“We did have an event of serious public disorder that day. It was caused by the police.”
IMAGINE a peaceful community march of a few hundred people protesting against police harassment. Imagine police horses, a helicopter, and 200 officers surround the march, draw their batons and wade in. Imagine the police arrest 13 of the marchers for public order offences and confidently state that more arrests are on the way. Imagine the chief of police calls the marchers violent and intimidating and says that the courts will prove police actions were vindicated.
Got all that?
Now imagine that there are no further arrests as claimed. Imagine that the police fail to achieve any serious convictions for public order offences. Imagine that, after nearly two years of coverage, speculation, and court proceedings, everything the marchers said has been proven right while everything the police said has been proven wrong.
You can stop imagining because this is exactly what happened. In Scotland. In 2015.
Earlier this month, 21-year-old Scott Johnstone became the last of those arrested on the Gallowgate on 16 March 2013 to be cleared of all offences. Johnstone had travelled through from Fife that day to attend the Celtic vs Aberdeen match along with four of his friends.
They had read about the march online and decided to stop off to show support on their way to to the game.
The march, or ‘corteo’, was organised by Celtic fan group the Green Brigade to highlight what fans claimed was intensfying police harrassment of supporters in light of the Scottish Government’s Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act.
The Green Brigade is an ‘ultras’ group. Members describe themselves as “a broad front of anti-fascist, anti-racist and anti-sectarian Celtic supporters”. They have held regular political displays inside Celtic Park, including showing support for Palestinian hunger strikers and marking opposition to the the poppy being emblazoned on their club’s strip.
No one was expecting trouble at the march, according to Paul, a member of the Green Brigade and one of the organisers. The fans were set to walk from the Chrystal Bell pub next to the Barras on the Gallowgate up towards Celtic Park. The route is not unfamiliar with supporters – it’s exactly the same route walked by thousands of fans every fortnight as they go to watch Celtic play.
“Celtic fans walking up the Gallowgate isn’t exactly cause for disorder,” laughs Paul. “We basically just wanted to highlight what was happening and show solidarity as the harassment was intensifying and bans were racking up. It ended up that we did have a massive event of public disorder that day – it was caused by the police. “
Following the march, Labour councillor George Ryan described the police kettling as “not acceptable” and “totally disproportionate”.
As soon as the march set off, marchers were faced with a mass of police – almost one officer for every participant in the protest.
“When we started walking, the police began to kettle everyone almost immediately,” Johnstone tells CommonSpace.
Kettling involves the formation of large cordons of police officers who contain people within a limited area. Following the march, Labour councillor George Ryan described this tactic as “not acceptable” and “totally disproportionate”.
Johnstone goes on: “There were police horses everywhere. Me and my pal managed to get out of the way and I started filming from outside the kettle. Most of the police had their truncheons out and they were shouting aggressively. Suddenly, two policeman ran from behind me, grabbed me and dragged me over to the police van.
“When I got to the police van I asked for their badge numbers – they refused to give them.
“I asked what I was being arrested for and an officer said ‘for being a cheeky wee prick’.” Scott Johnstone
“I asked what I was being arrested for and an officer said ‘for being a cheeky wee prick’.
“I said they surely can’t arrest someone for that? ‘Aye, we fucking can and we will,’ was the reply.”
The march prompted a frenzy on social media as fans posted updates and pictures on Facebook and Twitter. The story quickly went viral and even went international when Al Jazeera published an article exploring alleged police brutality in Scotland towards football fans.
An estimated 200 officers policed the march, aided by around 20 riot vans, a line of police horses and a helicopter circling overhead.
Images later emerged of children crying and in distress as police mounted on horseback moved in towards the crowd. Alongside children, an elderly man in his 70s was among those kettled by Police Scotland.
A civil rights advocate and legal observer who witnessed events was quoted at the time as saying: “I’ve never seen anything like that. I have never seen batons used on kids before, and I witnessed the Piccadilly and London riots. I’ve seen violent demonstrations, this was not that, they weren’t even throwing anything, nothing.”
Police Scotland claimed the march had been ‘unauthorised’ and insisted footage vindicating the police side of the story would be forthcoming once prosecutions were concluded. Such material is yet to be published by the force.
Johnstone was charged with acting in a threatening or abusive manner. He was offered a PS150 fixed penalty notice by police but decided not to pay it – “Why would I? I had done nothing wrong,” he says – and instead chose to challenge the charge in court. After four appearances at the Sheriff Court, the case was thrown out by the judge.
“I heard stuff about the police and what they get away with in the past,” he says, “but I’d never believed it until I’d seen it. It was a total stitch up. I was astonished at some of the lies just to get me done.”
The expense to the public purse in such cases is often lamented. Less documented, though, is the human expense to the lives of young people as they face upheavel and uncertainity with court proceedings hanging over their heads.
Celtic fans, and in particular the Green Brigade, may face this with more regularity than most. But a similiar message can be heard from fans of all clubs throughout Scotland – the culture of policing around football has changed for the worse, they say.
“There’s a general culture that’s been created which has totally corrupted the relationship between the police and football fans.” Paul, Green Brigade
“I think there’s a general culture that’s been created which has totally corrupted the relationship between the police and football fans,” says Paul, who has been a member of the Celtic ‘ultras’ group since its formation in 2006.
“The past few years it’s the most toxic that it’s ever been. Fans of other clubs will tell you the same thing – it’s the worst that we’ve all experienced it.”
This state of affairs can largely be attributed to the introduction of the much-maligned Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, says Jeanette Findlay, from Fans Against Criminalisation (FAC).
“The legislation has completely poisoned the relationship between football supporters and the police,” she says.
“(The Police) seem to be hell bent on persecuting fans for behaviour that isn’t criminal anywhere else.” Jeanette Findlay, Fans Against Criminalisation
“The police should really only have a safety role in football. But they now seem to be hell bent on persecuting fans for behaviour that isn’t criminal anywhere else.
“What happened at the Gallowgate is probably one of the best examples of that. It made clear that police now also see it as their aim to persecute people who are protesting against this Act.”
The Act has faced wide criticism from football supporters and from the opposition benches at Holyrood. Even by police standards, the results have been poor. Recent figures showed that police were failing to achieve convictions in more than half of those charged under the legislation. It is currently up for review, and calls for the Scottish Government to scrap it have intensified.
For now, FAC continues to demand answers for the events on the Gallowgate almost two years ago. A detailed report into the incident was presented to the Scottish Parliament last December. In response to queries by politicians, chief constable Stephen House said that police would make more arrests, release CCTV footage and be vindicated once criminal proceedings were concluded.
These claims have proved to be misleading at best. Out of the 13 arrests, there were only two convictions. One for minor drugs possession and one for abusive behaviour – an indivual admitted to calling the police “scum” after they moved into the crowd. FAC is considering requesting a judicial review.
“The police action on that day cannot be justified but equally neither can the cover up and slandering of people. Stephen House has to now tell us why he lied to politicians,” says Findlay.
“We want an admission that House was wrong and greater oversight of the police by the proper authorities.”
When a series of questions was put to Police Scotland about the events, the force released a short statement: “We are continuing to consider the contents of the report published last December.”
House may have some explaining to do – and on more than just the Gallowgate. He has been forced to backtrack on the routine arming of police officers, pushed through the backdoor with little or no oversight. His signature stop and search policy is in tatters as police have been found to be searching citizens on an industrial scale and have failed to end searches on children despite promises to parliament.
The establishment of a national police force was never going to be without issues, but critics have accused House of pushing an aggressive style of policing, lacking in tact or sensitivity.
The Green Brigade has been at the sharp end of this policing around football for several years. Are they confident that the police might review their behaviour following recent criticism?
“That would be incredibly naive,” responds Paul. “We’ve spent years being harassed by the police. People have had to deal with the chaos that it has wrecked upon their lives. It’s become part and parcel of things and I doubt very much that the police will seriously review their actions.”
Actions like those on the Gallowgate back in March 2013 have led to a loss of trust among young people.
Incidents like those on the Gallowgate in March 2013 have led to a loss of trust among young people. Young people like Scott Johnstone who faced intimidation, arrest and slander before being found guilty of no crime whatsoever.
It will take time, and a substantial change in policy – and perhaps personnel – to win this trust back.
Picture courtesy of the Celtic Network