Contra the claims made by protest group Sisters Uncut, which appears to be behind the mass sit-in at Liverpool Street Station yesterday, Network Rail and the British Transport Police claim that at no point was the station “shut down” and rendered non-operational.
Perhaps that was for the best. As Extinction Rebellion learned a few years ago, when one of them was dragged bodily from the roof of a Tube train, there are few more dangerous positions for a London demonstrator than between a commuter and their means of getting home.
But like XR, and indeed the Gaza demonstrations we have been seeing over the last couple of weeks, it does raise the question of what level of disruption, or risk of disruption, the public should be asked to tolerate. The sit-in cannot have made an already-crowded rush hour station any more pleasant or easier to navigate, and the presence of a mob chanting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” will have been particularly unsettling, or worse, for some Jewish travellers.
For their part, the British Transport Police said that: “BTP officers worked with railway colleagues to ensure the safety of all concerned and allowed passengers to continue to travel as normal on the trains.” It is happy that, in this particular case, those two things were both possible.
What would have happened, however, had Sisters Uncut been more successful, and actually managed to blockade a major London rail terminus. Would the BTP have placed a higher priority on passengers’ ability “to continue to travel as normal on the trains” – even if that meant a confrontation with the demonstrators – or “the safety of all concerned”, even if that meant allowing the station to shut?
As I noted in my piece last week, at present the police’s operational doctrine seems to lean hard towards the latter option. Time and again, they seem to take whatever option involves the least risk of having to directly confront troublesome or potentially violent elements of demonstrations, even if that means restricting the activities of entirely non-violent counter-demonstrators (for the latter’s own safety, of course).
Sir Mark Rowley has written about a “gulf in public attitudes” between public expectations when it comes to public order policing. But the gulf is at least as great between public expectations and operational decisions by the police. The public consistently back an extremely muscular approach to tackling riots and troublesome demonstrations, yet the police so often seem to think that their job is making sure people disrupting public transport can do so safely, rather than preventing them from doing so at all.
All of which makes it tricky for politicians trying to drive change. One can give the police more legal powers, update the official definition of extremism, and all that. But it won’t produce different outcomes without a sea-change in how senior officers approach public order policing.