Police PR departments & protest

Posted on April 22, 2011 by | 34 Comments

Police in Bristol have tonight arrested a number of people who they say were squatting a building in Stokescroft. There has been a long running squat on Cheltenham Road in Stokescroft protesting against a new Tesco which I understand finally opened on Friday. It seems that the police were attempting to evict this squat.

But things don’t seem to have gone quite to plan. Hundreds of local residents got out of bed as soon as they heard what was happening, and came out to protest against the evictions.

But this isn’t a post about what happened at Stokescroft – I’m not there. We’ll try and get one from someone who is there soon, so look out for that.

But what I have seen is the police press release on the matter:

Full text:

Police last night (Thursday April 21) arrested four people following an operation in Cheltenham Road, Stokes Croft.

Acting on intelligence, officers detained offenders who had committed significant offences.

Officers rolled out well-rehearsed plans at 9.15pm to force entry into the building. They closed off Cheltenham Road to allow the operation to take place.

Police arrested three people on suspicion of public order offences and another person on suspicion of threats to cause criminal damage with intent to endanger life.

Police seized a number of items –including possible petrol bombs – from the property.

Supt Ian Wylie said: “There have been several significant incidents in this building during the past few days, which have caused serious concerns to police and local residents.

“The safety of the public is paramount in a situation of this kind and we took the decision to carry out a robust and swift operation, following intelligence received about the criminal intentions of those who were occupying the building,” said Supt Wylie.

“Following the operation, it is unfortunate a small minority gathered and began attacking officers with bottles and other items,” he added


There are 2 things in here that I think are particularly notable. Firstly, they say “officers detained offenders who had committed significant offences”.

In English law, famously, people are innocent until proven guilty. The police have no right to issue public statements declaring people to be guilty of a crime any more than I do. They can say that they are suspected of a crime, or that they are believed to have committed a crime. But by publicly stating that they are, they have defamed these people.

The second line is this:

“Police seized a number of items – including possible petrol bombs”.

Now, I’m not there. It is, in theory, possible that someone was making a petrol bomb. However, given my experience of the political community in Stokescroft, I’d be amazed. Like the rest of Britain’s contemporary progressive protest movements, I’m almost certain they have no record of bomb making. But, of course, this claim, unlike the last, is much harder to object to in legal terms. What is a possible petrol bomb? Well, I don’t know how you make one. But I imagine that it involves petrol, a bottle, and a rag. These are the sorts of things people may well have around a squat.

And of course, the intention of both of these statements is not to pass the facts to the media and so the wider community. It is to smear. If police PR teams were issuing press releases in the public interest, then they would state only the facts. But this release – like so much police press work before it – demonstrates clearly that there is a desire to smear these protesters before they have any chance to respond – even as they sit in police cells. By the time they are released, the media may well have moved on. They could well never get a chance to reply.

And of course, such smear campaigns are nothing new. After the Heathrow climate camp, the Met claimed there were large numbers of injuries among police officers – implying that protesters had caused these. Freedom of Information requests later revealed that these injuries were almost all from bee stings, sun stroke, officers tripping up, or similar.

Similarly, at the most recent climate camp, Lothian and Borders police issued a press release – receiving wide coverage – implying that climate campers had intentionally split oil on a main road. It later transpired that not only was there no evidence of climate campers doing this, there was not even any evidence that an oil spill had taken place. It seems the police invented an incident in order to smear the camp. And they knew that, by the time the refutation had got out, it would be too late – the story would have moved on.

And I think this is interesting. Because we are used to talking about how riot police treat protesters differently from other crowds. But we don’t often talk about the way that police forces intentionally seek to use the media to destroy protest movements. And, while the former is political policing, the latter is just political. It is not, in any way, the role of the police to smear protest movements, and it has nothing to do with dealing with any crime whatsoever. I’ll be submitting a complaint to the Independent Police Complaints Commission about this release (as though that’ll do much good). And I hope we can all remember to follow closely in future not just what they do, but also what they say.

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34 Responses to “Police PR departments & protest”

  1. JenNo Gravatar
    April 22nd, 2011 @ 3:25 am

    Don’t forget that mystery tweet that came out of that met police twitter page C011 or whatever it’s called on march 26th. Tweeted about ‘lightbulbs full of ammonia being thrown at policemen’ not a single other person who has been interviewed or who has blogged or microblogged has backed this up. It was just a single ANONYMOUS police tweet. Yet I got to visit my grandmother and she says ‘thank god you’re alright, people were throwing lightbulbs full of ammonia at that protest!’ and I look at the tabloid newspaper on her coffee table and there it is, with no extra information, and no sources cited the ‘lightbulbs filled with ammonia’ story copied and pasted into an article, all from that one tweet.

  2. charlesNo Gravatar
    April 22nd, 2011 @ 9:28 am

    Note how instead of publishing actual numbers they’ve used the word ‘minority’ to discredit the size of the opposition to the police.

    Relating to the ammonia, a google search reveals _absolutely no_ mentions of ‘ammonia filled lightbulbs’ prior to the 26th of March 2011.

    Set the date parameter and look for yourself, the results that are found are because tweets after the 26th have appeared on the websites.

  3. Adam RamsayNo Gravatar
    April 22nd, 2011 @ 10:48 am

    Jen – that’s really interesting – I heard the ammonia lightbulb thing everywhere, but now I think about it, I’ve not seen any evidence that it actually happened…

  4. jonathanNo Gravatar
    April 22nd, 2011 @ 10:52 am

    It was the kingsnorth climate camp not heathrow, but the point stands.

    Also that’s a good point on the 26th in the comments. Has anyone done an FOI on the source for the ammonia filled light bulbs tweet?

  5. DaveNo Gravatar
    April 22nd, 2011 @ 11:19 am

    the police were right in london im afraid. i was outside the ritz when amonia bulbs were thrown.

  6. SophiaNo Gravatar
    April 22nd, 2011 @ 12:06 pm

    Thanks for this. One thing though, ‘There has been a long running squat on Cheltenham Road in Stokescroft protesting against a new Tesco’. Telepathic Heights squat has been there for 10 years. They are against the Tesco’s, but it isn’t the reason for them being there.

    I only point this out because it suits the Tescos/Police/MSM narrative to connect the two things, but actually it’s two separate issues.

  7. Dave HaslamNo Gravatar
    April 22nd, 2011 @ 12:13 pm

    The national news agencies and local papers give these police press releases and other police announcements 100% credibility and rarely acknowledge at the time that they’re partial or afterwards that they’re often wrong. After several hundred peaceful protesters broke off from a rally against Government cuts in Manchester on January 29th, the local newspaper blithely gave the police account, not fact-checking in any way, reporting that police believed that several of “extremists” had armed themselves with “cleaver-style knives”. I was there and saw nothing that even half suggested anyone had have armed themselves in this way and, indeed, no knives were either seen on CCTV or found during any body searches; the knives thing is purely there to demonise the protesters and to justify heavy-handed police action.

    The police also claimed the breakaway group were trying to “goad” police into using “kettling” tactics against them. I was in the breakway group, the police were desperate to kettle us; I think they’d seen it on the TV and wanted a piece of the action.

    The police also told the press that the protesters set off to the city centre to “harrass shoppers”, whereas the aim of the group had always been to move on to demonstrate
    outside Vodafone and Top Shop in a UKUncut-style action.

    What’s disturbing is the way news organisations repeat these police claims as fact, and they enter public consciousness as fact. Ammonia in lightbulbs being a prime example.

  8. BenedictNo Gravatar
    April 22nd, 2011 @ 12:17 pm

    “The police have no right to issue public statements declaring people to be guilty of a crime any more than I do. They can say that they are suspected of a crime, or that they are believed to have committed a crime. But by publicly stating that they are, they have defamed these people.”

    I’m not a lawyer, but isn’t there grounds for a mistrial if the police have publicly said – by an accident of casual language, or otherwise – that someone’s guilty before their case is presented in court? Surely it potentially influences jury opinion, or something…?

  9. RobNo Gravatar
    April 22nd, 2011 @ 12:57 pm

    Thanks for highlighting this, as a Bristol resident I also noticed the strange nature of this “raid”. I notice that The Telegraph has claimed that the Tescos was petrol bombed under a picture of Tescos with NO fire damage. The PA appear to have taken this “petrol bombing”as gospel. And so I suspect that this will become truth by the time tomorrows papers are printed. I’m going to nip down to Stokescroft now to see for myself.

    Also on the march 26th ammonia thing I was watching twitter feeds when the police planted that little lie.
    If any one stops to think about it they might ask.
    how would someone actually get ammonia into a light-bulb? My limited chemistry tells me that ammonia added to the gas vacated vacuum would lead to an implosion of the bulb. And injections of volatile liquids into metal or glass how’s that work?

    Why would someone do this? If you just wanted to hurt someone surely there are easier ways.
    And if some one had thrown these at police there would be a police officer with a melted face. This has not transpired. In fact the police don’t back up their claim at all anywhere other than the one twitter rumour and pictures of officers who have clearly been hit with paint.

    I suspect that the police will allow the current emphasis on the “petrol bombs” in Bristol to run to justify why they went in heavy handed to one of bristols nightclub districts during the evening before a bank holiday.

  10. "Dave"No Gravatar
    April 22nd, 2011 @ 3:07 pm

    “Dave”, you mention lightbulbs outside the Ritz, the police tweet on the day mentioned lightbulbs in Oxford St area. Those are quite a distance away.

    I have a question about these alleged bulbs. How did the police know they contained ammonia? Presumably because of the smell – you know, the characteristic rotten egg stink-bomb smell (stink bombs such as can be bought at joke shops are glass vials containing ammonium sulfide which release ammonia when broken).

    So let us recap: the police tweeted on the day of the march, avoid oxford street area because someone threw a stink bomb!

  11. ekcolNo Gravatar
    April 22nd, 2011 @ 3:30 pm

    @charles: “Note how instead of publishing actual numbers they’ve used the word ‘minority’ to discredit the size of the opposition to the police.”

    Yeah, that really stuck out to me, particularly in the interview with Assistant Chief Constable Rod Hansen on the BBC News site. The police obviously had their media training ready for the anti-cuts protests, and they’re still referring to “small minorities”, even when it makes no sense: first he says 300 people were protesting, then that a small minority of about 200 people clashed with police.

  12. JenNo Gravatar
    April 22nd, 2011 @ 3:38 pm

    Yeah I really want someone to actually talk about this ammonia lightbulbs thing because actually the rumour that sky news teams had paid activists to throw bricks was refuted pretty damn quickly by even left-wing tweeters who saw it as not supported by any real evidence, but this police tweet is taken at face-value? I agree with the above comments, where is the skin damage? Where are the photographs? How did they know it was ammonia? How did the ammonia get in there? Treat the petrol bomb rumour with the same scrutiny and spread the word!

  13. JenNo Gravatar
    April 22nd, 2011 @ 3:39 pm

    I don’t know if there’s an article on indymedia about this controversy? someone should write about it.

  14. SamNo Gravatar
    April 22nd, 2011 @ 5:16 pm

    Yes, I see the petrol bombs, and the new fact that they were actually used have become “truth” in the daily mail.

  15. SamNo Gravatar
    April 22nd, 2011 @ 5:16 pm
  16. BOBNo Gravatar
    April 23rd, 2011 @ 8:27 am

    A squat is a squat at least tesco is paying its way. I dont understand how people think this is all ok. Just dont shop there and it will close down. If it doesnt close down then that means that the area is benefitting from it as people are shopping there.

  17. Alasdair ThompsonNo Gravatar
    April 23rd, 2011 @ 2:13 pm


    That sounds sensible, but Tesco are large enough that they can afford for one individual shop to stay unprofitable for a long time. On the other hand, if even 10 or 20 % of people in the area switch to the new shop that could leave the independent shops in the area, which are often on very tight margins, at a loss. They don’t have billions of reserves to rely on and will go out of business, then Tesco has a monopoly and people have to shop there whether they want to or not.

  18. AmmoniaNo Gravatar
    April 23rd, 2011 @ 5:50 pm

    Ammonia doesn’t smell like rotten eggs, that’s the sulphide bit. It’s an acrid smell.

  19. bobrocketNo Gravatar
    April 23rd, 2011 @ 8:08 pm

    There is only one way around this in the mis-information wars and that is to release press statements before the fact.

    Police use Tear Gas on Unarmed Protesters.
    Heavy Handed Police Tazer Young Mum.
    Shoppers Horrified at Masked Police raiding Creche.


    Let their PR dept spend their time refuting mass false tweets rather than spreading their own lies.

  20. Fly posterNo Gravatar
    April 24th, 2011 @ 9:36 am

    Dave mentioned that he was at the Ritz, and witnessed the ammonia light bulbs being thrown.

    There is a lot more that’s fishy about this. I have a light bulb in my kitchen shattered to pieces. It was a factory sealed unit, that was fixed together using what looks like epoxy resin, I am tried to get mine apart but couldn’t, so ended up covering it with a cloth, and smashing the end of with a hammer. The result was a metal end, and lots of broken glass.

    So I was wondering, how does one get a light bulb apart, fill it with ammonia, and then put it back together again? Why not fill a balloon, or a bottle, or just buy stink bombs?

  21. Fly posterNo Gravatar
    April 24th, 2011 @ 9:51 am

    Another lie in the press alongside ammonia light bulbs was ‘Fireworks loaded with coins’

    Fireworks available to the general public are really not that big, the components in a Banger (bursting charge, and fuse) Are pretty much all you can fit in there, to remove any of this, or to ‘load it with coins’ would render the firework useless. I guess it would be possible to tape coins to a firework, but that’s not what they said.
    If anyone knows the police source for this I would be interested in knowing.



  22. Fly posterNo Gravatar
    April 24th, 2011 @ 10:16 am

    Lol, ok here we go, call me a spod if you want:

    Ammonia filled light bulbs.

    Light bulbs contain either one, or two gasses or a combination of both. These gasses are nitrogen (N2), and argon(Ar), it is the nitrogen I want to concentrate on here. When Nitrogen comes in contact with Hydrogen(H2) and combines it makes Ammonia (N2 + 3H2 –> 2NH3).

    In other words smashing a light bulb with nitrogen in it produces ammonia.

    I feel clever now, but it won’t last long.

  23. bemusedbristolonlookerNo Gravatar
    April 25th, 2011 @ 11:21 pm

    sorry to p*ss on your bonfire conspiracy. but talk of firebombs was on facebook before the police issued a statement on it. perhaps why they turned up in such numbers? i’m also getting really annoyed at all the blogs which are, it has to be said untrue. the police were obviously, in numbers that were unnecessary and did sometimes seem to go over the top. but the protestors behaivour was disgusting wrecking a lot of private and civil property. all parties to blame in my opinion as a bemused onlooker.

  24. Alasdair ThompsonNo Gravatar
    April 26th, 2011 @ 10:26 am

    So what’s untrue about what Adam wrote?

    Do you have any evidence that there were petrol bombs in Stokes Croft?

  25. ua5No Gravatar
    April 29th, 2011 @ 9:00 pm

    The lack of knowledge of any English Law in this article is obvious.

    When a person is tried it is presumed they are innocent, however this doesn’t mean that the police cannot say they have ‘committed significant offences’. The fact that they’ve been arrested or charged with an offence justifies the police claiming that they have committed this offence and is not grounds for a mistrial. Would you rather the police arresting people and saying that they have no idea whether the person is guilty but have decided to arrest them anyway?

    While claiming someone is guilty of a crime may be defamatory the police can avoid having to pay damages by claiming that they believe the statement to be true (especially likely if they get a conviction).

    Secondly if the police did cease petrol bombs or the materials used to make petrol bombs then that’s a fact not a smear.

    Also Alasdair Thompson if people choose to shop in Tesco rather than small shops that’s their choice and no one has the right to stop them.

  26. HrolfkNo Gravatar
    May 1st, 2011 @ 3:02 pm

    There is a problem with the media generally treating all press releases as statements of fact – not just those from the police.

    I was once employed to write such things, and I quickly noted how much cutting and pasting took place. Entire pages in local papers could be padded out releases I’d written, but my name would never be mentioned.

    My favourite was a rewriting which gave the impression the chairman had been given a heavy interview – he was actually in hospital at the time.

    Journalists are desperate for any information, the police are desperate to justify their actions. In that climate assumptions become facts.

  27. AdamNo Gravatar
    May 2nd, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

    This is made worse by the media’s policy of happily reporting what people *say* on an equal weighting as what is fact.

    In their minds “The police say they seized possible petrol bombs” is as true as “Petrol bombs were being made”.

  28. GalleristocratNo Gravatar
    May 3rd, 2011 @ 12:55 pm

    As an aside, I was watching the London protests from Aberdeen and had switched to SKY news to see how laughable its coverage was (the BBC already proving that State Media don’t much like UK-based protest)

    On receiving news of the mysterious ‘ammonia filled lightbulbs’ Kay Burley exclaimed, ‘these reports are coming to us from the Metropolitan Police, so we’ve no reason to believe that they aren’t true’.

    I nearly choked.

    My father-in-law, in addition to thinking that the suspects might later turn out to be Brazilian newspaper sellers with a heart condition and a sideline in beekeeping, also couldn’t figure out how you’d get ammonia in a lightbulb, and was totally bamboozled as to how you’d then get them to a protest intact.

    Interesting post, thanks. FYI, I found my way here today via: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/may/02/anarchists-civil-liberties-media-police

  29. Greg SplatterNo Gravatar
    May 4th, 2011 @ 2:02 pm

    Alasdair Thompson – asks what evidence is there that there were petrol bombs. Well, Alasdair on prominent anarchist Ian Bone’s website he writes the following with regard to the suspects:

    “Arrest update on S/Croft riots after people were in court at Bristol magistrates (special opening) on Saturday.
    2 people are currently on remand. One is James Smith, the EDO Decommissioner who did 18 months on remand for trashing EDO factory in Brighton. He was already on police bail from 26 March in London. Remanded until late June to Bristol prison in Horfield. Facing serious charges, likely to stay inside for a while!

    The other is a 20 year old former Irish traveller who had recently moved in to the Telepathic Heights squat after being evicted and/or booted out of other local squats. He pleaded guilty to possession of a petrol bomb and threatening to use it. Allegedly he went into Tesco’s and made the threat, hence the calls from Tesco security to the cops. Hence the raid.”

    Given that both have pleaded guilty before a magistrate it seems pretty clear to me. When will the protest admit to wrongdoing on their before, if they do not then further incidents of this sort of stupidity could arise again and someone could be seriously injured. After all, Stokes Croft is a residental area and there are flats on either side of Tesco.

  30. Greg SplatterNo Gravatar
    May 4th, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

    *obviously that should have read: “wrongdoing on their behalf”

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