The police - whose side are they on?

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The brutality with which Greater Manchester Police (GMP) attacked anti-fascists in Bolton last month shocked many.



In the run-up to the 20 March Unite Against Fascism (UAF) counter-protest it could have been anticipated that the English Defence League (EDL) boot-boys would use intimidation and threats. But it wasn't just the fascists who were out to crush their opponents.

GMP and the local authorities did everything within their power to protect the EDL protest. The preparations for this started early. School children in Bolton were given a letter to take home instructing them not to participate in the UAF demonstration, and Bolton council put 30 staff to work full-time to dissuade locals from joining the counter-protest.

On the day itself there were over 20 checkpoints placed around town to stop people - mostly young Asians - attending. The police threatened those wanting to come with arrest under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. For those who managed to get any closer to Victoria Square, where the protest took place, lines of officers were ready to harass and kettle.

Before the protest even started, riot police walked round the square armed with Taser guns, dogs and horses. Police went around the gathering anti-fascists with a youth inclusion manager, arguing that parents there with children were putting them in danger. (When this was challenged by a legal observer, the story became that it was in case the children became separated from their parents).

It soon became apparent that the police-designated UAF "safe zone" in Victoria Square was nothing of the sort. Those who came to exercise their democratic right to protest were repeatedly attacked by riot police. Police officers attempted to drive protesters back into the sound system that was being used for communication between organisers and the crowd. Meanwhile the police swooped in to arrest three leading UAF organisers, including the joint secretary of UAF, Weyman Bennett.

As this was taking place the EDL were able to throw bottles, coins and racist insults across the barriers separating the EDL and UAF, with apparently no consequences. There were around 67 arrests on the day, of which 55 were UAF supporters. Those on the UAF side who needed medical attention were refused treatment by the police, and those attempting to take photos of the ensuing attacks were on several occasions threatened. As one police officer told a man filming his attacks on protesters, "If you don't stop pointing that thing in my face, I'll do you too."

Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan ran the operation. He later told the Bolton News, "We have...seen groups of people, predominantly associated with the UAF, engaging in violent confrontation... Were it not for the professionalism and bravery of police officers many others would have been seriously injured. I would also like to praise the efforts of the EDL stewards who worked with us in the face of some very ugly confrontations."

According to another report in the Bolton News, on the same night as the protests, one man wearing EDL insignia who was "behaving aggressively and abusing customers" at Oddfellows pub used a cut-throat razor to stab a man who asked him to leave. There has been no retraction of earlier police comments on the "peaceful" nature of the EDL thugs.

So why did the police side with the fascists? One factor could be the history of fascist sympathies in GMP.

In the 2003 BBC documentary The Secret Policeman, an undercover journalist filmed GMP officers using racist language, praising Hitler and even dressing in an improvised Ku Klux Klan hood. But police have protected Nazis before, from Brick Lane to Welling - the issue is wider than this.

On 1 April last year London's Metropolitan Police attempted to break up the G20 protests in the City of London using similar levels of force. This culminated in the death of innocent bystander Ian Tomlinson.

Promises were made about new, less confrontational ways to police protests.

London's police are still reeling after this PR disaster. I recently attempted to use my press card to take photographs of a protest outside one bank in the City of London. A City of London police officer stopped me doing so, complaining, "We can't bust heads like we used to; we all have to love whales."

Public pressure has temporarily forced them to react less violently on demonstrations. Now Climate Camp and similar events are more cautiously policed, although stop and search, racial profiling and harassment of the young and ethnic minorities continue unabated.

But Manchester's police are still on the war footing London's police were on before G20, when leading figures talked about a "summer of rage" against the effects of the economic crisis.

This was recognition that the conditions are right for angry, popular protests. So it is in the interests of the police to keep down this tide of resistance. This can be seen in their overzealous policing of picket lines and their complicity with the EDL to abuse communities in multiracial Bolton.

The difference between London in April 2009 and Bolton last month was an innocent death at the hands of the police. But we can be sure that the heavy-handed policing supposedly relegated to history after the G20 has not gone away.