Policing the crisis

A year ago, on 1 and 2 April 2009, world leaders at the G20 Summit in London congratulated themselves on solving the world’s financial and developmental crisis with a deal involving $1.1 trillion (£681bn).

‘We start from the belief that prosperity is indivisible; that growth, to be sustained, has to be shared; and that our global plan for recovery must have at its heart the needs and jobs of hard-working families, not just in developed countries but in emerging markets and the poorest countries of the world too; and must reflect the interests, not just of today’s population, but of future generations too.’

Fine words, however, butter no parsnips. These particular fine words have been long since forgotten and the world’s poor have not prospered one jot as the imperialist nations have battled to sustain and improve their own economies and the financial security of their respective ruling classes in the face of severe capitalist crisis and at the expense of the working class and oppressed.

A year ago, outside the conference, thousands of G20 opponents in London demonstrated to show that the claims made by these super-rich politicians were fraudulent. The demonstrators were smacked and clubbed to the ground by well-trained, armed riot police with dogs, following a detailed plan hatched months in advance by British police. The overall police operation, called Operation Glencoe (which might have given a clue to their frame of mind) entailed corralling (‘kettling’) the demonstrators in a tight space at the Bank of England from 12.30pm to 7pm without access to facilities like toilets or fresh water. No one was allowed to leave, as is clear from one demonstrator’s testimony: ‘My final outrage is for the police officers watching a young girl having an asthma attack and yet [they] still refused, even her, the right to leave. It was absolutely disgraceful.’ One man, Ian Tomlinson, who was not even part of the demonstration, died as a result of the police tactics.

On the day of the demonstrations, police claimed that they had faced a violent mob, had responded with only necessary force and had no involvement with Ian Tomlinson at all. Indeed, police press statements included the claim that demonstrators had thrown missiles at the kindly police officers who were trying to secure medical aid for the stricken man. In the days following the demonstrations, reports and photographs flooded in showing exactly how brutal the police tactics had been. In particular, film footage taken by a passing American was sent to The Guardian clearly showing that Tomlinson was clubbed from behind by a Territorial Support Group (TSG) riot officer whose face was masked by a balaclava and whose badge number was missing. In response to the film footage, a senior officer investigating Tomlinson’s death on behalf of the City of London police, suggested that the officer may well have been a demonstrator dressed up as a policeman acting as a provocateur. Tomlinson’s ‘crime’ had been to try to pass through the ‘kettle’ on the way home from his job.

The police handling of Ian Tomlinson’s death was a crude attempt at cover up.* His family were told that Tomlinson had died of a heart attack, refused access to his body and warned not to speak to the press. The first postmortem made no mention of injuries found on his body, the blood in his stomach or a dog bite on his leg. The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) were reluctant to investigate. Meanwhile the gutter press concentrated on vilifying the demonstrators.

It was only after the video footage of the attack on Tomlinson was revealed, that public furore followed as it became clear from the photos, films and reports from demonstrators and public at the events, that the police tactics had been brutally violent and the TSG officer who clubbed Ian Tomlinson had not been alone in disguising his identity. A second postmortem revealed that Tomlinson had died from internal bleeding.

The police were immediately on the defensive. In response to all this ‘bad’ publicity, Sir Paul Stephenson, Commissioner of Metropolitan Police, ordered a top-level review of riot policing and admitted his concerns over the ‘clearly disturbing’ images. The officer who struck Tomlinson, once identified, was suspended from duty on full pay. The IPCC promised to investigate more than 90 complaints about police violence, as well as Tomlinson’s death.

One year after G20, there have been several reports into the policing of the G20 demonstrations: a report from the Met, two parliamentary inquiries and an official review by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), and the latest from the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) itself. All have made just glancing references to Tomlinson’s death, claiming they cannot prejudice the IPCC investigation. The Tomlinson family believe some accounting is necessary for the way they were deliberately misled about the circumstances, but this has not been forthcoming.

All of the inquiries have been, to some degree, critical of police tactics and conduct. In particular the HMIC report, published in November 2009, criticised the Met Police’s interpretation of public order legislation. From the Met’s point of view the protests had been unlawful and this was what they prepared for. The HMIC report, on the other hand, pointed out the legal force of article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights which protects the right to peaceful assembly. The police should not have treated the demonstrations as unlawful simply because they were spontaneous or obstructed the highway. So threatened by the contents of the HMIC report was the Met, that they employed their own solicitors to challenge the report, delaying the publication of its interim findings. Their challenge was unsuccessful. All the inquiries have pointed out the illegality of police hiding their badge numbers and their identities; some criticised ‘kettling’ and some placed the blame on lack of public order training. The HMIC report even went so far as to criticise the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) guidance on public order policing as ‘out of date’.

The HMIC report was welcomed across the board. ‘Shaping the future of public order policing’, said ACPO. ‘A huge leap forward’ said Climate Camp. Among the proposals were:

• The Home Secretary should issue a national code of practice to ensure all 44 police forces deal with protest in the same way. The report found a wide variation in equipment and tactics used, as well as  divergences in their interpretation of the law.

• The government should introduce a set of ‘overarching principles’ to guide police on the use of force.

• The routine use of forward intelligence teams (FIT) who film, photograph and follow protesters, and store their information on databases should be reviewed.

• Public order training should be overhauled, with a ‘new emphasis on schooling the 22,500 officers trained for protests in communication and diplomacy rather than riot scenarios’.

• ACPO should be made more accountable.

In case anyone is impressed by this plethora of reporting and inquiring; surprised by the failure of ‘national codes of conduct’, ‘overarching principles’ or ‘new emphases’ to appear; or thinks that the British police are about to change their role with regard to political protest, several other facts should be remembered.

• Since G20, no police officer has been reprimanded or disciplined for failure to wear a police identity badge, despite promises that this would happen.

• Following a police conference to review strategy in December 2009, the police have confirmed that they will continue to use ‘kettling’, despite doubts about its legality.

• The violence used against demonstrators was not due to lack of training. The police squads acted in exactly the way they had been trained to act and their behaviour is intended to frighten demonstrators. Indeed the MPA inquirers who attended a public order training session described their shock at the violence.

• ACPO continues to receive a £9 million grant from the government to fund ‘three domestic extremism units’ to gather intelligence on political activists, or what they call ‘domestic extremists’. FIT surveillance teams continue with their spying activities.

• The immediate response to ‘citizen journalism’ which exposed the police conduct at G20 was a proposal to ‘embed’ journalists within police riot squads so that the police version of events is the one reported.

• The supposedly independent IPCC is still ‘investigating’ without any conclusions. Ian Tomlinson is set to join a long list of people killed by the British police without redress.

There is a connection between the G20 heads of state conference and the treatment of the demonstrators on 1 and 2 April 2009 that cannot be wished away. In order to deal with the global capitalist crisis, the ruling class has to attack the living standards of the working class, both in the advanced capitalist countries, and in the poor and oppressed nations in order to restore their profits and super- profits. Political dissent has to be crushed. That is why all the inquiries and reviews will not alter the nature of policing in Britain. The battle will go on.

Jane Bennett

* Readers will remember that similar deliberate lies were told in the wake of the killings of the Gibraltar Three, Harry Stanley and Jean Charles de Menezes. See FRFI 207, ‘Licence to kill’, February/March 2009.

FRFI 214 April / May 2010

 

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