Since Friday 1 July, some 12,000 police officers from across the UK have been carrying out one of the largest and most successful operations against summit protesters ever experienced. After Saturday's Make Poverty History march, this small army has used new powers to clamp down on almost every protest - of whatever kind. One activist group in particular has been targeted in an extreme way - the Wombles. This is the story of 'Operation Get Wombles', and incorporates yesterday's newswire post. It may contain some innaccuracies on numbers and times but the general thrust is correct.
Saturday, 2 July
Red Pepper magazine reports that an officer from London Met's so called Forward Intelligence Team (FIT) had been overheard warning a 'Womble' that the police were "going to get you lot this time".
Wednesday, 6 July
Having spent much of the day lamenting the lack of early morning protests, sleeping and then chopping onions for a large meal at the Glasgow Convergence Centre in the rented warehouse in Dora Street, a minibus set off at 6.30 pm taking 8 Wombles and 4 others, including a one year old child, to camp at the eco-village in Stirling. The bus had travelled just two blocks when they were suddenly blocked in and surrounded by five vans of riot police, some 12 police motorbikes and three vans of police dogs. A police helicopter circled overhead. The 11 people were arrested on suspicion of “conspiracy to cause a breach of the peace” and then bundled into a police prison transporter van with tiny blacked out windows and individual cells. This is highly unusual – such vans are normally used only for prisoners being transported from police stations to prisons or court and not for arrests. Over 100 officers are said to have been involved in the operation, most were reported to have not been wearing their identity numbers.
The transporter was then escorted as part of a giant police motorcade with police bikes blocking of street entrances and junctions ahead, and vans providing cover and front and back of the 11 arrested suspects. Inside the prison transporter, many of the activists reported via mobile phones that they seemed to be the target of a kind of “special forces operation” normally reserved for actual dangerous criminals or highly wanted suspects – like terrorists – not a group of friendly anarchists and autonomists whose direct action activities are mainly focused around squatting social centres and fighting labour precarity in neoliberal Europe. One of the Wombles said that “it felt like they thought Bin Laden was in the minibus”.
Five of the arrested were dropped off at London Road police station, which is just five minutes from Dora Street. The six others were driven around for what seemed a long time, visiting a number of police stations before arriving at Baird Street station in central Glasgow. Where they were interviewed and then formally charged. Concerned friends spent seven hours ringing up every police station in Glasgow to track the prisoners down before Baird Street finally confirmed their presence at around 1am. Fortunately, a friend picked up one of the arrestees child after police had given the arrested mother just an hour and a half to find someone to pick the child up or it would have been into the care of social services.
Once in the cells for the night, the prisoners were given no blankets to keep them warm. One was put in a cell with a glass wall and UV lights so that officers could watch him – such a set up is usually for drug addicts or those on suicide watch.
Thursday 7 July
The charges against the group of activists were due to be heard at Glasgow's Sheriff's court at 2pm. When they arrived, they were taken to the cells of the court. When some forty supporters arrived at the court house at 2pm to enter the public gallery, there was a massive police presence inside and outside – some 30 officers (all in black) alone were standing in the lobby. In a contravention of normal practice, the police inside the court informed the supporters when they would be allowed to go in – normally, you are allowed to enter the public gallery when you want. The supporters went through the airport-style security check; they were then individually thoroughly searched by police and had their pens confiscated on grounds that they could be used as “offensive weapons”. Police also lined the stairs and escorted people in two's into the public gallery where another 16 police offiers were standing, 8 on each side, of the gallery.
The judge entered the court room at 2.30pm (14.30) and proceeded to make a speech about “the dignity of his court”, that he would not accept any misbehaviour or disruption whatsoever and would use “the severest powers of contempt of court on anyone” who stepped out of line. He empowered the police to remove anyone misbehaving. The proceedings started and first up were hearings for around 12 local twenty-something males, charged with a variety of petty crimes. Then at about 4pm, the judge adjourned the session for a 10 minute break. When the Wombles supporters stood up to leave the public gallery for that break, a senior police officer notified them that their 11 friends had all been “liberated” and would be waiting outside. The supporters were “furious” at having been tricked into spending all that time in the public gallery for nothing.
The 8 Wombles and 3 others were actually charged with "conspiracy to breach the peace". Despite being released, they remain charged and the police had up to a year to decide whether to pursue the prosecutions.
When the 40-50 people left the Sheriff's Court at around 4.40pm (16:40), the group then headed for a pub across a bridge but soon turned back when some 60 police, this time in yellow bibs, and a police camera van could be seen lined up across the other side of the bridge ready to stop and search the group. They eventually found another pub, The Sharkeys, all the time being discreetly followed by police vans. After about an hour - during which time the group drank, watched the TV footage of London (where most were from), and some of those who had been released attempted to call friends at home to make sure they were OK after the bomb blasts - (approx. 18.00), 2 police officers came into the pub and began looking around. A number of people asked them what they were looking for and why they were in the pub. According to an eye-witness, the police response was very aggressive and they began shouting at people and then pushed one man. Heated words were exchanged and 1 officer began threatening the group with arrest. The group of activists stood up and asked the police to calm down.
3 people followed the police outside of the pub and began writing down their numbers. As the male police officer continued behaving aggressively, one the of activists said: “get a proper job”. The police response was to push him up against the pub door and try to arrest him. The activist fell through the pub door, at which point the 2 police officers grabbed, assaulted and arrested another activist who was simply standing outside the pub. As people started to spill out of the pub, out of nowhere 4 minibuses and a few cars containing some 40 to 50 police in all black uniforms (wearing 'e' numbers). Two more people were arrested for either assault or obstruction. One of the arrested was a Womble. Some of the group asked the police why they were provoking a situation "when we our minds are in London where our friends and loved ones could be seriously injured or dead?". Apparently, a number of female police officers looked like they had been crying and did not look happy with the operation they were on. As this was going on, some of the police went into the pub to talk to the bar owners.
Some 20 minutes after the incident began and with their friends now driven away, the group of activists finally went back inside the pub to finish their drinks. Moments later, a new group of 20 to 25 police officers entered the pub, including Chief Inspector Brian Murphy of Pitt Street Central police station in Glasgow, surrounded their tables and announced: "The bar owner has asked you to leave, finish your drinks as soon as possible and leave the pub". The bar owner had apparently said nothing of the sort and was more scared by the behaviour of the police. When the police were challenged, they responded by saying "this is not a debate, you've got ten minutes to drink up and leave". The group stayed for a further 10 minutes and in that time were constantly harrassed, even followed to the toilets.
When the Wombles and others finally left the pub, they found that a large number of police had lined entrance across the pub. The police made a further announcement, demanding that the activists "disperse" from the area and not in one big group but in small groups of 3 to 4 people. The police were asked under what law was this action being taken. The response from the officer in charge was "there are many laws I can use" but failed to state one. The activists then finally left as requested. It is being claimed that there were five undercover cops in the pub carpark from Special Branch.
Friday 8 July
Today, the three people arrested outside The Sharkey's pub were apparently charged with committing a breach of the peace and bailed to appear before a court in September or October. But tonight there is still confusion as to whether any charges have been brought or not and clarification is being sought. At 4pm this afternoon, the police still had hold of their possessions.
Tonight the harrassment and intimidation goes on. Since around 6pm, police, including a FIT team, have been moving in and out of a pub where some of the Wombles are having a quiet drink. On leaving, a member of the London Met was heard to say ““have a good night, hope to see you in London”. This is threatening behaviour against people who have done a great service to London-based activists over the last five year in helping to protect people against police violence on demonstration, in opening up social centres where we can meet, talk about politics, plan campaigns and actions, in promoting the ideas of self-organisation and anti-authoritarianism, and in showing solidarity to oppressed people across the world. They have also made a huge contribution to help get people up to Scotland and find accommodation. Given the extent of the repression against political protest this week in Scotland and the massive misuse and blatent violation of police powers in that clampdown, if police harrassment of the Wombles continues, its intended objective will backfire. Tonight in Edinburgh, after another small demonstration – this time against war, terrorism and the war on terror – was met with a huge police presence and declared illegal, after another day of constant stop and searches, of being filmed and lied to about what laws are being used and what we must do to comply with them, more and more people are saying “We are all Wombles”.