Wednesday, 8 April 2009

On Policing

Let's get things straight. The now well documented assault of Mr Tomlinson was perpetrated by a single officer and it would be rash to judge the entire force on the behaviour of this individual. Many of the police I spoke to on the day were polite, civil, helpful and even managed to fashion the odd smile. Let's not forget that all police leave in London was cancelled for this particular week and no doubt many of the officers on duty that day sympathised with protesters. Many people join the force to do good deeds, not to clobber innocents.

However, that's not to say there are no bad apples and for the many friendly police I encountered, there was an equal measure of downright rude and unprofessional officers who were unnecessarily aggressive and uncommunicative, forcing their way through crowds like the souped-up alpha males most of them are and treating protesters with so much disdain we had to double check we weren't actually pieces of shit on their plodding black boots.

There are endless accounts of other officers threatening to break people's arms and laughing off pleas to be let out from non-protesting bystanders caught in the kettle and what about the police medic photographed wielding a baton at protesters? A blatant breach of the Hippocratic Oath if ever there was one. It's like a football physio trying to hack down an opposition winger who strays too close to the touchline.

Without doubt, many police seemed to be thriving in the tense environment and clearly relished the opportunity to knock a few skulls together. Ahead of the protests, Commander Simon O'Brien said his force was 'up for it' and the relevance of naming the policing operation 'Glencoe' was not lost upon history buffs who pointed to the 1692 Massacre of Glencoe where 38 people were killed by government agents.

As for the incident itself, you can clearly see for yourselves that Mr Tomlinson, who was not protesting, with his hands in his pockets and his back turned, posed absolutely no threat to the police. Even if Mr Tomlinson had called the officer all the names under the sun and disrespected every female member of his family, the officer's actions can not be justified and amount to nothing but pure cowardice (though thankfully he's had the decency to come forward).

What is more startling though, is the lack of any kind of reaction from the officer's colleagues, who simply stood by and watched. If this had been a person in the street they would have been promptly arrested.

As for the policing in general, their tactics and the laws in which they are enshrined seriously need to be evaluated. I've already written about my personal experiences last week. I wasn't at the Bank of England when things kicked off so don't feel I can comment, however, I was there first thing in the morning and immediately the police tried to exert their authority and control over the situation by trying to split the protest apart the moment the processions converged. The next day, a peaceful rally in memory of Ian Tomlinson was surrounded by police riot vehicles in nothing more than a show of force and flexing of police muscle.

At the Climate Camp where I spent most of my time, a working, porous police line during the day was needlessly exchanged for a kettle and infrequent incursions in the early evening, creating artificial tension and agitating protesters. In what circumstances do the police find it lawful to detain people, including many non-protesters, in the streets with no access to water or toilets or indeed any communication from the police themselves, before breaking up the stragglers with brute force?

When it comes to protests, police have to balance protecting the inalienable right to protest alongside protecting the public from harm and by extension, property from damage. In this instance, police were not actively protecting the public right to protest. If anything, they sought to frighten people away with talk of a 'summer of rage' (a police fabrication) and hyperbole about impending violence. It is also widely known that police intimidate and harass activists ahead of known protests and demonstrations.

Trapping people in a kettle does not protect the public's right to protest. Immediately it criminalises protester's actions and in many cases intimidates those who are there peacefully and whom wouldn't hurt a fly. At the Climate Camp there wasn't even hint of any trouble and there was no threat to the public; apart from that of the police.

Of course, there were idiots intent on damage and there was always going to be trouble flare up somewhere, but this should be dealt with subsequently and accordingly, with reasonable force, rather than treating everybody as suspects in potentially violent activities. If the police had let things happen 'organically', as they initially did at Climate Camp, there would have been less trouble.

Finally, the police should relinquish their right to anonymity. Masked policemen are what you expect from Nazi Germany, not a so called liberal democracy like the UK. When has it ever been a good idea to allow the police to remain anonymous, especially when they're armed to the teeth? On Thursday, I was stopped and searched under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, by which "police can require you to remove any item reasonably believed used wholly or mainly for purpose of concealing identity". If it's an offence for me to conceal my identity, why are the police exempt?

When the police first encircled Climate Camp, I tried to make out their individual numbers on their helmets, before realising there were none. The silver numbers on the lapels are too small to notice unless up-close and even then the police take an extreme dislike to you noting their personals. A friend I met at Climate Camp had earlier been at the Bank of England. When the police noticed him taking down numbers of aggressive officers, they hauled him through the line, under the pretence he was a trouble-making ringleader, slung him in the back of a police van and searched him. Pure intimidation tactics.

This week also proves how utterly ridiculous and nonsensical the recent anti-terror law banning photography of the police is. If ever there was a requirement that police be held to account in such a manner then it was last week's policing. If people hadn't filmed the officer shoving Ian Tomlinson, where would we be now?

Some activists are openly suggesting his death be used to fight their cause and initiate retaliatory violence against the police. These are opportunistic, disrespectful idiots seizing on the death of an innocent bystander to propel him to martyrdom, who are thankfully few in number and widely criticised in the activist community.

However, questions must now be asked of the policing in general and it's appalling that we have had to come this far to even reach this stage. No doubt much of the focus will be on the inquiry into Mr Tomlinson's death, but there must also be a wider inquiry that extends beyond this one incident to take into account protest policing. That is why I have contacted my MP and I urge you to do the same.


  1. Well said...excellent blog...

  2. 'Some activists are openly suggesting his death be used to fight their cause and initiate retaliatory violence against the police. These are opportunistic, disrespectful idiots seizing on the death of an innocent bystander'

    Who and where? If you are going to make claims like this then you need to support them with evidence, otherwise they just look like unfounded allegations.

    If any groups publicly did this they would be arrested for incitement to violence. If you mean there have been a couple of anonymous comments on blogs/open neswires, then they ought to be taken with a pinch of salt as there's no way of verifying that they are in any way genuine, and they sit alongside equally unverifiable comments arguing that all protesters at all protests deserve to have their heads kicked in.

    Otherwise this is a very well written post.

  3. This is just what I've seen in the 'blogosphere' and online where his death has obviously generated much discussion, but as you advised, I have taken it with a pinch of salt and realise it by no means represents any kind of wider consensus.

    What I was getting at and now realise didn't articulate clearly enough (first use of the word 'activist' was the wrong choice) is that there are and will be people who hold these feelings, that they are misguided and foolish for doing so and should subsequently be ignored.

    Thanks for your comment :)