The use of water cannons to stymie protests paves the way for the curtailing of democratic rights in a vibrant civil society
The proposal for water cannons on the streets of London is picking up steam, with Mayor Boris Johnson writing to Home Secretary Theresa May to urge her to bring them to London. If Boris has his way we could see water cannons on the streets by this summer, and the UK taking yet another step towards the criminalisation of protest.
When the mayor announced his support for the use of water cannons by the Metropolitan Police, it was despite widespread public opposition. In fact, Johnson’s own consultation received over 2600 responses – only 59 of which were in favour of water cannons compared to 2,547 against.
The reason that so many people are concerned about the introduction of such cannons is because they are weapons. Their impact on a crowd is indiscriminate and they have been known to injure and blind those who are unfortunate enough to find themselves on the receiving end.
This was underlined by an otherwise supportive report from the Association of Chief Police Officers, which noted that “the full-pressure jet from a water cannon is capable of causing serious injury or even death” and states that there are also possible injuries from the impact on the streets including furniture or other debris. This point is backed up by Joanne McCartney, the chair of the London Assembly’s police and crime panel, who went further in saying that there is “no convincing argument” for their deployment. Moreover, the committee she chairs has accused the mayor of “preventing a full and proper national public debate” on the issue.
However, the mayor sees it differently. He has described their deployment as a ‘moral issue’, saying that politicians should not refuse the police something they needed for their operations: “How would we live with ourselves if we denied the police something that could have saved a life or prevented serious injury?”
The fact that the police are pushing for them should be neither here nor there. The police are often pushing for additional powers and equipment. Politicians are not there to merely agree to whatever the police ask for. They are there to represent the public. There are already far too many examples of police officers abusing their power and using unnecessary force to break up protests. One high profile example is the assault on student Alfie Meadows who suffered life-threatening injuries after a student protest. There is also no reason to believe that allowing them access to water cannons would make these abuses any less common.
In 2010 Boris himself was opposed to the introduction of the cannons, saying that he did not think it was right to get into an “arms race” with protesters. Similarly, Theresa May said in 2011, “The way we police in Britain is not through use of water cannons. The way we police in Britain is through consent of communities.”
Of course, the big event which has happened since then is the London riots of 2011. The disruption may have stopped but the tensions that caused it are still prevalent. What is needed to avoid a repeat of the riots is not the growing militarisation of the police force, but a far-reaching cultural change and a political culture that focuses on the real issues that fuel these divisions, like economic inequality, austerity and cuts to public services.
There is also no reason to think that water cannons could have either stopped the riots, or can deter future unrest, a point already conceded by Johnson.
As part of the consultation, West Mercia Chief Constable, David Shaw, said, “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.” This is an important point; not only are water cannons dangerous to the public, but they reinforce the notion that it is legitimate for the police to use excessive force to suppress peaceful and democratic dissent.
Over the last few years the Metropolitan Police has been hit by scandal after scandal, and there is already widespread distrust which cannons would only help to increase. Their acceptance in the UK would be merely the latest step in a wider trend. We have already seen a significant increase in police powers and a move towards greater surveillance. The introduction of water cannons to the mainland would set yet another negative precedent and yet another move towards oppressive policing and the criminalisation of protest.
Photo Credits: Picture: Ammar rasool / APAimages / Rex Fea
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.