palestine Actionists; a worryingly high number of anti-monarchist activists and protestors were mass arrested, both after the Queen’s death and more recently during the King’s coronation (Quinn, 2022; Durbin and Sandford, 2023). Amongst those arrested were members of environmental direct action group Just Stop Oil. Yet these protests can hardly be described as transgressive, at least tactically speaking. Indeed, in many ways, they represent the most legitimised and even institutionalised form of symbolic protest: waving placards and chanting ‘peacefully’ (Gillham and Noakes, 2006; Gilmore et al., 2020). How else can these disproportionate police responses be explained? 


The protests’ challenge to state legitimacy and authority – as encapsulated by the monarchy and as protected by the police – trigger the police’s aggressive reaction. The protests’ tactics might not be transgressive, but the threat the protests pose ideologically is. The effect is magnified when the tactics also become transgressive. Returning to our case study, as Palestine Actionists led “speeches, workshops, dance and community mobilisation” on an arms factory’s property, Leicestershire Police “stepped in with all of the force at their disposal to intimidate and detain those standing against Elbit” (Palestine Action, 2023b). They “arrived with armed units” and “deployed tactics including kettling, property seizure, breaking and entering cars, the raiding of homes and the dismantling of encampments” (Palestine Action, 2023b). Interestingly, many of the protests were reportedly (although I was unable to confirm this officially) made under the new Public Order Act, on the very first day of its enactment. These developments thus “reproduce the state and the law as the arbiters of political legitimacy”, feeding into “practices of informal criminalisation [of protest] within movement themselves” as “well-behaved, non-violent, respectable currents explicitly distinguish themselves from more informal and anarchic strands” (Cristiano et al., 2023, p. 7). Importantly, this “feeds the divide-and-rule strategies on which government, police and media are so keen” (p. 7). These are purposeful decisions that formally distinct yet ideologically intertwined state institutions take in conjunction, emboldened by anti-protest legislation and the legal profession’s intrinsic complicity in upholding the state’s status quo (Ferguson 2013; Ricketts, 2015; Jackson, Gilmore and Monk, 2017). Palestine Actionists are aware of their own criminalised status, choosing to protest in spite or even in defiance of it: “[Co-founder of Palestine Action Huda Ammori] doubts the police will “respect” PA’s activists, but doesn’t care, ‘We’re already criminalised in the eyes of the state. Adding a few different versions of laws doesn’t make much of an impact. If anything, it’s more of a reason to take direct action.” (Brown, 2023). 


Palestine Action’s direct action protests must also be situated within an increasingly visible and radical transnational justice movement for Palestine. Activists across the globe employ a myriad of tactics through which they amplify, show solidarity with or supplement the grassroots Palestinian struggle against occupation and forced displacement. With even the most accommodationist of these tactics triggering Zionist backlash, many of Palestinians’ core demands are maligned and cast beyond the periphery of political possibility. The international community’s own complicity in upholding and facilitating Israel’s brutal military occupation of Palestinians is thus concealed. Direct action’s inherited anarchic influences, as expressed so publicly in the United Kingdom by Palestine Action, pose a particularly “creative” threat to both the police’s authority (Ricketts, 2006; Gillham and Noakes, 2007) but also, in tandem, to the wider political status quo delineating acceptable protest and resistance. The police’s frantic attempts to maintain its authority is inextricably tied to a wider repressive neoliberal project (Shantz, 2012; Garland, 2012) aimed at stifling any dissent threatening the state (Davenport, 2000) – in this case a foreign state – and the military industrial complex upholding it. 


Importantly, this meta-analysis and its conclusions are not specific to direct action protests for Palestine. Instead, they are indicative of the power dynamics at play when state authorities attempt to police any dissent that they deem to be transgressive or outside the boundaries of both the acceptable forms of protest, and crucially, I argue, the subjects and objects of protest. Indeed, “the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable protest set by police are not based on the [protestor’s] use of violence but on the target or goal of a protest and a desire to be disruptive” (Jackson, Gilmore and Monk, 2019, p. 39).  Gilmore et al. (2020) discuss this in relation to anti-fracking direct action groups, describing the police’s aggressive and intimidating uses of “confrontational and violent tactics” (p. 384). They note the incongruity between the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s (NPCC) guidance for police officers to “facilitate the exercise of the freedoms of assembly and expression” (NPCC, 2022, p. 10) and the protestors’ own understanding of what this ‘facilitation’ actually entails for them in practice. (Gilmore et al., 2020, p. 383).


This is to be expected from liberalism’s self-legitimating project; protests posing an existential threat to the state’s authority are maligned as deviant. As discussed above, protestors are criminalised through strategically enforced legislation, the harm of which is neutralised by the law’s self-professed inviolability. Consequently, these protestors and their demands are cast aside as illegitimate (Cristiano et al., 2023; Diani, 2012). Indeed, as Cristiano et al. (2023, p. 17) explain, the police’s ‘facilitation’ of peaceful protest allows “liberal states [to] ‘facilitate’ legitimised forms of protest into futility”, corralling them into a “tightly constrained zone of acceptable dissent.” The police then “[cracks down] on those whose inability or refusal to fit in the pen constructs them as illegitimate” (p. 17). Accordingly, direct action protests such as Palestine Action’s siege are interpreted through the liberal discourse of the “new age of protest”: “globalised, non-hierarchical, technologically advanced, politically ambiguous and increasingly prone to violence” (Gilmore, 2013, p. 96).  It is therefore considered “less amenable to traditional forms of control for the purpose of legitimising the pre-emptive regulation of protest.” 


In the face of the police’s domination of protest space and the demobilisation of transgressive protests, movements “face the choice of abandoning protest as a means of achieving their goals or devising evermore innovative means of demonstrating in an increasingly controlled public space” (Gillham and Noakes, 2007, p. 352). When these groups actually harness their above-mentioned qualities – anarchist, non-hierarchical, de-centralised, unpredictable, confrontational – to carve out a new space for their dissent they confound the police’s ability to claim legitimacy or to predict and consequently disrupt the protest. In response, however, the police resort to an increased use of paramilitaristic force (Jackson et al., 2015). Wood (2014, p. 164) situates the increasing “militarisation” of protest policing within the “broader logics and practices that are tied to a globalising and neoliberalising field of policing.” The shift towards paramilitarism disproportionately impacts minoritized groups, partly because they tend to be the subjects and objects of many of said transgressive protests, but also because they stand at the receiving end of the police’s largely discriminatory and assumptive labelling of particular protest groups and protestors (Bowling, Parmar and Phillips, 2008; Rosie and Gorringe, 2008). 


This analysis “shatters the illusion of the police’s political neutrality” and reveals that they “do not simply act as neutral arbitrators of law and order” (Wozniak, 2005, p. 143). Instead, the police “serve above all to preserve the existing social order and, in the process, to protect the interests of ruling elites (p. 143). I argue that, in the case of Palestine Action, the police is emboldened by pre-conceived and largely Islamophobic notions of pro-Palestinian protestors as extremists (Gilmore, 2013), justifying their pre-emptive and forceful intervention. Here, the police’s protective function extends to the maintenance of the United Kingdom’s military, political, and financial interests, and in conjunction, Israel’s own occupation of Palestine. 


The possibilities and problems of reform

The problem with protest policing reform, at least in relation to the meta-analytical lens adopted throughout the essay, is that previous reforms have in and of themselves reproduced and reinforced the very mismatch complained of. Indeed, the publicly announced transition from the police’s unabashed use of coercive force to its adoption of negotiated management approach did not occur in a vacuum and was not prompted by the police’s intrinsic dedication to reform. Instead, widespread public scrutiny of police brutality and violence during protests triggered several national inquiries and threatened the police’s claim to legitimacy and neutrality (Gillham and Noakes, 2006, p. 342). Accordingly, continued public scrutiny of the police should be encouraged. Yet, pessimistically speaking, the obfuscation of the police’s continued violence through legalised and neutralised systems of domination, if understood as inherent to and inextricable from neoliberal statehood, is a meta-issue that is perhaps unresolvable without mass social upheaval. 


Yet, this essay also provides us with more tangible problematizations, ones for which solutions may be envisioned. Police reform cannot be discussed without also considering the role that protestors may play in this process. Ricketts (2006) proposes the theatrical proponents of direct action as a way for marginalised protestors to assert a dissident worldview and thus begin to dismantle the dangerously fixed worldview of their opponents. Ricketts stresses the importance of magnifying political messages, the empowerment of activists and the decentering of police as “enduring and highly transferable lessons that can be learnt” (p. 87). Relevantly, the dialogical approach to protest policing re-emerges as an intriguing possibility, despite negotiated management’s continued political manipulation. Some academics have proposed a reimagined dialogical alternative that avoids “ritualistic elements'' and prioritises a “genuine commitment” to fostering a workable – or even constructive – relationship between police and protestors (Baker, 2014, p. 101). This relationship must not be merely transactional or presentist: “the best interest of both police and protest organizers is to foster the relationship, develop dialog from pre-event, the actual event, and ultimately learn from post-event review” (p. 101). In order to “foster best dialog practice”, police need “intelligence and understanding of the identities and intentions within protest groups”; discriminatory labelling practices are more likely to construct ‘bad’ protestors “as the ‘opposition’ about whom police know little or nothing” (p. 84). 


The question remains whether all this would be practicable in the context of pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist protest groups such as Palestine Action. Would a British police force’s engagement with Palestinians’ varied demands lead to less combative interactions between the two sides? These proposals should be subjected to several critiques. 


Firstly, is this engagement even possible, considering the entrenched anti-Palestinian media bias (Attar and King, 2023) that informs ‘acceptable’ political and academic discussion? In light of these complexities, how will Palestinian civil society and allied activist groups be given the platform to educate the police, when they are yet to be provided with a suitable political platform at all? For example, in relation to London’s wide scale Gaza protests in 2009, which prompted violent police repression and racialised mass arrests, Gilmore (2013) notes how “despite [their] scale and intensity, these events [were] largely absent from the political debate triggered by the G20 protests.” Similarly, mainstream media is yet to report on Palestine Action’s current siege, although this is unlikely to occur considering its prior failure to cover the group’s successful shut down of Elbit’s Oldham factory in 2021. 


Secondly, the proposals stray away from vital progressive analyses of police culture and instead run the risk of positioning reform as a process that occurs within individuals (whose worldviews may or may not be easily influenced) as opposed to on an institutional level.  This links well to the final critique: these suggested reforms may still reproduce problematic categorisations of (un)acceptable protest and feed into the already criticised depoliticisation of richly radical and urgently needed direct action protests. Can the police ever ‘facilitate’ protests that pose a threat to their very existence as an institution? 


Conclusion

This essay has utilised Palestine Action’s ongoing siege as a case study to demonstrate the disconnect between the police's stated commitment to facilitating peaceful protest and the empirical evidence of their disruptive, violent response to protests they deem to be transgressive, either in form or in content. Despite claiming to have evolved towards negotiated management’s human rights approach to protest policing, the police have continued to resort to coercive tactics, including strategic incapacitation, to demobilise protesters who pose a threat to the police’s – and accordingly, the state’s – legitimacy and authority. What remains are several cogent questions in which the current status of protest policing is challenged, its future remains ambiguous and, as expected, Palestinian activism continues to walk a tightrope between depoliticisation, criminalisation, and justice. 





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