Peaceful protests and violent police

October 2 is Mahatma Ghandi’s birthday and so around the world organisations like the SPCA choose this day for lectures, concerts and peaceful protests raising awareness about cruelty to animals – a subject that Ghandi championed throughout his life. These “World Farm Animal Day” events are very mainstream, raising concerns such as the living conditions of farmed chickens and pigs.

However last year Auckland Police decided in advance to target the October 2 protests, using tactics against the protesters way beyond what is normal in New Zealand. The spokesperson of the group, Jesse Duffield, has been charged under a heavy “home invasion” law for delivering a protest letter, with a jury trial due later this year with penalties up to a maximum of 17 years in prison. A recently retired senior Police officer has described the Police actions as “a huge over-reaction’.

The World Farm Animal Day protest involved a group of young Aucklanders scattering hay in the reception area of the Tegel Foods company in Newmarket, a mess that police documents say cost a trifling $111 plus GST to tidy. At the same time the spokesperson delivered a letter to the managing director complaining about the company’s chickens being raised in cramped conditions (without hay to stand on). In other words, it was the type of small, symbolic protest that groups from women suffragettes to Greenpeace have used throughout history to publicise issues.

In recent decades, Police have usually responded to protests like this in a relaxed manner, at most imposing light “Breach of the Peace” or disorderly behaviour charges. Few cases ever get to court. The Police operations manual emphasises protecting demonstrators’ “freedom of speech and freedom of peaceful protest”. 

But since the Tegel protest Duffield, a 23-year old school teacher, has been subjected to extraordinary Police actions. The Sunday Star-Times has obtained copies of two volumes of evidence assembled by Police to try to convict him of the home invasion charges. They show a surprising expenditure of police effort at a time when Police resources are stretched for real crimes.

The excessive policing is apparent in the police documents from the start. Several police cars were dispatched to the Tegel building and, lead by two detectives, Police collected written statements and other evidence as if it was a serious crime. A third detective and mobile Police patrols searched the nearby Auckland Domain and found a parked car with a copy of the protest letter visible on the back seat. The Police seized the car and towed it to a “covert secure location”.

The car belonged to Jesse Duffield, a young secondary school science teacher who, according to the “Police intelligence systems”, had taken part in previous protests outside shops selling animal furs. At 8am the next morning the three detectives raided his home in West Auckland.

While a Detective Sergeant Mike Paki interviewed Duffield, the other two stripped the house of everything even vaguely associated with his political activities, including his personal computer, his mobile phone, SPCA leaflets, a photo album and over 100 floppy disks containing his school work, photos and other personal documents. They even seized a sweatshirt printed with the words “GE – you are what you eat” and posters off the wall. Six months later none of this (including his computer and mobile phone) has been returned.

The Police documents read like a serious crime investigation, including a detailed floorplan of his house and a schedule of where each object was found. Curiously, the Application for the Search Warrant and individual search wararants are all dated 3 October 2003 – after the car was seized and the day of the 8am raid — with the dates then altered by hand to 2 October.

The scale of personal intrusion appears to be out of all proportion to the minor protest being investigated. Paki then arrested Duffield and took him to the [check] Auckland central police station cells. There they charged him and filled out an application opposing him being released on bail, arguing that this was necessary to stop him contacting his “co-offenders”. 

The charges are severe: “Burglary, penalty 10 years imprisonment”, “Intentional Damage, penalty 7 years imprisonment” and “Unlawfully in a Building, penalty 3 months imprisonment”. The Police were exploiting a new law introduced the day before the protest [check] aimed at home invasions. It had altered the meaning of burglary from involving theft to merely “entering any building… without authority and with intent to commit a crime” (the “crime” presumably being littering and handing over the protest letter). 

Meanwhile his seized car was searched with the same determination as the house. Most of the contents – an old megaphone, a protest banner, three empty drink bottles, tools, his personal diary and so on – were removed, photographed and, where possible, fingerprinted. Duffield had no use of his car for 7 days until the Police returned it covered in finger-print powder. Not content with all this, the Police imposed a 9pm-6am curfew on him and he had to report to the Henderson police station every Saturday for several weeks.

Reading through the documents it feels as if there must be more to the story to justify the response. Not so. According to the police “Summary of the Facts”, police and witness statements and evidence lists, all there is is some hay and a protest letter.

In recent months the Police have been preparing to take the case to a jury hearing. They intend to have seven Police and seven Tegel employees as witnesses. To date the Police involved include detectives, officers, photographers, finger print specialists, “document examiner”, “scene of crime officer”, exhibits officers and “electronic crime specialists”.

The details were shown to recently retired police district commander [check title] Wayne Stringer who has personally headed major Police investigations. He estimates Police have spent hundreds of hours on the case and says “that’s the level of attention you’d expect if you were looking for some sort of terrorist action – or a serious crime like a rape, a robbery or a murder. Certainly not a protest action.”

He said he can’t understand how the Police even got the search warrants. “It’s very hard to construe that scattering some hay around is a crime, or even an offence. The ‘intent’ was merely to raise public awareness to the plight of animals…. I don’t think there’s going to be a conviction”

Then why did the Police put Duffield through this process? 

Stringer: “The purpose of the warrants and the severity of the charge is obviously to allow the police to gather further intelligence about the group.” He suspects the detectives were already investigating the group before the protest. For instance, the detective who, according to the Police documents, just happened to be outside the Tegel building at the time of the protest “on unrelated matter”, had probably either followed some of them from home or had intelligence from inside the group.

It is clear from the Police documents that there was nothing coincidental about the detectives who arrived at Tegel that day. Detective Sergeant Paki’s Jobsheet of the case notes that before taking charge of the Tegel “burglary”, he was already “conducting enquiries with Detective Jones [into] possible targets for Animal Action Week in the Auckland Region….” Resources had been assigned in advance to targeting that group.

This still leaves the obvious question: why? Many New Zealanders (including various current Cabinet ministers) have been involved in more controversial protest than this without having their houses raided, detectives seizing and picking through their personal possessions and the threat of imprisonment. Why this heavy policing for a small protest group?

Stringer says he has noticed a change in Police attitude to public protests since September 11 2001 – he presumes as a result of overseas pressures on our Government. Since then Police have received new resources and powers to fight terrorism and – it appears – public protests may have been seen as somehow part of this. 

There are signs of this in who briefed the Minister of Police before and after a widely publicised anti-war protest at the US embassy in February 2003. The written briefings, released under the Official Information Act, did not come from the Wellington Police involved but instead from Jon White, the Police Assistant Commissioner for Counter-Terrorism.

Wayne Stringer suspects that the Police have heard of radical animal rights groups in the UK and translated that to New Zealand, even though this country has no history of violent or destructive protest. There’s a sense of police intelligence officers working their way through various public movements and protest organisations and concluding that animal rights are some of the closest they will find: newly-resourced counter-terrorism staff looking for work.

Three weeks ago the Police coordinated a large exercise practising how to repond to real terrorism if it ever occurs here. During “Exercise Lawman” three bombs were found in Christchurch at the airport and a public swimming pool, and a yacht carrying suspected terrorists from the country of “Musoria” was detected off the coast. 

One of the confidential documents used in the exercise, produced by the National Bureau of Criminal Intelligence Threat Assessment Unit, noted that the threat of terrorism to New Zealand is low and “assessed as largely emanating from sources outside New Zealand”. It noted that the security environment in New Zealand is more favourable than in many other countries, in part because “New Zealand’s free and open society has not provided the breeding ground for the fomentation of violent disaffection.”

In other words, part of maintaining a country free of political violence is ensuring a free and open society, which includes allowing peaceful political protest. Protest isn’t even vaguely in same class as terrorism. It is actually the opposite.

Duffield’s story is not an isolated case. For the past two years there has been a series of  unusual Police actions against protesters. These include a man sentenced for burning a New Zealand flag under the never-before-used 1981 Flag and Emblems Act, and protesters charged with willful damage after writing on a footpath in chalk last October outside MP Marian Hobbs’ electorate office.

Jesse Duffield says he is happy to admit he took part in the Tegel protest, delivering the protest letter on behalf of the group. But he is perplexed at the heaviness of the police reaction. He missed work because of the arrest, had problems with the school management where he works over having burglary charges and has been deprived of his computer and many of his teaching resources for months since they were seized. He now has the worry of possible convictions.

He says the Police treatment was heavier than the Police documents suggest. While they were searching his house, for example, one of the detectives grabbed him by his head and yelled at him inches from his face. He said his lawyer is considering a formal complaint.