Police in Northern Ireland have been accused of taking an “aggressive” approach to their policing of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, described by campaigners as “disproportionate and inconsistent”.
BLM organisers are being questioned under organised-crime powers, leading to calls for the chief of police to resign and campaigners characterising racial equality in Northern Ireland as at “crisis point”.
As anti-racism protests spread throughout the world, a significant police operation was mounted to prevent rallies across Northern Ireland on the 6th of June. In the days leading up to the rally, police and politicians warned protesters to stay home or face “consequences”. Speakers scheduled to appear at the events report being informed in advance by police to not attend, or face possible prosecution.
On the day of the protest, police operated checkpoints at bus and train stations, and on travel routes into Belfast and Derry, where the two main protests were taking place. Their social media accounts warned that those who did not turn back “could face a fine or court appearance”. These messages led to smaller protests planned for Newry, Portadown and Omagh being cancelled.
Police also deployed significant resources in Belfast and Derry, attempting to turn away those approaching with threats of fines and cautions.
Dozens of fines and community resolution notices were issued for breach of coronavirus regulations, with police using powers that had been controversially passed at 11PM the night before.
The protest organisers say they took every precaution to maintain social distancing, using marked spaces two metres apart and making masks, gloves and hand sanitiser available. They also say that the way the police conducted the operation made social distancing more difficult.
“It was very aggressive policing,” Tura Arutura, a community and cultural activist who spoke at the Belfast rally, told VICE News.
“There was a large presence of police in riot gear. The way they were moving, there was not social distancing at all – they were moving within crowds, they were kettling people, they were pushing people into the corners. I made reference in my speech at the attempt to muzzle the Black voice and Black protest [by the police].”
The police are seeking the prosecution of the organisers, a first for any BLM protest in Britain or Ireland. Interviews have been conducted with the speakers under Section 44 of the Serious Crime Act, legislation normally used against organised crime, which relates to encouraging or assisting others in the commission of an offence.
The police are arguing that, by speaking at the protest, they kept people there in breach of the coronavirus regulations, said Sinead Marmion, a solicitor with human rights law firm Phoenix Law, which is representing the speakers and organisers.
In the days following the Black Lives Matter protests, political leaders from across the spectrum publicly supported the police response, while leading politicians privately briefed journalists that any “exception” for the Black Lives Matter protests would send a signal that there was flexibility about the holding of large public gatherings.
However, to date, no other large public gathering has witnessed any kind of similar policing response.
The following week, a counter-protest to “protect statues” was held in Belfast, featuring far-right figures including former Britain First deputy leader Jayda Fransen. People were not turned away, and no fines or cautions were handed out – despite comparatively poor observance of social distancing. This hands off approach would be repeated at a number of other large public gatherings.
The North West Migrant Forum (NWMF) – which organised the protest in Derry – has said that racial equality in Northern Ireland is at “a crisis point.” In a recent meeting with senior civil servants from the Executive Office, they highlighted that the police response has only served to underline how racial equality is not taken seriously by public authorities. Issues include racist bullying in schools, unequal access to services and the lack of representation in public life.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that does not have specific hate crime laws. Recent figures show that despite the thousands of race hate crimes that have occurred in recent years – and which are believed to be severely underreported – almost 90 percent do not result in a conviction.
Some community leaders are now refusing to engage with the chief of police until he makes a public apology and all fines and threats of legal action are dropped. Mr Arutura, who spoke at the Belfast rally, has called for the chief of police, Chief Constable Simon Byrne, to resign.
“But I'm under no illusion that the criminal justice system, which includes the police, is institutionally racist,” he said. “Nothing progressive is going to happen until we actually begin to deal with the structures that these rules are made under.”
A PSNI spokeswoman told Irish News that Mr Byrne recognises that ”this is a difficult time for minority communities” and highlighted ongoing engagement with BAME communities in Northern Ireland.
Sipho Sibanda, who works to promote human rights and migrant rights in Northern Ireland, and was a speaker at the Belfast rally, told VICE News that the police approach to the rallies and their refusal to apologise has undone years of work to build confidence in the police among migrant and minority communities. “It just broke me, it broke my heart,” she says of the experience.
She said that migrants who had negative experiences with police in their home countries now feel the situation is similar here – and that the impact is also felt by those raised in Northern Ireland.
“I've got two boys in the house, a teenager and an 11-year-old,” said Sibanda. “I’m raising boys that are not supposed to fear the law. On that day, all my work that went into trying to build confidence in them… it's just all coming down.”
Human rights organisations Amnesty International Northern Ireland and the Committee of Administration of Justice have expressed “strong concerns” over the police approach.
“We believe that police took the wrong approach to policing those protests”, Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty’s Northern Ireland director, told VICE News. He said the police should recognise this, and drop the fines and prosecutions. “But they’ve seemed to double down, and are refusing to do that. We think that is deeply worrying, and deeply concerning to community relations in Northern Ireland with the Black and minority ethnic community.”
The Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman has opened an investigation into the policing approach to protests, as has the Northern Ireland Policing Board.
A spokesperson for the Police Service of Northern Ireland said they were aware of anticipated legal proceedings and forthcoming judicial review in relation to the Black Lives Matter protests.
“The Police Service of Northern Ireland is very keen that each of these processes conclude as quickly as possible, so that any lessons learned can be given due consideration; and it is important that any learning helps to inform ongoing community engagement and relationship building,” they said.
“As these investigations and review processes remain ongoing, it would not be appropriate for the Police Service of Northern Ireland to comment further at the present time.”