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Whatever Happened to People Power?

Whatever Happened to People Power? is our look at the concerns people have about their right to stand up and be counted when they demand action on the issues they care about.

We met protesters who do not fit the image of what a lot of people might think an activist looks like.

Peter Harbour worked as a physicist all his adult life without a blemish on his record. Yet when he and other local people decided to challenge a power company's plans to fill in the last of their local countryside lakes with ash, a court issued them with an injunction that stopped them in their tracks.

The company, npower, said it had applied for the injunction because its staff were being harassed and threatened by activists connected to the squatters occupying an empty building on its land.

What's more, that injunction, naming six people including Mr Harbour, appeared on a police website dedicated to tackling domestic extremists - a development that frightened both Mr Harbour and many of the law-abiding locals. Although in the end their campaign was successful and the power company abandoned its plans, Mr Harbour was left shocked by the way he and his fellow campaigners were treated.

We also met Hannah McClure, a 21-year-old student and a veteran of several direct action campaigns. Hannah agrees that protesters are being treated unfairly. She told me that while she's been arrested for taking direct action on environmental issues, she was not prepared for what happened in a squat where about 80 demonstrators spent the night in an empty office building following the G20 protests in central London.

In Whatever Happened to People Power?, we show amateur video footage of the moment when 100 police officers stormed the building - two armed with Taser guns - threatening those inside.

On the tape you can hear the squatters' fear as one shouts out "They're going to kill one of us".

The police told us they behaved with justifiable caution as they did not know what to expect when they went into the building and had information that some inside were violent. In the end, only two of the squatters were arrested and neither has been charged with any offence.

In the programme, we look at these instances and others that raise questions about police tactics when dealing with protesters.

It's easy to understand the frustration and stress officers are put under when confronted by verbally aggressive protesters who scream and shout and swear inches from their faces as they hold a line at a demonstration.

The question I asked the Metropolitan Police's Assistant Commissioner was whether it was ever justified to punch a protester in the face, whack them with a baton or bash them with a riot shield - all examples that were caught on camera and appear in our programme.

The Met told me that officers are trained to use only appropriate force and are held accountable for their actions.

It is the use of force by the police, captured on camera and played out to the public via social networking sites that has damaged the public's confidence in the police - a point made in last week's Home Affairs Select Committee report on the G20.

The committee described the overall police operation as remarkably successful, but added that this was in part down to luck rather than judgement.

To find out more, watch Panorama: Whatever Happened to People Power?, BBC One, Monday, 6 July at 8.30pm.


  • Comment number 1.

    I think people are forgetting that we live a moderate society. At least we have the ability to complain. Just go and try to protest in any of our European neighbours and you will find out that the police are not as friendly. They use even more violence and will get away with it, no complaints procedure there.
    The police are always the easy targets to blame, we should be blaming the protestors. What gave them the right to break into an office block or tresspass on land.

  • Comment number 2.

    Sorry zedsaleem, but the right to protest is pretty fundamental. And if it is not protected then it will be lost - and we will be a lot worse off because of it. Where would we be now if there was not people standing up and demonstrating? It may not have an immediate effect but it does effect change.

    I don't think the police are to blame for the current clamp down and I don't think the Panorama program laid the blame at the Police. (Actually I thought it was pretty good!).

    More like this, please.

  • Comment number 3.

    An excellent Panorama. It's interesting that most of the messages of support for Raphael's programme are coming from people who have been at demonstrations and seen police activity at first hand. While the level of police monitoring has increased - surveillance and 'counterproductive' police tactics - like trapping protestors until there is a confrontation - is nothing new. This goes right back to the early 80s with the policing of CND marches, and probably beyond. This story about police threatening/bribing activists says a lot about the attitude to any protests:


  • Comment number 4.

    It is not sufficient to have the right to protest. What is disturbing is the limited attention you get for your protest. What do we know about this! There are 12 people on hunger strike in front of US embassy in London for 50 days now. They are suffering seriously and risking their health and their lives in order to save the lives of their loved ones in Ashraf.

    As a result of a raid against the camp on 28 and 29th of July 2009, 11 people are dead and 450 seriously injured and 36 kidnapped by Iraqi security forces on the order of Nori Al Maleki, Iraqi PM who was following order of Iran's Supreme leader Ali Khamenei. All this happened when US forces were watching and did nothing to stop it. Amnesty International has issued 9 urgent calls on this subject. You can see the latest here: http://www.amnesty.org.au/news/comments/21676/

    As Lord Carlile said in a recent meeting in Parliament: "I am bemused that this is being whispered amongst journalists but does not feature as a major humanitarian scandal in British media".

    So far there has been no official condemnation by British officials, while as partners to coalition in Iraq they are both legally and morally responsible. The Americans are dragging their feet too. Obama is hell-bent for shaking the bloody hand of Ahmadinejad and is reluctant to do more than "monitoring" the situation. We need more action. The 36 abducted residents of Ashraf are on hunger strike too along with hundreds of other people around the globe.


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