Why Cover Up? The Case for Protest Anonymity
Why Cover Up? The Case for Protest Anonymity
By Network for Police Monitoring / netpol.org

The campaign launched by Netpol last week, which is seeking to challenge attitudes towards greater protection of protesters’ privacy, has sparked considerable feedback about the ethics of wearing a face covering or mask.

Some have argued an established position that protest is fundamentally about making a public stand in support of individual beliefs. Wearing a face covering therefore removes, not least in the eyes of the courts, a level of personal accountability for how you act in support of those beliefs.

Others, notably some anarchists, have insisted the option to ‘mask up’ is hardly new and there is little evidence to suggest a wider group of protesters, who have repeatedly resisted ‘black bloc’ solidarity tactics and are unwilling to actively frustrate oppressive policing, will suddenly embrace it.

There are merits in both of these positions, but both assume that face coverings are intrinsically linked to public disorder – either as a protection against police violence or, conversely, somehow emblematic of the use of violence by protesters. We think, however, that the growth of police surveillance has made the need for greater anonymity a much bigger issue, for everyone who takes part in any protest.

It is certainly true that part of the philosophy of protest is standing up to be counted – but for many, this is becoming a choice about whether to risk attending a public protest or not. The increasing unpredictability of aggressive police tactics and the way mass surveillance now enables the targeting of individuals within a crowd, for intelligence-gathering or the prospect of sudden arrest, has weakened the collective sense of safety and solidarity that a rally or demonstration provides.

So too has the narrowing of what is deemed ‘acceptable’ protest (almost always a pre-negotiated march and rarely any forms of direct action or civil disobedience) and the division of protestors into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, isolating particular groups to make it easier to control crowd behaviour.

It is important to remember that public order intelligence gathering by the police is carried out with a deliberate purpose: what some criminologists have called ‘strategic advantage’ and ‘strategic incapacitation’.1 Intelligence is used to understand the structures, sustainability and strengths of protest groups, in order to develop ways to undermine them.

This is why, in incidents of harassment we have repeatedly highlighted, so-called ‘domestic extremists’ have faced visits or letters to their homes. This is why Forward Intelligence Team officers have been known to follow individuals for hours, even days, sometimes when they are with their children or families and even to their workplace. This overt intelligence gathering is undoubtedly also used to identify possible targets for undercover policing and to help ’embed’ undercover officers.

In the face of concerted attempts to undermine political protest movements, it is entirely legitimate to actively resist police surveillance. However, it is also important to remember, in rebuilding and promoting solidarity between protesters, that anonymity is not just a way to avoid becoming an entry on the ‘Crimint‘ or National Special Branch Intelligence System databases. There are many other reasons why individuals do not want to face constant surveillance.

anonymityWe have spoken to protesters who are international students and who are worried about the possibility that their participation in a demonstration might impact on their studies. Education and youth workers have told us about warnings that their participation in anti-EDL demonstrations would have a detrimental impact on their careers, or even lead to dismissal. People awaiting the outcome of asylum claims may not want immigration services to know they have been politically active and, for similar reasons, young people (especially young Muslims) may be understandably wary of unwarranted attention from the government’s ‘Prevent’ programme. Others may have concerns that their faces might end up on a far-right website. In some cases, people participating in protest may worry about negative consequences for relatives in their country of origin (something Congolese protesters told us, for example, in 2011).

Rather than acting as a barrier, anonymity may in fact represent the main deciding factor for many about whether they are able to ‘stand up and be counted’ at all.

Whatever the reasons, it remains true that as long as the decision to cover up is taken only by a tiny minority, wearing a mask as a way of maintaining some degree of anonymity does increase the risk that the police will pick people out for arrest (and, on occasion, to try to deliberately fit them up). Officers do so precisely because they know the courts by default seem to perceive masked protesters as inherent “troublemakers”.

We want to change this – and we think one of the few ways to do so is to normalise the wearing of a face covering, so that it no longer perceived as a symbol of a minority.

If face masks become commonplace at protests, a choice made by an increasingly larger number of people, this can help make it more difficult for magistrates and judges to view covering your face as an aggravating factor, or as a legitimate indicator of impending disorder. Equally, the more people wear them, especially in ‘peaceful’ circumstances, it becomes harder for the police to justify a mask as ‘reasonable suspicion’ for using stop and search powers.

We have no expectations that this will happen overnight, but we also see no prospect of change unless we start to shift attitudes within UK protest movements towards greater concerns about privacy and anonymity – in ways that protesters elsewhere in the world seem to understand instinctively.

That is why we are not only crowd funding to produce hundreds of free face coverings, but also planning to hold a ‘Privacy Bloc’ at a future demonstration to highlight the issue. We hope it will become the first of many.

Ultimately, we hope that even the fluffiest, most peaceful demonstration will involved people covering their faces, often for no other reason than an act of solidarity with others who have a greater need for anonymity. We hope protesters will do so not because they are not prepared to stand up and be counted, but because they are not prepared to sacrifice their rights to privacy to a growing surveillance state in order to enjoy fundamental freedoms of assembly and expression.

For more on ‘strategic incapacitation’, see Crisis and Control: The Militarization of Protest Policing, Lesley J. Wood, Pluto Press 2014

To donate to our “CoverUp! to Defend Your Privacy’ campaign, click on the button below.

0.0 ·
0
What's Next
Trending Today
Dakota Access Pipeline Permit Denied
Nika Knight · 14,738 views today · 'For the first time in Native American history, they heard our voices.'
All the News Is Fake!
3 min · 9,838 views today · Jonathan Pie finds nothing new in the idea of fake news.
How Romanticism Ruined Love
5 min · 8,508 views today · The set of ideas we can call Romanticism is responsible for making our relationships extremely difficult. We shouldn’t give up on love; we should just recognize that it’s more...
How Mindfulness Empowers Us
2 min · 5,835 views today · Many traditions speak of the opposing forces within us, vying for our attention. Native American stories speak of two wolves, the angry wolf and the loving wolf, who both live...
After Historic Protests, Army Corps of Engineers Blocks Current Route of the Dakota Access Pipeline
3 min · 3,012 views today · The $4 billion dollar project could still be approved by President-elect Donald Trump who is heavily invested in the pipeline. Help support The Real News by making a donation...
The Numbers That Tell the Story of the Standing Rock Sioux's Victory
Tracy Loeffelholz Dunn · 2,529 views today · The Army Corps announced Sunday that the Dakota Access pipeline will be rerouted. Here are the numbers that show what lies ahead.
Post-Brexit Visions of The Possible: It's Time to Imagine a New European Community
Martin Winiecki · 2,339 views today · We live in the beginning phase of a global revolution which will turn societal conditions upside down. We cannot stop this transformation, but we can influence where it will...
Bikini Was Just the Beginning, Bombs Still Threaten the Islanders
John Pilger · 2,281 views today · I was recently in the Marshall Islands, which lie in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, north of Australia and south of Hawaii. Whenever I tell people where I have been, they...
93 Documentaries to Expand Your Consciousness
Films For Action · 2,193 views today · There are over 800 documentaries now cataloged in our library of social change films. That's probably way too many for any mortal to ever watch in a lifetime, let alone a few...
Lifting the Veil:  Obama and the Failure of Capitalist Democracy (2011)
114 min · 1,967 views today · This film explores the historical role of the Democratic Party as the "graveyard of social movements", the massive influence of corporate finance in elections, the absurd...
This is an Anthem for Our Times
6 min · 1,853 views today · I think the world deserves to see the truth about #NoDAPL I tried my best to portray what I felt at camp, I felt LOVE. Love for all people, all living things, Mother Earth...
United Natures: a United Nations of all Species (2013)
103 min · 1,824 views today · United Natures explores the Rights of Mother Earth, Environmental Philosophy, Wisdom, Spirituality and the potential for a Neo-indigenous future for humanity. Directed and...
10 Practical Tools for Building a Resilient Local Economy
Environmental Change Makers · 1,348 views today · The economy is changing. Dramatically. Coping with these changes means changing the way we do things. The path of the future involves root level, radical changes. Things we...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,341 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
The Venus Project by Jacque Fresco
4 min · 1,228 views today · For more information visit the official web site: thevenusproject.com Facebook: facebook.com/TheVenusProjectGlobal Music: Salomon Ligthelm - Close Horizonz Hanz Zimmer ...
90 Inspiring and Visionary Films That Will Change How You See the World in Profound Ways
Tim Hjersted · 1,128 views today · The world today is in crisis. Everybody knows that. But what is driving this crisis? It's a story, a story that is destroying the world. It's a story about our relationship to...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 897 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Why Are Media Outlets Still Citing Discredited 'Fake News' Blacklist?
Adam Johnson · 804 views today · The Washington Post (11/24/16) last week published a front-page blockbuster that quickly went viral: Russia-promoted “fake news” had infiltrated the newsfeeds of 213 million...
Austrialian Government Promotes Crap with Adani Carmichael Coal Mine
2 min · 718 views today · The Australian Government just released this advert about the proposed Carmichael Coal Mine and it's surprisingly honest and informative. 6 WAYS YOU CAN HELP STOP CCRAP: 1...
The Fight for Clean Water (#NoDAPL)
2 min · 635 views today · Clean water or Corporate profits? What’s more important? #NoDAPL Energy Transfer Partners: (214) 981-0700 U.S. Army Corps Of Engineers: (202) 761-0010; (202)...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Why Cover Up? The Case for Protest Anonymity