Why did a cafe owner receive a visit from a counter terrorism unit?

Mrs Angry is the publisher of Broken Barnet. In this guest post she describes how a local shopkeeper and parking campaigner received a visit from the counter terrorism squad.

Helen Michael is a cafe owner in North Finchley. As the spokeswoman for local businesses in the area Helen had taken a prominent part in campaigns to fight a new parking scheme, including designing, printing and distributing a poster blaming local Conservative politician Brian Coleman for a number of shops alleged to have closed as a result of the parking changes.

Helen Michael

After a complaint from a political agent, local police visited Helen and pointed out that she had broken the law by failing to publish her details on the poster.

She immediately took steps to amend this oversight, and the police assured her there would be no further action.

But many weeks later towards the end of June Helen was surprised to receive a second visit from two more police officers. These policemen informed her that they were from a special investigations unit at Scotland Yard that dealt with all sorts of things, including counter terrorism.

They wanted to talk to her about the poster, even though she had been told the matter was at an end by local police.

She was obliged to attend a two hour recorded interview at a local station, under caution, asked a bewildering series of questions such as:

  • “Was it just the traders of Barnet involved in the production of this poster?”
  • “How much did it cost to produce the poster?”
  • “Was the cost funded by the local traders?”
  • “Was the poster for and on behalf of the traders, did we discuss it, with whom, what about the pictures? Was it a culmination of ideas or my own?”
  • “If the poster was not an election publication what was the principal reason to produce the poster?”
  • “Was there any political input or intention in production of the poster?”

A brief investigation proved that the two detectives were from SO15, a counter terrorism unit.

It soon emerged that although the original complaint to local police had been instigated by the local Returning Officer, the visit from SO15 was not. The poster was after all a pretext, but why?

Before Brian Coleman’s electoral defeat, Helen Michael and her fellow traders, asked by Barnet council to take part in their relay celebrations, had threatened instead to demonstrate along the route of the Olympic Torch when it arrived in North Finchley.

Was the interest by SO15 triggered by online reports of this statement? If so, she asked, why was she singled out for attention and no other local campaigners who had threatened the same tactics?

Days before the official Torch visit a local residents’ group had organised an alternative torch relay and procession to a park in Finchley to highlight opposition to the council’s £1 billion One Barnet programme, which sees almost all council services sold off to the private sector.

Just before this was due to take place organiser Tirza Waisel received a phone call from another detective claiming to be based at Scotland Yard, wanting to ask questions about the event.

A detective with the same name, allegedly from a local ‘counter terrorist operations office’ has been mentioned in reports of the heavy handed police handling of the ‘Critical Mass’ Olympic demo which took place on the opening night of the Games.

Tirza reported that the officer appeared keen to link the alternative procession and rally with a possible disruption of the official relay, and only backed off when reminded that local police were already involved in the organisation of the residents’ protest.

The policing of protest

Although the official relay of the Olympic Torch clearly presents a possible risk of terrorist incident, to police such an event must require some evaluation of the profile of likely suspects. It is pretty clear that neither Helen Michael nor Tirza Waisel fits such a profile, and if resources have been wasted on such considerations one must ask why this has been so.

If either of these women had intended to stage a demonstration along the route of the relay, were they not entitled to express their views peacefully in this way?

In Cornwall, at the beginning of the national Torch relay, there was much criticism of the actions of a member of the accompanying police ‘security bubble’ who snatched the flag of St Piran, the Cornish flag, from a torch bearer as he approached the Tamar Bridge.

Flag of St Piran snatched from Olympic torchbearer by torch relay security

Anecdotal evidence at least suggests that the pattern of police scrutiny all around the country, in fact, seems to be in favour of preventing any expression of dissent or activism that might feature in any filming of the Olympic otrch relay.

In Bridlington, Yorkshire, mother of two Helen Perry received a police warning after she joked on Facebook about having a street party to block the route.

In Stratford a cinema worker dressed as Batman for a promotion was interviewed and ordered to stop.

And in Angus a pensioner who wrote a letter to the local paper received a visit at his sheltered accommodation from police.

”I asked if protest was now illegal,” he explained. “They said no, it isn’t, but there will be lots of folk out to cheer the Olympic torch, and we wouldn’t want you to get hurt by them, or vice versa.”

This Is Cornwall reported that the local police force interviewed 18 people about their plans to protest in that region alone. Other forces refused to give details, arguing that it would make it more difficult for them to police “future similar events and future Olympic torch relays which may pass through the United Kingdom”.

And here is another possible explanation for the intense scrutiny and intimidation of activists in Barnet and elsewhere, dating perhaps from the Beijing Olympics and the protests along the route of the Torch in support of a free Tibet.

The protests in 2008 caused a great deal of concern to the Games organisers,and their sponsors, and no doubt they were keen to avoid any repetition of similar scenes this time.
The question must be asked: did the risk of political protests represent not so much a security threat, as a threat to the image of the Torch relay itself, and the wider sensitivities of the corporate sponsorship of the event?

Was the disproportionate level of attention to potential disruption of the relay not so much for fear of terrorism but that fundamental trait of the British establishment – the fear of political embarrassment?

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