Framing dissent: hiding and celebrating violence of the Met’s response policing

Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens murdered Sarah Everard while she was walking home in south London, adding to the roster of hundreds (if not thousands) of on-duty cops in the United Kingdom with criminal records for things like animal cruelty, domestic abuse, and killing someone while driving drunk. The first public event held in Sarah’s honour, a vigil on Saturday, 13 March, was organised, then cowardly cancelled, by Reclaim These Streets. The vigil went on anyway, and the Metropolitan Police brutalised the attendees under the auspices of enforcing pandemic social restrictions. Photographs of a white woman handcuffed on the ground galvanised public outrage over the police’s behaviour. Diyora Shadijanova covered how Reclaim These Streets, represented by Labour Councillor Anna Birley, further bungled the fallout by saying in a televised interview that RTS was not calling on Police Commissioner Cressida Dick to resign, because Cressida Dick is a woman.

The policing of the vigil compelled me to show up on Monday for a subsequent protest organised by legitimate feminist group Sisters Uncut. I showed up to Tuesday’s protest because of how police acted at Monday’s protest, at which a large white man cutting through the crowd bent down and hissed ‘stupid bitch’ into my friend’s face (she’s Asian). I also showed up because the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, hates Black people and climate activists so much she made her own legislation, currently being rushed through Parliament as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, that if passed (and it looks as though it will) will criminalise protesting to the extent that someone who causes “serious annoyance or inconvenience” (as determined by her) can serve more jail time than a rapist. It will also further discriminate against travellers, forcing an ethnic minority group even further to the margins of society for no goddamn reason except that Priti Patel is fucking sadistic. It is worth mentioning that the day after the vigil, Metropolitan Police used batons to attack peaceful Tamil protesters assembled outside the northwest London home of Ambihai K. Selvakumar, director of the International Centre for the Prevention of Genocide, two weeks into her hunger strike demanding justice for the Tamil genocide perpetrated by the Sri Lankan state. No mainstream media outlet ran the story.

Jules Boykoff, in his 2006 paper Framing Dissent, wrote that protest without spectacle gets less coverage in the news. He identified five main “frames” around which the media crafts narratives when reporting political dissent: Violence, Disruption, Freak, Ignorance, and ‘The Amalgam of Grievances,’ all of which detract from the substantive arguments and cohesive messaging of protesters and dissent movements. These framings create an artificial pressure for protesters to resort to attention-getting tactics to get any media coverage of their discontent, such as gluing oneself to a building, which the Home Secretary has referenced as the impetus behind the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

Violence Frame: disproportionate amount of coverage given to the possibility of violence, or a few violent protesters amongst many (Priti Patel believes that the first Saturday night vigil for Everard was ‘infiltrated’).
Disruption Frame: the inconvenience caused by protesters (blocked roads, etc) to everyday life, or to the event protested (‘Protesters blocking Westminster Bridge prevented ambulances from reaching St. Thomas’ hospital.’ This is untrue; it’s also accessible via Lambeth Bridge, and protesters move for ambulances).
Freak Frame: focuses on the supposedly non-mainstream values and appearances of protesters (banal misogyny, classism, and racism).
Ignorance Frame: depicting protesters as ignorant and uninformed (more banality/victim blaming).
Amalgam of Grievances: critical of protesters’ take-up of seemingly disparate issues, thereby weakening their protest (‘this isn’t even about Sarah Everard anymore’)

On Tuesday, after listening to speeches, the protest first walked from Parliament Square to New Scotland Yard, and then stayed on the move the rest of the night to avoid the Met Police’s constant efforts to kettle us. At New Scotland Yard, we heckled the cops standing behind barriers guarding the building. I saw three plastic water bottles thrown at them, but the rest of the protesters quickly booed their disapproval at this behaviour. At one point, two columns of cops (I’d estimate it was about twenty total) formed a human battering ram to barge through the crowd. I couldn’t see why (perhaps a protester was suspected of tampering with a police van), but didn’t want to join the frenzy of expensive, flashing cameras that rushed behind the column. The cops were further heckled as they jostled each other back out of the crowd a few minutes later. Some shoved protesters. An officer’s leg caught my bike (I neither moved out of the column’s way nor deliberately tripped her). She fell, causing a hectic chain reaction of both cops and protesters tumbling to the ground. Several landed on my bike and I got knocked over. I was scared of getting trapped or trampled in a brawl, but the protesters standing around us immediately scooped up the fallen and asked if we were alright.

The cops let us march mostly undisturbed north through Whitehall, Trafalgar Square, Haymarket, and Regents Street, until we doubled back and started heading west towards Wellington Arch from Piccadilly. Their posture became much more aggressive, and they literally began stalking us. The rear line of the protest linked arms to create a barrier, but the cops stormed two paces behind them, driving the pace increasingly faster. This struck me as particularly cruel since one of the protesters walked with a cane. More cops, informed by a helicopter overhead, staged at least a dozen vans ahead to corral our movements. We were angry and loud, but we were not violent. On Grosvenor Place, the cops started deploying snatch squad tactics, first picking off and swarming a young Black man. The rest of the protest was pulling away, leaving the rear increasingly outnumbered, so I started yelling to get their attention, but the cops were starting to pick them off, too, and arrested a legal observer.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill grew out of climate activists occupying public space in 2018 and anti-racist activists occupying public space in 2020. The perceived temerity of the static protest in Parliament Square on Tuesday, however, didn’t have staying-power for the mainstream media journalists (speeches alone won’t bring in ratings), who did not follow the demonstrators for the duration of their civil disobedience in public space, therefore creating an opportunity for the police to behave violently and free of scrutiny at a protest, which grew out of a vigil made violent by the cops, which was held for a woman abducted from the street late at night and murdered by a cop.

Last summer I witnessed at least 100 Metropolitan Police kettle a crowd of young protesters for hours, without food, bathrooms, or protection from the rapidly dropping temperature after a Black Lives Matter protest. The police illegally coerced the protesters to be photographed and share personal information as a condition of leaving the kettle. With the spectacle reduced to predominantly Black Gen Z’ers shivering in a circle surrounded by police, news cameramen walked away and went home. There were only a handful of witnesses outside the kettle, kept far away by an additional cordon of cops and vans. One legal observer was encircled by the police with protesters, and another was waiting out on the steps of a marble Whitehall building with us. The Metropolitan Police’s militarisation is largely online and undercover, and I wonder how they’re using that information now.

Boris Johnson has suggested planting undercover cops in bars and nightclubs to prevent sexual harassment and assault. Deborah Talbot has written extensively about the Metropolitan Police and various local authorities’ racist discrimination in licensing nightlife venues. It is not hard to imagine how licensing requirements permitting plainclothes police officers into venues would be further perverted to surveil London’s Black population. It is hard to imagine how predatory cops in these crowded spaces will protect non-white women and girls where it’s needed, in public, out in the open, where their attacks, disappearances, and suspicious deaths (Shukri Abdi, Blessing Olusegun) are ignored by the mainstream media and thus denied thorough, expedited investigations, forcing their bereaved loved ones to start petitions demanding them. Not even dead women are safe from violation by the Metropolitan Police.

Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick has shown her racist ass over and over again. What are other British police organisations saying? WeCops, a vaguely bot-like website, advertised a forum it was hosting on response policing with a grim list of statistics about the trauma and stress of response policing, the on-the-ground work delegated to the most junior, lowest-paid officers. It complained about but did not suggest examination of poor public perception. The forum was promoted on Twitter by the Police Federation of England and Wales. In a separate tweet, however, PFEW glorified the violence and power of response policing by sharing a video from the National Police Chiefs’ Council of one such young response officer saying “it was the adrenalin [sic] side of #ResponsePolicing that got interested her in the role,” shortly before circulating another post from a north London borough’s police station:

#DayInTheLifeOfResponseOfficer 14:40pm | Immediate assistance requested by the @Ldn_Ambulance service as a patient has armed themselves with a knife. Individual taken them [sic] to hospital to receive treatment from specialist medical practitioners #ResponsePolicing#NorthArea”

The official account of MPS Haringey proudly posted a cop standing outside a closed door with a taser behind his back.

Sisters Uncut is currently mobilising a campaign to defeat the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.