Kevin Blowe and Eveline Lubbers
This article was written in the summer of 2020 and first appeared in issue 85 of the Haldane Society magazine Socialist Lawyer
When the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) and the Undercover Research Group started the “Policing The Corona State” diary1 back in March to document the policing of Britain’s coronavirus state of emergency, neither of us really expected that months later, we would still need to continue updating it.
Regularly checking the local and national media, press releases from campaigners and the latest statistics from the police has, however, helped us to achieve what we set out to, which was to provide a week-by-week snapshot of issues we had definitely anticipated: the arbitrary use of police powers. Looking back, the lockdown and the way it has been policed may arguably have helped to create the exact conditions both for Black Lives Matter protests in Britain and for the prospects of growing social unrest after restrictions are lifted.
From the beginning, it was apparent that the police intended to handle the pandemic as a public order rather than a public health crisis. Instead of focusing on information, support and solutions such as building networks of care to deal with a situation that was completely new to all of us, senior officers treated a frightened and anxious public, first and foremost, as suspects and potential criminals. It did not seem to matter that public opinion had dragged the government into introducing quarantine measures in the first place.
Even before the passing of public health regulations and the Coronavirus Act into law in late March, police officers had already begun to impose lockdown measures, stopping motorists from travelling and warning train travellers, “we don’t want to see you again tomorrow”. Derbyshire Police launched “proactive” patrols that included cars equipped with loudhailers ordering people indoors and on 26 March, the day the new state of emergency formally began, it was widely criticised for using drones in the Peak District to shame people who had been outdoors.
Right from the start, we also saw the police establishing online portals enabling people to denounce their neighbours for alleged breaches of lockdown rules. Humberside, on day one, was the first. By early May, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said that forces had received a staggering 194,000 such “snitching” calls.
Once the lockdown was in place, there was complete confusion over how often people could take exercise, when they could travel, whether “shopping for non-essential items” was illegal and what the difference was between government advice and the law. The inevitable result was arbitrary decisions and a flurry of fines: Lancashire Police issued 123 in the first few days.
The police had, however, dramatically misread the public mood and within a week, the introduction of NPCC guidelines was seen as a partial retreat from many police forces enthusiastically interpreting government advice on what a ‘reasonable excuse’ for leaving home in whatever way they wanted.
This did not, however,. halt the inconsistent and unfair use of police powers. On 2 April we reported the unlawful arrest of a Black woman who had refused to give her name when stopped by British Transport Police in Newcastle and who was tried and convicted – in her absence from the court – for an offence that applies only to people who are potentially infected. A 13 year old child in Leeds had, by this stage, already been detained under the same unlawful interpretation of these powers. Over a month later, in our 15-17 May diary entry, we reported on news that a Crown Prosecution Service review had found all prosecutions under the Coronavirus Act had been unlawful.
As Easter approached in mid April, there was the first of another recurring aspect of the lockdown: the apocalyptic advanced warnings that the public were failing to listen to government advice, followed soon afterwards by ample evidence that the opposite was true.
Over the Easter Bank Holiday weekend, police chiefs were already complaining that they were seen by the public as the “villains of the pandemic”, just as they prepared to force hundreds of people to return home. This was the weekend a police van in south London was spotted driving around a largely empty park blaring out the instruction, “no sunbathing… exercise only”. In Glasgow, a disabled woman returning home with very heavy groceries was threatened with a fine for sitting down to rest because she “wasn’t exercising”. More dramatically, Netpol shared a series of videos from an incident in Fallowfield in Manchester showing the violent arrest of a man who was delivering food to his mother.
By this stage, it had become obvious, as the French journal Le Monde diplomatique noted in June in its assessment of Britain’s quarantine measures2, that in urban areas “those who own their own homes… have generally been able to weather lockdown… but the greater number who lives in flats have struggled to maintain good mental health in compressed domestic spaces.”
Public parks and outdoor spaces suddenly became even more essential to our health and well-being, especially in cities like London where almost half of homes are either purpose-built flats or cramped house conversions. In July, the think-tank Resolution Foundation reported3 that younger age groups are more likely to live in a damp home, have no garden or to live in a derelict or congested neighbourhood than older generations. Black, Asian and ethnic minority children in England are more than twice as likely as white children to live in a home with no garden.
Only a few weeks into the lockdown was the point, however, when there was widespread frustration over the decision to close Brockwell Park, a 126-acre public space in south London, because of contested social distancing infractions. On 7 April, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, gave a statement saying that people who refused to leave public spaces would be forced to. The same day, we reported on a large group of officers disrupting (and kicking) people practising yoga in London Fields in Hackney, on the basis that this was “pretending to exercise”. Our diary has subsequently documented numerous other incidents of this kind. Yet again, however, it was public pressure and condemnation that forced authorities to reopen these public spaces within a matter of days.
That first month exposed for many how the role of the police is invariably less about solving crime and more about imposing whatever the government of the day decides is the prevailing social order. Senior officers were implementing the sweeping powers they had been given in the way that they thought ministers wanted them to, rather than on the basis of what the law actually says, let alone on common sense. At the same time, calls to check on situations likely to lead to genuine and serious risks of increasing the spread of infection, such as on building sites or in the garment industry in Leicester, were completely ignored.
It was increasingly apparent, too, that the rules were not applied fairly or equally. There was (and remains) enormous focus on Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s chief advisor, travelling from London to his parents’ home in Durham while suspected of having the coronavirus. One scientific advisor to the government said at the time that it had “trashed all the advice we have given on how to build trust and secure adherence to the measures necessary to control COVID-19”.
However, perhaps the moment that caused more widespread public damage for the police’s credibility came a month earlier. This was at the high point of the rigorous and often arbitrary enforcement of social distancing and movement restrictions in parks and beauty spots around the country. There was universal condemnation of police officers gathering on Westminster Bridge to ‘Clap For Carers’ in flagrant disregard for these same rules. It was difficult to argue that this police behaviour was the result of a lack of supervision, when the Metropolitan Police Commissioner herself was present in person.
As the Cummings affair dominated the news, it was already clear too in May that police in some parts of the country were handing out up to 26 times more coronavirus lockdown fines than officers in others amid a “postcode lottery” of enforcement. Another indicator of unfairness and inequality was the ethnicity breakdown of fines that were issued. In the 2-3 May entry of our diary, we expressed concerns that the NPCC in reporting demographic data was downplaying the disproportionate fining of people from Black and particularly Asian communities. In our 26-27 May entry, we highlighted confirmation of this: Black, Asian and minority communities in England are 54% more likely to be fined under coronavirus rules than white people, according to an analysis by Liberty4. At the start of June, figures from the Metropolitan Police showed 48.6% were issued to Black or Asian Londoners.
With so much attention on the use of new emergency powers, it has been important to remember that much of every day policing remained business as usual. This included detaining people on fabricated charges: a viral video was widely circulated showing a Lancashire Police officer, later suspended, threatening to arrest a young man, saying “who are they going to believe, me or you?”
Anecdotally, we were also hearing stories that under the cloak of the lockdown, the police were increasingly targeting young black men for drugs-related searches, often very aggressively. In mid May this was confirmed by stop and search figures from the Metropolitan Police showing a surge in the use of these existing police powers during the lockdown, a rise of 22%. Two-thirds of these stops were for drugs and the number of stops per 100,000 increased from 7.2 to 9.3 for Black people.
Were senior officers aware of the growing resentment at this combination of disproportionate and confrontational policing? As the first steps towards easing the lockdown started in May, there was widespread coverage given to police unions complaining about how the new rules meant the police’s “hands were tied” over issuing fines. They seemed to resent limits on the use of these powers, but what this also appeared to reflect was uncertainty among senior officers about what the government wanted or that they retained public support. The one area where the Home Office was clear was in offering vocal political support for public order interventions against large gatherings – from raves to block parties and initially, anyone taking part in protests.
What nobody could have predicted, however, was the spread of global solidarity over the death of George Floyd in police custody in the US and how, even amidst fears of infection from the coronavirus, this captured the imagination in particular of young Black people in Britain who had never taken part in a protest before.
The reasons why Black Lives Matter protests took off will undoubtedly keep academics busy for years. However, it does seem reasonable to us to conclude that one key factor was the opportunity handed to British police forces – by the most sweeping restrictions on civil liberties for generations – to exacerbate unfair, disproportionate, often violent and invariably discriminatory policing.
Arguably more than many other recent protests, the demonstrations that started in London and Cardiff at the end of May were in many instances as much about protesters’ own experiences as they were about one man’s horrifying death thousands of miles away in Minnesota. Despite all the petty indignities we have documented in rural areas, it has been racist policing in cities that has come up time and again in the diary entries we produced. After two months of police constantly harassing young people, especially from Black and other minority communities, on urban streets and in public spaces under rules that were often incomprehensible, many had simply had enough.
As Adam Elliott-Cooper of The Monitoring Group, discussing the huge Black Lives Matter protests all over Britain on 8 June told Sky News: “If Met police chiefs are so concerned about social distancing, then why were stop and searches at a nine-year high last month – spreading the virus for the sake of small quantities of cannabis?”
What seemed to reinforce the idea that, despite claiming to have listened to the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement, the police have learnt almost nothing from the three months of lockdown, was the use of tactics against protests that were excessive and unlawful, followed by racially stereotypical depictions of mainly Black protesters as “violent thugs”.
We have documented how the same language is used repeatedly in the increasingly dire warnings that lockdown parties “could provoke considerable unrest”, culminating in the police clashing with residents in Brixton and Tottenham and with people arrested and officers injured. We have reported too on how, instead of de-escalation, the police have chosen to fuel the fear of a repeat of the London 2011 riots.
As early as 20 April, Chief Superintendent Paul Griffiths, president of the Police Superintendents’ Association, was warning that police must prepare for a “more volatile and agitated society” after the end of the lockdown. If this prediction becomes true, there is one conclusion that future researchers might draw from the dozens of diary entries we have written. The policing of the lockdown, driven by a reflex instinct to impose order as the government’s public health strategy became increasingly chaotic, may have contributed directly to making an agitated society more likely.
2“UK coexists with coronavirus”, Rowland Atkinson, Le Monde diplomatique English edition, June 2020
3“Lockdown living: Housing quality across the generations”, The Resolution Foundation, 3 July 2020
4“BAME people disproportionately targeted by coronavirus fines”, Mirren Gidda, Liberty Investigates, 26 May 2020