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Morag Livingstone “They loathe protest – they don’t like to hear us”: On police suppression, new book Charged and its Sheffield launch

Writer and campaigner Morag Livingstone told us more about Charged: How The Police Try To Suppress Protest, co-authored with criminal defence solicitor Matt Foot, ahead of the launch event hosted in Sheffield last week.

Filmmaker, writer and campaigner Morag Livingstone.

Morag Livingstone and Matt Foot’s new book Charged: How The Police Try To Suppress Protest was emotively praised by activists from Orgreave to Extinction Rebellion at its launch event in Sheffield last week.

In a chat before the event, documentary filmmaker, writer and campaigner Livingstone talked me through her process of writing Charged during the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw her and criminal defence solicitor Foot sift through the British Museum archives to piece together an investigative history of the policing of protest since the 1980s.

“They loathe protest – they do not like to hear us”, she tells me pointedly.

In Charged, the writers trace the patterns of how Conservative, coalition and Labour governments have worked with the police to violently stifle the actions and voices of protesters.

After the Brixton riots of 1981, Livingstone explains, the Conservative government secretly implemented a police manual that essentially gave the force military power to suppress even peaceful protest. She continues to stress that protest is a fundamental part of vibrant, tolerant democracy: “It’s a long-established right and we need to rebuild it.”

Book cover for Charged: How The Police Try to Suppress Protest.

The narrative outlined in Charged is more relevant than ever, given the recent passing into law of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which places further draconian restrictions on the public’s right to protest. The act makes any meaningful protest increasingly difficult, Livingstone believes, as it gives police the power to limit the noisiness and even the length of a protest.

“None of the rights we have really are given to us, we have to fight for them. With this act, the government is trying to suppress protests in the modern day and what we are showing in the book is that this increase in the policing of public order is nothing new.”

Why is Charged being launched in Sheffield, I ask. Livingstone highlights South Yorkshire’s rich history of protest, from the miners strikes to recent student occupations at the University of Sheffield. And considering the events of the Battle of Orgreave and the Hillsborough disaster, for example, scepticism of the police is something that is already very alive among much of the area’s population.

Significantly, tonight’s book launch, hosted by La Biblioteka and Sheffield Transformed, is held in collaboration with the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign. Advocates of all demographics are in attendance, listening intently to accounts from activists from Extinction Rebellion, the miners’ strike, women against the pit closure, the Rotherham 12 and others.

During the event, Livingstone’s co-author Matt Foot recalls what he heard police saying at an Extinction Rebellion protest: “We don’t know what to do with them – they’re being peaceful.”

Colin Bourne, an activist from the Warrington Printers Dispute of 1983, noted that at that time police prevented journalists from seeing what was happening. When he invited journalists to come forward, they did not write up the story. Why? They knew it wouldn’t get published, he says, because the protest was entirely peaceful.

John Dunn, who was involved in the miners strikes, has a criminal record for his involvement in protest: for ‘watching and besetting’, after he says he was assaulted by a police officer with a truncheon to the back of the head; and for ‘threatening behaviour’. He has been trying to clear his name for 38 years.

John Dunn

John Dunn speaking at the launch of Charged.

“We knew the strike had been defeated, but we miners weren’t,” he tells the audience.

He feels that his community has been neglected by successive Conservative and Labour governments. Cuts to pensions have just rubbed salt in the wound, he says.

Livingstone tells me that it’s the emotional responses to the book and the histories it details that she and Foot are most grateful for. It’s about proving what protesters have been through, she says, when there has been such intentional distortion of protest narratives across modern history.

Dunn finishes his speech with as emotive a response as any: “Read this book, learn the lessons of it, and get fucking angry, and get revenge for what’s happened to people like me and our communities – and take that revenge by abolishing this rotten damn system.”

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