(photo: David King)

Public workers, up to seven hundred and fifty thousand teachers and civil servants, are alleged to have participated in a June 30 general strike called for in the United Kingdom after UK Parliament passed changes to pensions and retirement, specifically, increasing the amount an employee has to contribute.

At 1:31 pm London Time, Hélène Mulholland reported from the end of “the Strand, by Trafalgar Square,” that a march had been “good-natured” so far. “ She said it is clear that the turn out has been good, that quite a few in the UK believe the government did not properly negotiate the new pension and retirement changes. And she also reported, “There doesn’t seem to have been much trouble,” except for the stopping and searching of minority students.

Around 12 pm London Time, she “walked past five police officers stopping and searching two non-white 17-year-old sixth formers, Aamir Kadir and Jean-Claude Goddard, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields to the dismay of onlookers.” Mulholland said they were searched because they were wearing keffiyeh scarves, a traditional headdress for Arab men. While there were white women with scarves standing around the two young men who were stopped, the police said they stopped the two because the scarves might be used to commit violence. They said they were stopped out of “empirical judgment” because “people use keffiyehs to mask their identity.”

Throughout the strikes today, the UK police have claimed stop and search powers under section 60 of the Criminal Public Order Act. Here is how this provision allowing police the legal right to stop citizens and search them in public is described on the Metropolitan Police website:

Section 60 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, gives police the right to search people in a defined area at a specific time when they believe, with good reason, that: there is the possibility of serious violence; or that a person is carrying a dangerous object or offensive weapon; or that an incident involving serious violence has taken place and a dangerous instrument or offensive weapon used in the incident is being carried in the locality. This law has to be authorized by a senior officer and is used mainly to tackle football hooliganism and gang fights.

In this case, the police are using Section 60 to thwart the “hooliganism” of public and civil servants who feel they just got a bad deal from their government, who are upset they might have more trouble making ends meet for their family.

Reports of the UK police utilizing the power granted to them under section 60 have been surfacing on Twitter. @frontierwoman reported a pre-crime arrest of a girl for having a camouflage jacket in her bag.  @litlemisswilde alleges it is now an offense to carry a flag. A boy, according to @101DGK, was arrested at Trafalgar Square for saying “bullshit.” @IanDunt reported the arrest of a young boy. @aaronjohnpeters suggested people are “being stopped and searched on basis of being ‘known activists’ – even when activism is legal.” And, @GBCLegal, which has been tweeting a phone number for a legal hotline that can be dialed, reported two people had been arrested for wearing black.

This preemptive policing tactic, according to the UK-based civil liberties organization Liberty, can remain in effect for a 48-hour period so long as there is “reasonable belief that incidents involving serious violence may take place or that people are carrying dangerous instruments or offensive weapons in the area without good reason.”

The police do not have to have reasonable suspicion that they will find the item they suspect someone to be wearing or have in their possession. They can search anyone in the locality near the area where an incident might occur. Not cooperating with police could potentially get a person a maximum sentence of 51 weeks in prison.

While civil liberties advocates have suggested the powers “might be in breach of Article 8 [the right to privacy] or Article 5 [the right to liberty and security]” of the European Convention on Human Rights, the High Court has ruled police exercising this power are not doing so “arbitrarily” so there is no breach of the Convention.

The stop-and-search powers on display during the strike have created controversy in recent months, as civil liberties advocates have warned against the government’s plans to “allow race to be a basis for stop and search without suspicion” under section 60. The government has considered this expansion just as it has supposedly been revising powers to stop and search individuals under section 44 of the Terrorism Act of 2000 (after a European court ruled the powers unlawful because they didn’t have proper safeguards to protect civil liberties).

StopWatch, a UK group working with communities, ministers, policy makers and senior police officers to ensure that police reforms are fair and inclusive, has called the stop and search powers used by the UK police a “wedge between communities and the police.” In October 2010, the group released finding from research conducted that showed the use of the powers against black people was disproportionate. African-Caribbean people were twenty-six times more likely to be stopped under section 60.

US civil rights leader Jesse Jackson called the findings a “moral outrage.” He charged, “It is racial profiling. It’s as fundamental as that. It is based on sight, suspicion and fear. It’s a systematic pattern. In the US it is called driving while black. In Arizona it is called driving while Latino.”

Now, after the police were granted the freedom to not record information on those they stop and search, StopWatch is fighting to ensure the police continue to record and monitor stop and search data so fairness and accountability in policing can be fought for.

Unlike the student protests last November, Metropolitan police chief Sir Paul Stephenson does not have any hard-line quote circulating that might escalate the tension (although arbitrary arrests and use of cordons today makes it certain some sort of scuffle will take place before the strike is over). He warned during the student protests of a “new era of civil unrest” and said “The game has changed,” because two large demonstrations had been particularly violent. On the contrary, the police chief is in a precarious position today as nine out of ten emergency call handlers joined the strikes.

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For a full portrait of the stop and searches that happened during the June 30 strike, here’s a Chirpstory I created. It includes reports from Twitter on alleged profiling, police harassment, etc.