Buying water cannon to stifle protest – not in my name

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June 16, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith

A water cannon sprays protesters during clashes in Taksim Square, Istanbul

I yield to very few in my belief in freedom of speech the importance of protest as a major aspect of the liberal, pluralist democracy that many of us claim we live in. This is why I am extremely worried about the purchase of water cannon by Boris Johnson. One reason he has done it is to help position him as a more right-wing authoritarian on law and order than one of his main rivals for the Conservative leadership, Theresa May. But the other reason, he states, is because the public want it.

But despite his use of polling that suggests 68% of Londoners were supportive of the use of water cannons in ‘limited circumstances’ and 52% feeling would have ‘greater confidence in the Met Police’s ability to respond to serious public disorder’ if water cannon were available, the problem with Boris Johnson’s reasoning for purchasing water cannon are the nuances surrounding what those ‘limited circumstances’ are.

Which is where Hugh Orde comes in. Orde is the leader of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). Water cannons were suggested in the aftermath of the London riots of 2011. In the febrile political atmosphere following those riots the use of water cannons was one of the more moderate suggestions – which included such lunacy as ‘send them back’, ‘lock them up’, ‘cut their benefits’, ‘shoot them with live bullets’, ‘send them to Afghanistan’, and so on. In the midst of this, Orde was asked about water cannon, and answered that he and 43 other Police Chiefs ‘didn’t see them as necessary’. Since then, The London Assembly’s police and crime commission has found that no convincing case has been made for the purchase. Yet Hugh Orde was to be found recently heading a national ACPO campaign to get water cannon approved. Why?

In their contribution to the ‘consultation’ the Mayor initiated (which you can read here) ACPO said that, despite their being little likelihood of serious disturbances on the horizon – “ongoing and potential future austerity measures are likely to lead to continued protest” that can “turn to serious violent disorder”. It says that the weapon could have been used in contexts such as the student protests or those outside the Israeli embassy in 2009. So there we go, we are buying water cannon to use against protesters. This is a continuation of the criminalizing of protests that reached a worrying new level with the court cases against the anti-fracking protesters at Balcombe (which I wrote about here). The main point of water cannon it seems is to give police a weapon that makes defiance almost impossible, treating protest as something to be crushed and thus tilting the balance of power further away from citizens and toward the state.

I’m not someone who is a natural protester. In fact, I have occasionally found myself privately frustrated at the incoherence of some of the most disruptive protesters’ arguments (e.g. complaining about fuel poverty whilst blocking the extraction of a source of energy that could solve it within a few years). I also have found myself a bit annoyed at people who have never paid tax (yet) insisting that more money is spent on them. But I am with Voltaire when he argues that he may disagree with what people say but he would die for their right to say it, and I don’t care how many times I have to quote him. Protest is important. Protest is democracy.

These water cannon, I believe, have been bought to stifle protest.

Not in my name.

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