Sunday, February 23, 2014

Why we must keep water cannon off our streets

Finding myself agreeing with senior police officers on the subject of policing protest is an unfamiliar experience for me. But it seems like the Met have outdone themselves with their latest wheeze: asking Theresa May for permission to purchase and use water cannon. Suddenly, in fighting against the Met, I’m on the same side as Ian Blair, who recently said he didn’t think a good case had been made for the use of the weapon in England and Wales; Police and Crime Commissioner Bob Jones, who’s said they would be “about as much use as a chocolate teapot”; and indeed Theresa May herself, who said in 2011: “The way we police in Britain is not through use of water cannon. The way we police in Britain is through consent of communities." (Mind you, in her recent reply to Boris Johnson’s letter on the issue, she’d changed her tune a bit, saying only that, “Like you, I am keen to ensure that forces have the tools and powers they need to maintain order on our streets” – so who knows what her position is these days.)

As my husband points out, it’s not clear why anyone would assume water cannon were innocuous, other than the fact that their name includes the word ‘water’. But, you know, it does also include the word ‘cannon’. If they were called “pressure cannons”, nobody would think they were just a thing that might get you a bit wet and cold.

Which, of course, they’re not. Even the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) acknowledges that water cannon can cause “serious injury and even death”. Liberty calls them “inflammatory, militaristic and brutal”, and the Home Affairs Select Committee has pointed out that they’re an indiscriminate weapon with a high risk of injuring innocent bystanders. German pensioner Dietrich Wagner, who was blinded by water cannon in an environmental protest (warning: the details of his injuries are seriously gruesome), recently travelled to London to warn us not to make the same mistake his country did. 

The Met would like us to believe that water cannon have become a regrettable necessity after the London riots of 2011. Almost every official document about their request opens by talking about the riots. And yet even the water cannon zealots accept that they are useless in that type of situation – what ACPO calls “agile disorder”.  This isn’t that surprising when you consider that the alleged point of water cannon is to create distance between the police and disorder – not that useful during looting, when people are already running away with the stuff. The Home Affairs Select Committee has said that deploying water cannon in the 2011 riots would have been “inappropriate as well as dangerous” – and even Bernard Hogan Howe, who’s now apparently desperate to get his hands on this new toy, said they were “not the answer”.

But this isn’t really about the riots. If this sounds like me being my usual cynical self, don’t take my word for it: the following is a direct quote from ACPO’s briefing about the plans. “There is no intelligence to suggest that there is an increased likelihood of serious disorder within England and Wales. However, it would be fair to assume that the ongoing and potential future austerity measures are likely to lead to continued protest.”

So there you have it. The Met wants to buy weaponry that can injure, blind and even kill, using the riots as a convenient excuse, but with the express intention of using it against protesters. It’s a plan so mad, so dangerous, that it’s hard to find anyone outside the Met who supports it. And yet it looks worryingly, bafflingly like they might get their way: Boris Johnson has already informed Theresa May of his “support in principle” for the request. The public consultation is open till 28th February (this Friday): it’ll take you two minutes to respond using this handy template. If you don’t want to see water cannon on our streets, now is very much the time to say so.

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