This isn't just an idle question – many people within the climate movement have suffered terrible treatment at the hands of the police, and are understandably concerned about meetings between cops and Campers. Meanwhile, the recent rapid pace of events has made it hard to keep track of what meetings are going on with the police, and why. This article is an attempt to clear things up a bit, to explain why last week's meeting happened, and what we think it achieved.
The main part of the Police Liaison Team's remit is to gather information first-hand about likely police tactics, strategy, personnel and attitude. However, the group has another important role as well: to give the Camp credibility in the eyes of the public.
Those of us who've had a lot of dealings with the police know how little we can trust them, but many of the public haven't had that experience. If we refuse to talk to the police, then a lot of people will (rightly or wrongly) think we're being unreasonable and so be less likely to get involved with the Camp.
Meeting with the cops also gives the Climate Camp a "human face" and might make some officers be a tiny bit less brutal towards us (we have no definite proof of this, though). And of course, each meeting brings us one step closer to the day when the underpaid officers at the Camp gates suddenly decide to lay down their truncheons, take off their riot gear, stick two fingers up at Gold Command and join us in building a beautiful eco-anarchist utopia. Possibly.
The Police Liaison volunteers aren't "representatives" of the Camp – they don't negotiate with the police, make any concessions to them, or give them any information that they wouldn't have found out anyway. In previous years, this has been a slightly frustrating, often uncomfortable, but nonetheless important job.
This year, however, things have gone a bit weird.
Thanks to the police getting caught in the act at the G20 protests, and the serious of vaguely critical official reports that followed, there has been unprecedented media interest in any meetings between the Camp and the police. The cops are on the back foot and are desperately trying to repair their image, and so rather than fobbing us off until the last minute, they are falling over themselves to drag us into meetings. It's pretty bizarre stuff – and it's not without its dangers.
From their quotes in this recent Guardian article [ http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/aug/18/met-police-climate-camp-twitter], it seems the cops are keen to say "look, we're even having meetings with the protesters, aren't we nice!". There's a real risk that by agreeing to these meetings, we might be unintentionally helping out the police with their propaganda – which is why we worked together with the Camp's media team on an Open Letter To The Met [ http://climatecamp.org.uk/blog/2009/08/20/open-letter-to-the-met] to make the Camp's position VERY clear. While in the short term the idea that the police are going to be all cuddly this time round may help to get more people to the London Camp, in the long term it could be very dangerous. If the public and the media decide the police have mended their ways, then their interest will soon wander, leaving the cops free to get the batons out again.
Meanwhile, we aren't the only ones being harassed by the police. That's why the Camp's Legal Team have been building connections with other activist groups including Fitwatch and London Defence and Monitoring, as well as organisations representing migrant communities, the Campaign Against Criminalising Communities, the Muslim prisoner support group and the Newham Monitoring Project. Plans are afoot to get funding for a new umbrella group to keep monitoring the police and holding them to account – wherever and whenever they might operate.
Let's not forget: the police's job is to enforce laws which defend the status quo, protect the wealthy and the powerful, and stand in the way of social change. This has been their role throughout history, and not just within the UK. Meanwhile, we're trying to build a movement to create massive social change by directly confronting the Government and wealthy, powerful, polluting corporations. This doesn't make it very likely that the police are ever going to be our friends.
However, one thing that CAN change is the tactics available to the cops – the exact level of violence and intimidation that they're allowed to get away with. It would be lovely to believe that we might influence this just by having meetings with the police. Sadly, experience shows that the only thing that really works is forcing them to change by exposing their tactics to the world. It's annoying that we have to do this – we'd much rather spend the time on climate action – but if we don't, then things will only get worse.
We'd like to reassure the rest of the climate movement that the Police Liaison team fully understand all of this, and that we are also actively challenging attempts by the police (and the media) to separate our movement into “good” and “bad” protesters. We've done our best to explain this at Gatherings and on email lists, and we're sorry if it hasn't been totally clear! If you have any concerns or suggestions about the work we're doing, please get in touch with us – or better yet, come and join the Police Liaison team and get involved yourself.
So it was with all this in mind that I stood up in front of a crowd of seventy police officers on Thursday afternoon, and explained to them why the Climate Camp was happening, how non-hierarchical decision-making worked, and what this year's Camp will probably look like. I then described what it was like to be charged by a line of riot cops for no discernible reason, to watch your friends being beaten over the head and arrested on meaningless charges, to see people in front of you being pepper-sprayed in the face, and to know you have to stand your ground anyway with your hands in the air because the alternative is to let a beautiful Camp be trampled under their steel-toecapped boots. They listened, in silence. It was one of the weirdest things I've ever done in my life. Whether or not it will make any difference, I really couldn't say; but it felt oddly liberating all the same.
Next, we got to hear the police's pre-Camp strategy briefings first-hand. Then they took us on a tour of the place where they train riot police, a kind of “Riotland” theme park with a life-sized fake Council estate, tube station and sports stadium...but no, that was far too strange to have really happened. It must have been a bizarre dream.