GreaterManchester Police have searched a group of teenagers and threatened them with arrest because one of them was carrying an anti-monarchy placard. This happened on Friday (20th January) when Charles Windsor was visiting Bolton.
This latest example of the suppression of peaceful protest is a reminder of just how quick British police are to prevent any expression of anti-monarchy opinion.
Nate Norris, aged 16, was holding a sign reading “Abolish the monarchy”. He was joined by some friends, aged 16 and 17, none of whom had placards or banners. They were approached by police before Charles Windsor had even arrived.
Despite no evidence whatsoever of any physical threat to anyone, the police searched four 16- and 17-year-olds. They issued them with a dispersal notice, telling them to leave and threatening them with arrest if they returned within three hours – so they would not be there when Charles Windsor turned up.
Nate tells me that when he asked why this was being done, the police pointed to wording in the dispersal notice that claimed that “there are reasonable grounds to suspect your behaviour has contributed to or is likely to contribute to members of the public in the specified locality being harassed”.
Nate asked them to explain why they thought this. There is some footage of this part of the incident: Nate can be heard asking what behaviour the police are referring to, and a police officer can be heard repeatedly avoiding the question. At one point, the policeman said, “If you don’t know what ‘bevhaviour’ means, feel free to Google it”. This should make him a strong contender for Patronising Copper of the Year. But then again, there’s likely to be a lot of comepeition for that title.
In short, Bolton police searched and dispersed a small group of peaceful teenagers because one of them objected to the monarchy. Did they think that Charles should not have to cope with seeing a critical placard? This is in no way compatible with democracy and the right to free expression.
The low standards of the police have been increasingly obvious in recent months and years, not least through the latest revelations about the number of officers accused of sexual or domestic abuse. The general police contempt for the right to peaceful protest seems to have become more visible just as the Home Secretary is offering them more and more powers to shut down dissent.
There are few issues on which the police seem as keen to deny the right to free expression as the monarchy. While I know this from my own experience of being arrested in Oxford last September, I am aware that my case is one among many – as the incident in Bolton shows.
Three cheers for Nate and his friends for standing up to monarchy and for challenging the police about the legal basis of their actions. Too often the police seem to think that the law is what they say it is, and that everyone should do what a police officer tells them without question. It is entirely understandable that some people do not feel confident about challenging the police, given the imbalance of power involved.
As the government tries to further criminalise peaceful protests, and to effectively ban strikes in some industries, our right to resist must be constantly reasserted. The coronation in May is likely to be a big test for this.
Ahead of William Windsor and Kate Middleton’s wedding in 2011, people planning to protest were pre-emptively arrested before the event, while others were arrested on the day on very dubious grounds. That must not happen again. Between now and May we must speak up loudly for the right to dissent – and make our voices heard on the day itself.