Mayday 2004 - The criminalisation of protest and the demonisation of dissent

This dossier is a very brief list of events, all of which can be readily documented from obvious sources (media archives, Indymedia).It consists of two parts: firstly a chronicle of recent events giving rise to concern from the moment of the banning of the Farmleigh march; secondly a dossier of "dirty tricks" which we prepared before the banning of the march and released on Friday, April 30th.

Fortress Dublin? The criminalisation of protest and the demonisation of dissent

 


Issued by Dublin Grassroots Network

 

Friday, May 7th, 2004

"The problem associated with the dissent of protesters was dealt with in an efficient and speedy manner"
Michael Smith, Minister for Defence, 6.5.04

Dublin Grassroots Network has compiled this dossier to highlight three things:

1. The systematic nature of the attempts by security forces and the Government to criminalise protest and prevent the exercise of democratic rights. These attempts cover the past month: before, during and after the May Day weekend.

2. The political responsibilities of those involved: not only the security forces, but more importantly the Dept. of Justice and ultimately the Government. At the end of the day, people were clubbed off the Navan Road to prevent embarrassment to Bertie Ahern in front of "European colleagues" such as Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi  and to intimidate protestors in advance of George Bush's visit.

3. The linkage between repression of dissent, in Ireland, Poland or Iraq, and the policies we are protesting against: a neo-liberal drive to privatisation which attacks ordinary people, a "war on terror" which treats protestors as terrorists, and a "Fortress Europe" which has caused over 3,000 deaths on its borders and which criminalises internal opposition.

This dossier is a very brief list of events, all of which can be readily documented from obvious sources (media archives, Indymedia). We hope to be in a position to develop a more detailed history, but this will naturally take time which for us as a voluntary organisation is limited.

It consists of two parts: firstly a chronicle of recent events giving rise to concern from the moment of the banning of the Farmleigh march; secondly a dossier of "dirty tricks" which we prepared before the banning of the march and released on Friday, April 30th.

Part I

Chronicle of recent events giving rise to concern

1. The banning of the Farmleigh march

On Thursday, April 29th, details of policing plans for the May Day weekend were finally released, not officially but in a Prime Time report. On Friday morning, not only many activists but many journalists we talked to were unaware of the details.

Dublin Grassroots Network had been calling for clarification on policing plans for a number of weeks, particularly in relation to reports of the arming of gardai and the circumstances under which guns could be used, as well as guidelines for the use of "non-lethal weaponry". Failure to clarify these facts contributed to raising tensions in Dublin over the weekend.

The plans released involved an attempt to prevent any march along the Quays, with detachments of gardai on bridges to push groups of protestors into side streets (a clearly intimidatory statement). Those who arrived at the meeting point for the march at Parkgate St. would be met by the riot squad, with instructions to prevent demonstrators congregating.

DGN, Harry Browne in the Evening Herald and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties had all noted that these last instructions, which had been cited in the Irish Times previously as part of police intentions, were an infringement of the basic right to assembly and protest, which involve precisely the congregation of demonstrators.

Garda claims that the march was not really banned do not stand up to scrutiny. Details of our events had been very publicly available, not least through the media, for over a month by this point. Garda statements openly advertised the fact that its intelligence unit was following websites. Yet we are asked to believe that the Gardai had no knowledge that Parkgate St., where the riot squad was placed with orders to prevent demonstrators gathering, was a publicly announced starting point for a march which had attracted huge media attention.

To the best of our knowledge, there has been no scrutiny of these Garda claims. Yet the banning of a march is a very serious affair; it appears that marches have not been banned since perhaps the 1970s. We had hoped, following the banning of the march, that media archives could clarify the history of restrictions on the freedom of protest in Ireland, and wonder why this story is apparently insignificant.

We feel that following the banning of the march it was absolutely necessary to go ahead with a protest, albeit with a new starting point. The 3-5,000 people who joined us on Saturday night clearly felt the same way, and expressed this feeling in the meeting which was held outside the GPO and which decided to march. The freedom of assembly and opinion are too important to allow them to be incidentally suspended by a briefing to a television programme which "just happens" to place the riot squad at the assembly point for a nationally-organised march.

We noted at the time that the late date of the ban was highly irresponsible and ran the risk of people arriving at Parkgate St. in ignorance of police plans, and meeting the riot squad. Thankfully, this does not seem to have occurred, although we have seen no reports either way.

It is clear though that the militarisation of Dublin, the banning of the march and the threat of the use of riot police significantly raised tensions and created a highly confrontational situation. In plain English, the last-minute message sent out via Prime Time ran: if you try to march, we will disperse you forcibly. And this is of course precisely what happened on Saturday night.

.2. The policing of the Farmleigh march

In a democratic society, the freedom of assembly and opinion is not an added extra or a minor annoyance, as some commentators have suggested. It is fundamental to the maintenance of civil society and democratic debate. It is used not only by DGN, but by nurses, taxi drivers, farmers and on occasion even by members of An Garda Siochána.

That force as a whole, and the state, have a duty under the European Convention on Human Rights to facilitate and protect peaceful protest. And yet what we saw on Saturday night were severe injuries inflicted on members of the public, attempts to cause a panic, the arrests of those who were attempting to lower tensions and denial of basic rights to access to hospitals, telephones for those arrested and bail to those granted bail. In order:

(a) General issues

Much of the media coverage of Saturday night's events have misrepresented them as a riot. They were not, and the trivial nature of the charges brought - breach of the peace, refusal to obey the instructions of a garda - underline this. (There was however a real riot over the weekend, at the Rally of the Lakes in Killarney, at which more people were arrested than in connection with the whole May Day weekend: strangely, it has not received much coverage although it has been mentioned in the Dail.)

The main story is surely that between 3 and 5,000 people found the courage to march in the face of the ban and the threat of the riot police, in defence of the freedom of assembly and opinion and as a protest against privatisation, militarisation and "Fortress Europe". A secondary story is surely that the police did indeed attack citizens on the Navan Road, injuring several and arresting two dozen. Yet media attention has largely ignored both of these stories in favour of a focus on the alleged actions of a small number of protestors.

There have been some very strange suggestions made in this context, of which we can highlight two. One is that of collective guilt: that if one person does something wrong, that fact justifies the police engaging in any amount of violence towards other people. The other is that of the "wild dog" police: that somehow the Gardai are more easily provoked than other people, and anyone who challenges them in any way ought to know that they are risking their skin in doing so. We find this latter suggestion curiously ambiguous.

Dublin Grassroots Network had issued guidelines for Saturday's march which stated our intention for a non-confrontational approach. In accordance with these guidelines, our banners remained 200 yards from police lines. A number of protestors who rejected those guidelines went beyond our march and towards police lines, carrying a banner.

We want to note however that this group did not pose any real threat to the 5,000 police assembled to prevent the march (nor was any attempt made to arrest them), and that the Garda Press Office has only been able to claim one minor injury in relation to the entire weekend's events.

We therefore stand by our earlier statements that the decision to pull back uniformed gardai and send in the riot squad within two minutes of the banner mentioned above arriving at police lines was disproportionate and heavy-handed. The injuries to citizens, and the near-panic, which resulted from this are the responsibility of the Minister of Justice.

(b) Injuries to protestors

The members of the riot squad occasioned a number of serious injuries to protestors. In particular, two people sustained severe skull injuries, with two other more minor head wounds. Two arms were broken, as well as one wrist (damaged by water cannon) and a number of fingers. DGN will be releasing further details from the medical team at our press conference. In an earlier press release we stated that one arrested protestor had a broken leg. Since his release on bail it has transpired that this was not in fact the case.

Indymedia Ireland has released two short videos, one showing a member of the riot squad attacking protestors moving away from police lines (http://www.indymedia.ie/attachments/may2004/policeviolence1.mpg) and one showing the water cannon attempting to push journalists off the high wall to the south of the road, and succeeding in forcing one person to the ground, who lost consciousness as a result (http://www.indymedia.ie/attachments/may2004/policeviolence2.mpg). Further camera evidence of police violence is widely available on Indymedia.

A DGN activist attempted to drive the two protestors with head injuries to the Mater hospital. Members of the gardai blocked their way on the road and prevented this, despite it being clearly visible that the passengers were seriously injured. This incident was misreported in earlier press comments as though access had been denied at the doors of the hospital, which was not the case. The two eventually secured treatment. Given the nature of their injuries, however, this behaviour on the part of gardai was extremely irresponsible and would have attracted severe censure had they been ordinary citizens.

(c) Arrests and attempts to cause a panic

The behaviour of the riot squad - not only the baton charges but the use of simulated baton charges - was clearly designed to frighten the crowd, and, in the circumstances of Saturday night, came close to causing a panic. DGN activists, who had gone beyond the DGN banner on their own responsibility in order to calm the crowd, found themselves in the bizarre situation of trying to stop a panic which the police were trying to cause. We ask who was responsible for the breach of the peace in this case.

Similarly, the trivial nature of the charges brought highlights the non-threatening behaviour of those actually arrested. Many of those arrested are people who either sat down at the first sign of police violence, in order to lower tensions and prevent a panic, or who raised their hands in the air and called out "This is a peaceful protest!" It is interesting that those targeted for arrest were those who were trying to calm a volatile situation.

We mentioned in Sunday's press statement the case of a DGN activist who helped to form a line of people with linked arms, walking away from the riot police. Again, the purpose was to calm the situation and move back towards town. This line soon became the back line and the riot squad moved in behind it at a speed which was too fast.

DGN members said precisely this to members of the riot squad, that they were unable to move the crowd any faster. Not only were they ignored: our friend was pulled out of the line, first by his bag and then by his feet being swept from under him. He was pulled under the line of riot shields and arrested.

Dublin Grassroots Network has nothing but admiration for those who put themselves at risk from arrest and truncheons in this situation, attempting to calm the situation. We can only ask how it is that ordinary people, under extreme stress, can behave so well while the supposedly highly-trained riot squad attempted to cause a panic, disrupted attempts to move the crowd away and arrested protestors who were trying to lower tensions.

.3. Denial of legal rights following arrest

We have heard much over the past few days of the importance of respecting the rule of law. Not only did the policing of this event fail to respect basic democratic freedoms, as outlined above, and the human right of physical integrity; on several occasions subsequent to Saturday's protest ordinary legal rights were ignored or overruled.

Firstly, although the arrests on the Navan Road took place between 8.30 and 10 pm on Saturday night, some protestors at least were denied their right to make a phone call until after the special court hearing that night. (We believe that this may have been the case for all protestors, in that not one call was placed to our Legal Support hotline until the early hours of Sunday morning.) This was a very clear denial of basic legal rights, and may have contributed to some protestors being unable to gain consent to bail until the High Court decision on Wednesday.

Secondly, as the papers over the last two days have made clear, the District Court on Wednesday morning refused to grant bail to those who had not already been granted it on Saturday night (in all probability, these were those who had been most disadvantaged by refusal of the right to make a phone call). Had it not been for an immediate appeal to the High Court these people would still be in custody for extremely minor offences. In yesterday's press release we observed that in the same sitting not only was bail granted to a person accused of possession of cocaine with intent to supply and a person accused of domestic violence, but also to a person accused of other public order offences including assaulting a garda.

4. Conclusion

Dublin Grassroots Network notes that despite the wilfully endangering behaviour of the security forces over the weekend and a month of disinformation and scaremongering, large numbers of people participated in all the weekend's protest events.

People took responsibility for themselves and each other under very difficult conditions, and in so doing have acted more responsibly than the police. The weekend's events underlined the strength of our vision of a world of grassroots democracy: the Government spent ¤3.9m on PR while we spent a couple of thousand euro on leaflets. The Government spent, we are told, ¤7.5m on overtime alone and perhaps ¤15m on the entire security operation. And yet ordinary people, taking action on their own behalf, behaved more responsibly and made a more effective political statement than all the resources of the state.

After a multi-million euro security operation, fewer people were arrested than after the Rally of the Lakes in Killarney the same weekend, and charges were very minor. Clearly the Government now wishes to minimise the extent of political protest &endash; having spent much of the past month feeding the media with panic stories about the hordes of foreign agitators who wanted to burn Dublin to the ground.

The reasons why are clear in both cases. This is a deeply unpopular Government, facing elections. Since the rejection of the Nice Treaty in the last free vote the Irish people were given on the direction of the EU, it is also clear that the policies the EU is following &endash; privatisation, militarisation and "Fortress Europe" &endash; are meeting with more and more opposition.

This is why we are seeing the criminalisation of protest, why the Government wanted to intimidate people from taking part in the weekend's events and why it is now seeking to minimise the extent of popular participation in those events.

We want to underline the responsibility of the Depts. of Justice and Defence, and ultimately of the entire Cabinet, in the attempt to suspend basic civil liberties and criminalise protest. The Taoiseach has made his opposition to protest clear in comments before the event which described all those involved as "mindless hooligans". But the hooligans, as at Reclaim the Streets two years ago, were wearing police helmets, riot shields and wielding batons.

No doubt the Government would prefer people not to take an active part in democracy, and indeed Bertie Ahern has asked people not to protest when George Bush visits in June, for his summit with those EU leaders involved in the war (and torture) in Iraq. Unfortunately for Bertie, but thankfully for democracy, people are not so willing to abandon freedoms which took centuries to achieve.

Our weekend began as a weekend of opposition to EU policies in the area of privatisation, militarisation, "Fortress Europe" and social justice. We believe the events of the weekend show that serious opposition to such policies will be met with violence: the same violence that May Day protestors in Poland have been experiencing.

Profits and policing are being globalised, while "Fortress Europe" kills more people on its borders than the Berlin Wall ever did. Ireland hosts a "Day of Welcomes" while the old European states all place restrictions on citizens from the new states and the Government forges ahead with plans for a racist referendum.

The reality is that neo-liberalism, the "war on terror" and racist immigration policies can only be defended through increasingly undemocratic means. They have nothing to offer ordinary people except fewer and more expensive services, more policing and more midnight deportations. To protest against these policies is to see your marches banned, your leafleting prevented, your friends clubbed and your activists arrested.

We believe that people have shown by their actions last weekend that they understand that the freedom of assembly and the freedom of opinion are not a gift of Government, to be withdrawn by a briefing to Prime Time. They have been gained over hundreds of years of struggles for democracy and human rights. And the people who came with us on the Navan Road, in the face of the ban, in the face of the riot squad, and who looked after each other in the face of police violence, deserve our thanks.

Part II

"Dirty tricks" and the militarisation of policing in advance of the May Day weekend

Details prepared by DGN on Thursday, April 29th (before the banning of the Farmleigh march) and released on Friday, May 30th at our press conference. Reproduced verbatim for the record.

Aisling Reidy of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties noted earlier this week that they were " very concerned that gardai, through stories fed to the media, is [sic] trying to soften up public opinion for a show down, by talking of potential violence and well planned attacks by subversives". She observed that the Garda Siochana is in fact legally obliged to allow and protect peaceful protests.

These comments do not appear to have been heard by senior levels of the security forces, or by the Minister for Justice. We have to ask who ultimately benefits from the climate of tension which such activities have created. Political responsibility certainly lies with an unpopular government which lost the last free vote on European affairs (the first vote on the Nice Treaty, which faced protests of 100,000 people last year over its support for war and which has been facing widespread direct action in response to its attempts to impose bin charges?

"Dirty tricks": behaviour in bad faith

  • Stated intention to use undercover police officers within demonstrations, despite the involvement of such officers in provocation at the G8 summit protests in Genoa (see http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/engEUR300122001!Open for a statement of Amnesty International's concerns about the policing of Genoa)
  • Encouraging businesses to shut over the weekend and feeding this story to the media as an example of spontaneous concerns (see http://www.indymedia.ie/newswire.php?story_id=64654 for minute of a meeting with the Assistant Commissioner and the City Centre Businessman's Association as part of this strategy).
  • Unfounded claims about plans for an "attack" on the Blanchardstown shopping centre
  • Harassment of Dublin Grassroots door-to-door leafletters, despite their legal right to do so (see http://www.indymedia.ie/newswire.php?story_id=64499 for an eyewitness account)
  • Stopping and questioning of activists after buying onions (!) in Moore St market (quote: "onions could be used as missiles")
  • Arrest and detention of 2 activists on Thursday morning for hours despite their possession of passports and bank cards to prove ID
  • Videotaping of passengers arriving at Connolly from the Belfast train
  • Refusal to grant permission for the Another Europe is Possible march (this decision has been appealed)
  • Continuous generation of scare stories about "unrest" designed to justify the militarisation of policing, despite consistent lack of evidence.

The militarisation of policing

  • The use of the army, armed gardai, rubber bullets / "non-lethal weaponry", water cannon, razor wire etc. to police a peaceful protest
  • Implication of "collective punishment" in comments such as those of Garda Complaints Board chief Gordon Holmes, which seem to suggest that if some protestors cause trouble, all deserve police violence (Examiner, 27.4.04)
  • Discussion of temporary detention centres and the intimidatory clearing of a wing of Cloverhill prison for protestors
  • The stated aim to prevent large groups of protestors gathering (Irish Times, 19.04.04; see also Harry Brown's comments in the Evening Herald, 23.4.04)
  • The closure of the Phoenix Park for the first time in its history
  • Calls to suspend freedom of travel by Lord Mayor Royston Brady

This amounts to a virtual suspension of the constitution. We also note that the security forces are clearly acting in bad faith: if half of their allegations were justified, we would have expected charges to be brought against the organisers. Instead we have seen very few ministers or official spokespeople willing to appear in public, but widespread use of crime correspondents, ex-policemen, representatives of garda trade unions GRA and AGSI, "security consultants" etc. to represent the view of the security forces and ultimately of the Government.

ENDS