The plan by FAC to organise a protest at SNP Spring 2014 conference was made a few weeks before the event. It was advertised on social media and on websites belonging to the organisations which make up FAC. Nothing too earthshattering here it has to be said – pretty standard stuff for single-issue campaigns such as our one against the Offensive Behaviour Act. On the Thursday before the event (which took place on weekend of 11/12 April) the police emailed one of the organisers on her work email address instead of using the FAC email address which was widely available via the publicity for the event itself. Despite this, the organisers co-operated fully with the police in terms of outlining their arrangements, plans and expected numbers. We were a bit surprised when they told us they had ‘intelligence’ which suggested that smoke bombs would be let off, but ignored it as the nonsense it so patently was. They made a few more calls but there were no real issues to discuss and it all felt like overkill really.
The Friday protest which was made up of a small number of local activists passed off fairly successfully with the police directing the group to a suitable spot near the entrance to the venue and some delegates coming out to speak to the protesters (see earlier blog).
On Saturday the bus left Glasgow city centre with a very disappointing turnout (which has to be discussed at an appropriate time) Our members boarding the bus noticed they were under surveillance from two men in a Grey Astra which had gone round the Square a few times then parked near the departure point. The occupants of the bus suspected the occupants of the car may in fact be police officers; some people expressed concern that they may have been filmed or photographed entering the bus, others suggested that they may be there to observe the large number of Dundee Utd fans who were gathering outside the Counting House waiting on it opening. So everyone on the bus was prepared to accept that the heavy police presence was to do with fans of the other clubs playing a match later that afternoon – no paranoia on our bus! The bus set off and joined the M8 when one of the passengers noticed the Grey Astra was following the bus; we then realised that this was an unmarked police car. Further confirmation came when the bus left the M8 at junction 9 to pick up some more people on the Edinburgh Road, the Grey Astra followed and parked up in a car park near the pickup point. We don’t know exactly how long the car followed the bus; it was still there by time we got to Gartcosh. A bit crazy we thought – especially since our number consisted of people aged in every decade from the 1st to the 6th – hardly a band of hardened rioter!
Anyway, the rest of the journey continued quietly enough and we reached the AECC in Bridge of Don just after 1pm. As we approached the roundabout outside the venue we could see police officers waiting and radioing forward. As we pulled to a halt we were met with a number of officers and some of the conference security people. A sergeant approached to greet us and one of our organisers was handed a typewritten sheet headed ‘Strategic Intention’ (link to follow). Our woman just folded it and put it in her pocket! We were told that they would ‘escort’ us up to a place in front of the entrance but that the venue security people wanted a word first. In the spirit of co-operativeness, for which we are known (!), our rep approached the dark suited securocrats who had a very important message to convey. I quote ‘We have babies and young children here, so could you please not cover your faces because it will frighten them.’ That is a verbatim quote – I kid you not! Our rep just shook her head, told them not to be so stupid, told them we had children with us too; asked if that was all they had to say, and walked away!
We had carried with us 3 pensioners and a 12-year old who were just coming along for the ride and our driver was going to drop them in town and then come back for them. The police seemed a bit upset that he was moving the bus again but finally agreed to ‘let’ him do it.
Anyway, off we trooped, now joined by the guys from Aberdeen who were there for the second day, and made our way round to an area enclosed by crash barriers facing the front entrance. One of our number stepped away from the group to head to the front entrance to stub a cigarette out on the ashtray. Immediately a female police officer rushed towards him and laid her hands on him to push him away. He had to explain what he was doing before she would step back. Another of our number had also stopped to wait for him coming back and she was approached to ask why she was separate from the group (which was then radioed in to someone).
By this time the rest of us had arrived at the designated area and were just about to put our banner up and sort out the placards, when another senior officer arrived, Chief Inspector Nick Topping. He called us over and advised us that Police Scotland were issuing a Section 12 Notice under the Public Order Act as he feared that a public procession might take place: he specifically mentioned the possibility that we might go to McDonalds along the road! He indicated that the effect of the Notice was that we could only move from that area in groups of ‘no more than 5 or 6’ . He was asked if any other protest group had been issued with this Notice, for instance UNISON who had been there earlier that day, and he replied no. He said that he was acting on the orders of Chief Superintendent Watson, Aberdeen division.
He then left accompanied by assorted flunkies, leaving us in the capable hands of two very affable chaps in uniform who stayed so close to us all day that I feel quite lost without them today! We then proceeded to the business of the day, which was to let the SNP delegates know what their leadership had done in their name. A number of them approached us to ask what it was about. The really scary thing over the two days was the dawning realisation that many SNP members have no clue about this Act and the damage it is doing. John Mason MSP approached us, as he always does, and peddled his ‘we introduced this to protect the Irish and the Catholics’ line. Note to John: this is becoming very tiresome, so please try to think up a new one which actually fits with the facts.
Some SNP activists were less than pleased about our chants etc. One elderly lady...well, woman, shoved her face into a protester in a very aggressive way in front of the police. The police officers moved in as though to protect her and not the victim....same old, same old! We filmed delegates and asked them how they liked being filmed while going about their lawful business. All the while we were being filmed by police officers from inside the building; we saw them and filmed them back!
During the protest we were also approached by a number of journalists from different countries. From the UK we had the Guardian, the Sunday Mail and the Sun. We spoke extensively to the real journalists but the Sun reporter was sent packing across the road with the words ‘Justice for the 96’ ringing in his ears. Despite loads of photographs being taken by the press, none seem to have made it into the Sunday papers.
At 3pm we knew that Alex Salmond, who like his Deputy Leader did not arrive at his own conference via the front door, would be speaking. One of the organisers called the group together to outline what we wanted to do next ie take a wee break and then prepare for all the SNP delegates leaving at the end of his speech and therefore the conference. The two police officers seemed a bit miffed that they were not invited to that particular briefing and tried to edge closer, asking as they did, ‘Is there a move on?’. However, they did provide us with bottled water later on, so they mustn’t have been too upset.
The next half hour was a massive success for our group. The delegates exited into the late afternoon sun all pleased with themselves, with their backs sore from all the slapping, only to be confronted with a group of well-organised, vocal and well-focussed (!) demonstrators. They were greeted with chants of ‘What do we want?’ ‘Axe the Act’ , ‘When do we want it?’ ‘Now; SS-SNP; Alex Salmond, Alex Salmond, we know you sneaked in the back; SNP! Shame on You; we sang Let the People Sing; we played music over the loudhailer; our man on the loudhailer kept up a running commentary on all that was wrong with the Act; he pleaded with delegates to question their leadership about whether this Act would damage their chances of delivering a Yes vote. Towards the end we spontaneously burst into a rendition of Roll of Honour. No one was offended and, even if they were, it is not an offence anyway, since we were not ‘in the context of a regulated football match’ .
One of our friendly minders asked to be given 5 minutes notice of our departure time so that they could come with us. We duly packed up, leaving the area free of all litter, and headed back towards our bus only to find that our bus was blocked in by a police car, making it impossible for us to move. One of our members spoke to the officer in the car and asked why they were there, saying ‘are you here to escort us out of the city’ to which he replied ‘yes that is our instructions’. Our man then told him that we didn’t feel the need for an escort and, in actual, fact we would be picking up our wee pensioner group in town and then we might, as law-abiding citizens, decide to stop for a bite to eat or a few pints, but that we hadn’t decided. The officer then boarded the bus and asked the driver where we were picking up the other group, but insisted on scouting us right up to a roundabout about a mile from the conference centre. Another officer then told us that the ‘next time we came up he would expect at least 3 days notice’ – I never thought of it at the time but I should have told him to consult the published fixture list.
The rest of the journey home was uneventful and involved a pretty good sing-song on the bus. However, one of the local boys was stopped by the police on his way home and told this was a ‘routine’ stop but they took the trouble to let him know that they knew where he had been. He questioned them on their right to stop him and for his trouble was called a ‘smart-arse’. That particular incident will be the subject of a complaint to the Aberdeen police.
All in all, it was a pretty successful day but it was a long day and it all fell on the shoulders of a very small number of people and that is not right. We will take legal advice about the Section 12 Notice because we are fairly sure it was a disproportionate action and therefore unlawful.
FAC will review these events and decide the next steps to take in the campaign. The next Open Meeting will take place on 14th May and I expect it will be discussed there as well.