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Whatever Happened to People Power?

G20 protest

Many in Britain see the right to protest as a cornerstone of our democracy.

Whether the issue is anger at the toll that the banking crisis is taking on the nation's finances, worry about the impact of aviation on air quality or reservations about the proximity of a planned nuclear facility to local housing, the ability to stand up, wave a banner and say - or even scream - "No" goes hand in hand with free speech and a fair vote.

In Whatever Happened to People Power?, Panorama discovers that with increasing frequency in the UK, those rights have been eroded and, in some cases, taken away entirely.

Anybody within that crowd was free to leave if they wanted to
Assistant Met Commissioner Chris Allison on G20 crowd 'kettling'

The programme questions both the powers granted to police and how laws that were intended to halt terrorists are being used instead to curb legitimate forms of protests.

The police say that they are mandated to both keep public order and protect against direct action that could impede public safety.

'Domestic extremist'

Radley Lakes in Oxfordshire is a local beauty spot that was the scene of protest after energy company Npower announced plans to dump pot ash from a nearby plant in two of the lakes.

Npower was granted a court injunction against several protesters, citing problems it was having with squatters connected to the protest occupying an empty building on its land.

Peter Harbour, scientist
Peter Harbour found himself on a domestic extremist watch list

Peter Harbour, a retired government scientist who joined a group opposed to the plan, was one of those named in the injunction.

His fellow protesters include an ecologist, a lawyer and various schoolteachers.

"They are very ordinary members of the community," Mr Harbour says.

Panorama follows the story of how this respected scientist came to be listed alongside terrorists and animal rights extremists on a police watch list created to combat domestic extremism.

He ended up there, he says, thanks to new laws that are alien to what many believe to be Britain's liberal traditions of freedom of expression.

"There are so many laws that have been developed by this government which gradually chip away at the edges of what one is allowed to do, that they make it almost impossible to protest legitimately and obey the law," Mr Harbour tells Panorama's Raphael Rowe.

Questionable tactics

The recent G20 protests in London provided further examples of questionable police tactics.

The two days of protests that accompanied the meetings in London of the world's most powerful political leaders comprised thousands of peaceful, law-abiding protesters.

Police with confiscated child's book
Children's activity books were confiscated by police at Kingsnorth

Their anger was directed at everything from planned airport expansion to the banking sector that had precipitated the financial crisis.

Pensioners lamenting their lost savings marched alongside those furious at what they see as a lack of action on climate change.

Added to the mix, were some who were clearly intent on violence.

But many questioned whether the police struck the right balance between ensuring public order and respecting the right of the vast majority to make their point.

Kettling footage

By the end of the protests, one man who had a brush with the police was dead and social networking sites were flooded with footage showing protesters being cordoned in a police tactic known as "kettling".

Many concluded that the police had gone too far.

The police presence was actually far more than I expected, I was quite outraged
Shirley Pearce, retired schoolteacher and Kingsnorth protester

Protesters - and some accredited members of the media - said they were held for hours, unable to leave the police cordon.

But Assistant Metropolitan Police Commissioner Chris Allison rejects that assertion.

"Anybody within that crowd was free to leave if they wanted to," Mr Allison tells the programme. "What that cordon position was put in place for was to prevent people from the other protests which had turned violent going in and joining the climate camp."

Despite evidence to the contrary, Mr Allison says the frontline officers were briefed to allow people to leave whenever possible.

Former law lecturer David Howarth, a Lib Dem MP, questions whether kettling is even legal.

"It just seems to me to be a way of increasing the temperature of the demonstration, of making everyone concerned more anxious and fearful," he says. "I can't see how in any way it's legal."

The police also vigorously defended allegations of excessive force throughout the G20 protests.

Stun-gun threats

To date, the Independent Police Complaints Commission has received 277 complaints including nearly 60 that allege assault by police.

Others complained that police were not wearing mandatory identification numbers - a longstanding complaint amid veteran protesters and activists.

Panorama also reveals dramatic amateur video footage of a police raid on a squat in an empty office block during the G20.

More than 100 officers raided the building, threatened the squatters with stun guns and resulted in just two of the 82 squatters being arrested. Neither of those two people arrested have been charged with any offence.

The police insist that their actions were appropriate given their intelligence and the fact that they did not know how many people were inside and had reason to believe some of them could be violent.

The programme team also revisits the police response to last year's Kingsnorth power station protests in Kent, where 1,400 police were called in from 26 forces to help control a 'climate camp' protest.

Crayons confiscated

Protesters complained they were harassed by constant searches and had personal property seized, including crayons, children's chalk, an ironing board, tent pegs and bike locks.

Kingsnorth climate camp protest
Protesters opposed the building of a new coal-fired power plant

More understandably, amid the threat of direct action on the power plant, police seized homemade rafts that protesters planned to use to breach the plant's security perimeter.

Protester Shirley Pearce, a retired schoolteacher who had recently undergone knee replacement surgery, had her walking stick seized.

"The police presence was actually far more than I expected, I was quite outraged," she tells Panorama.

The police use of stop and search laws at the Kingsnorth protest is now under judicial review.

Owing to this ongoing review, Kent police declined to comment on the tactics they employed.

Right to privacy?

The Panorama team also examines the police gathering and storing of information about protesters who engage in lawful demonstrations yet find that their personal details are being both kept by police and passed on to private companies.

We meet Andrew Wood, a former press officer for the Campaign Against Arms Trade, who fought a four-year court battle against the police holding photographs of him engaging in lawful protest and other personal information.

Injured G20 protester
There were 277 complaints about the police at the G20

The High Court ruled that his human rights had been breached and that the police response was disproportionate.

Despite that ruling, Mr Wood's details remain on a second police database and police are adamant that the type of surveillance that Mr Wood was subject to, including being followed home, filmed and photographed, will continue.

"It will not stop, we have a very straightforward responsibility and a right to film those who are breaking the law and to gather evidence …you wouldn't expect anything else," said a Meredydd Hughes, the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police, speaking on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers.

Panorama: Whatever Happened to People Power? BBC One, Monday, 6 July at 8.30pm.

Map of the UK's protest hotspots
Friday, 3 July 2009, 13:43 GMT |  Panorama
The fight for the right to object
Monday, 6 July 2009, 09:23 GMT |  UK
Protesters and the police
Friday, 3 July 2009, 13:45 GMT |  The Team
'Too few trained police' for G20
Monday, 29 June 2009, 11:17 GMT |  Politics
Is it a crime to take pictures?
Monday, 16 February 2009, 10:16 GMT |  UK

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