Norfolk police turned out in force when the two Tory leadership contenders came to town last week, but though there was music and chanting and one arrest, it’s not clear why they were there.
The event took place at the Holiday Inn outside Norwich, and several protest groups had assembled outside. They included Extinction Rebellion, Disabled Against Cuts, and Socialist Workers. But they were confronted by a large force of police and several police vans.
The protest was noisy but trouble-free until an altercation between one of the protestors and a Conservative Party member who was going into the hustings. It is claimed he came over to the protestors and waved a finger in the face of Sophie Ciurlik-Rittenbaum, shouting: “You didn’t have a vote!”
Ciurlik-Rittenbaum shouted back, and alleges it was at this point that somebody grabbed her arm from behind. She yelled “Don’t touch me!”, since, in the heat of the moment, she didn’t know who was manhandling her. Other police officers then gripped her and led her away to one of the vans.
There seems not to have been a struggle: one of the officers told her they were not using handcuffs since she was being co-operative.
“After detaining her, we can’t just let her go”
Ciurlik-Rittenbaum was driven to Aylsham police station, where she reports indecision on the part of the police. “What do we do now?” one officer asked his colleagues. “After detaining her we can’t just let her go.” She was told she had been arrested but not detained, on the suspicion of potentially causing a breach of the peace.
According to Ciurlik-Rittenbaum: “They threatened that if I didn’t give my full name and address, that was a criminal offence and they would hold me overnight. I later found out from Netpol (The Network for Police Monitoring) that this is bullshit – it’s not a criminal offence.
“When I asked to use my phone call for advice, the custody desk sergeant told me I had not been detained, so my rights in that respect had not kicked in. When I called Green and Black Cross (an organisation helping with legal matters arising from protests) once I’d been released and told them about that, they said you can’t be arrested and not detained.”
Ciurlik-Rittenbaum says she was singled out because she was considered a ringleader, but she claims that she was not. She arrived whilst the protest was under way because her bus was late.
She argued against the allegation with the custody sergeant and was told: “With breach of the peace we’re usually dealing with drunks, but you’re clearly not that. I am neutral in the unrest”. Throughout, he repeated: “We just need a positive outcome.”
Can revolution ever succeed when you can’t rely on the buses?
She was kept at the station for about an hour whilst it was decided what to do. Ciurlik-Rittenbaum believed they were reluctant to return her to the protest, but she pointed out that it would be over by then. “You make a good point,” said the custody sergeant. In the end, she was driven home.
What happened at the hustings was noisy but never apparently threatening, though police were there in force. The police at Aylsham weren’t apparently expecting any violence, and would seem from Ciurlik-Rittenbaum’s account to have appeared good natured but rather nonplussed.
Leaving aside the question of whether the revolution can ever succeed given the unpunctuality of the rural bus service, this was perhaps a small incident, but one with unsettling overtones. In an altercation between a middle-aged man in a suit and a young student, it was the student who was taken away. The behaviour of the police at Aylsham suggests that they just wanted to remove her from the scene, aiming at a “positive outcome”.
Was it a Norfolk demo all over the nation’s TV that spurred the arrest?
But given the otherwise orderly nature of the event and the fact they didn’t charge her, there must remain a suspicion it was the protest itself that concerned the police. The nation’s eyes would be briefly on Norfolk and the chief constable wouldn’t want anything unruly and to the county’s – and his – detriment on our TV screens.
Keeping the peace is a proper purpose of the police, but if the Tory member did come over and shout in the student’s face, couldn’t that be seen as the incident that sparked off the altercation? Being “neutral in the unrest” and wanting a “positive outcome” are laudable. But “keeping the peace” can easily be interpreted as “not frightening the horses”. And that in turn can mean interpreting any protest, in whatever form is still allowed under the government’s latest human rights-busting legislation, as unwelcome and to be discouraged.
That of course is not the job of the police – but those in government would see it differently.