Sunday, 12 April 2009

Police Violence and Protesting

By this point, two weeks after Ian Tomlinson's death at the G20 protests in London, on the 1st of April, most people in the country have probably already seen the video above. In it, Tomlinson is hit on the leg with a baton by a policeman, whose face is covered. He is then shoved to the floor and lands heavily. The video only came to light because Ian Tomlinson died of a heart attack shortly after it was taken. According to other witnesses, he had already been assaulted by police as he tried to get home.

Since Tomlinson's death, many other photographs, videos and stories of police violence have come out. The Guardian has been especially active in chronicling these - see here for a list of protesters' experiences. See here for a catalogue of videos of police charging photographers, batons raised; allowing a dog to bite a protester; hitting a protester across the face and in the leg; and more. The video I found the most frightening was this one (unfortunately it can't be embedded). A front of yellow-jacketed riot police, three or four deep, push into a crowd of Climate Camp protesters in Bishopsgate, hitting out with shields and batons. The people hold their hands in the air, but they can't retreat - there's nowhere to go. "This is not a riot," they chant. This was a peaceful action but they are being treated like an advancing army.

The G20 protests were a huge event, with 20,000 people from many disparate groups turning out for the more family-friendly march on Saturday the 28th March. On the 1st of April, four separate protests had been planned, including a Stop the War Coalition march and the Climate Camp.

The police and media had been warning for weeks beforehand that the protests would be violent, which had probably scared off a lot of potential demonstrators. On the day itself, there was barely any of the expected wanton destruction. At the empty branch of RBS where some attendees smashed windows, they were outnumbered by photographers. Nonetheless, the riot officers used to police the event, and the treatment protestors received from them, was proportionate to the threat the police had claimed to expect.

In Britain, the public has a right to take part in protests and demonstrations, and part of the police's role in such events is to safeguard that. The police are also allowed to use violence in their duties only if it is necessary and proportionate. The growing mass of documentary evidence of the G20 protests shows many incidents where both of these principles were let go into the wind. Police treated protesters as unqualified enemies.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission is conducting investigations into the Ian Tomlinson case, as well as the case of the female protestor who was filmed being hit in the face and leg, but there have already been doubts about the way they are handling it. When relatives of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster are still fighting for justice twenty years later, it might be justified to wonder how long it will take for the truth about these protests to shake out.

All this will serve to further discourage moderate citizens who are concerned about the issues of the day (climate change, capitalism, social justice or anything else) from joining demonstrations about them. This means me and probably you, as a reader of this blog. Violence will happen at the demonstrations anyway - either from the people who go to them determined to start some, or in response to police techniques like kettling - and the media will seize upon it as newsworthy. In the end, we are done out of our right to make a loud and public statement against injustice.

This blog is called Not Powerless, so I want to finish up by offering some ideas for what to do.
  • I think we should refuse to be frightened away from the right to protest. Do go!
  • If you do go to demonstrations, though, stay away from frontlines if you can, bring water and maybe a bottle to pee in in case you get kettled for hours on end (it's better than going up against a wall) - and a camera.
  • Write to your MP: about Ian Tomlinson, about the police behaviour at G20, about climate change and the issues that matter to you. Using WriteToThem it is quick and easy.
Merrick at bristling badger has written a lot about this, including this article at Head Heritage, Police Kettling: the Shadow of Death.

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