What are police up to when they police protests and protestors? Evidence has emerged over the years that police forces around the UK are categorising campaigners as "domestic extremists" because of their political opinions.
Police Scotland play a leading part in implementing the "Prevent" strategy in Scotland. "Islamist extremism" is targeted and explained (though not actually defined) in the statutory Prevent guidance issued jointly by the UK and Scottish Governments. The latest (2018) version of the UK's "Contest" counter-terrorism strategy (of which Prevent is a part) talks about "tackling extremism in all its forms". But we don't know much about how Police Scotland apply the "extremism" tag outside the Prevent strategy.
In 2009 Scottish police targeted environmental campaigner Tilly Gifford for recruitment as an informer. Instead of accepting their offer, she took her story to the media. She has been campaigning since then for a public inquiry into undercover policing in Scotland - a campaign that is still under way and deserves support.
A "Protect Against Terrorism" course given to Glasgow City Council staff in 2015 covered "domestic extremism" and included animal rights, anti-nuclear and environmental activism as examples.
The police need to get their hands out of our politics, whether its under the rubric of countering "terrorism", "extremism" or anything else. That means, as a starting point, scrapping the terrorism laws and the extra-legal "extremism" concept. It might seem that we could instead simply demand that the policing of activism should be separated from the policing of terrorism. To do that we'd first have to persuade Parliament to change the legal definition of terrorism. But it would be very hard to come up with a definition of terrorism that would work in principle and even harder, given the long history of state use of the term for repression and propaganda, to make it work in practice.
There is no viable way to separate protest from terrorism under anything at all like our present legislation. Is carrying a PKK flag at a demo OK? At present it's a terrorism offence. If showing a flag were to be de-criminalised because it's just a symbolic protest, what if the person concerned sells a PKK newspaper, or takes donations? Or speaks favourably about the PKK? Or encourages people to join? A person bringing a Hizbollah flag to a protest will have the same difficulities. Hizbollah's External Security wing has been been banned under UK terrorism legislation since 2001, but Hizbollah itself was legal in the UK until March 2019. Expressions of support for Hizbollah featured in demonstrations against Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 2006 and have featured over the years in various pro-Palestine demonstrations. Anyone continuing to express support for Hizbollah is now at risk of prosecution.
If symbolic displays and everything else that doesn't directly involve violence were to be removed from terrorism legislation, there would be almost nothing left and the ordinary law would deal with the residue perfectly well.
The difficulties with "extremism" are even greater. "Extremism" is an intrinsically subjective and politicised term and it should have no place in law or policing.
Institutionalising and internalising racism and colonialism
Any strategy that attempts to distinguish between protestors (what kinds?) and "extremists" or "terrorists" is divisive and mistaken, and will in any case prove unworkable. The distinction can't be made rationally, and it can be made in our hearts and minds only by institutionalising and internalising the racism and colonialism that lie beneath the government's use of these terms.
Our tactics need to be adaptable. For example, some Muslim campaigners may on occasion want to legally challenge their categorisation as "extremists", as Salman Butt did in a case partially upheld by the Appeal Court in 2019. Cases like this deserve to succeed. But it remains the case that it is difficult or impossible to devise a statutory definition of "extremism" (government efforts to do so have so far been unsucessful), that the extreme-ness of a political position is no measure of its correctness or otherwise, and that the outcome of any counter-extremism policy will inevitably be to facilitate arbitrariness and repression.
SACC has campaigned from our beginnings in 2003 for the repeal of Britain's anti-terrorism laws. They are an ugly accretion on our legal system. Calling for their repeal is not a blue-sky project, but a necessary starting point. After all, who thinks that the police and other state forces would be on the side of progressive politics if the terrorism laws were repealed tomorrow, or that they were on our side before the Terrorism Act 2000 was passed? The repeal of these laws is a modest and attainable goal and we shouldn't allow ourselves to start thinking otherwise.
2nd photo: Demo on Al-Quds Day, London, 12 August 2013. © Islamic Human Rights Commission, all rights reserved