Thursday 2 April 2009

Police run amok in the City

One day on, I’m still angry about the conduct of the police in the Square Mile and I’m reminded of a quote by George Orwell, who wrote “whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.” The police revelled in their apparent invincibility on the streets during yesterday’s protests and at times were out of control. It certainly looked that way to many protesters.

I cycled up to Liverpool Street and headed over to take a look at events at the Bank of England, having planned to attend the Climate Camp protest on Bishopsgate. I’m glad I managed to get away just before the imposition of the police tactic of the ‘kettle’, which amounts to imprisonment in a contained space for hours on end, without food or water or any of the formalities of arrest. As soon as people tried to leave and were refused, it was almost inevitable that tensions would rise, which from what I saw was what a number of the riot cops were itching for. Reports in today’s rightwing newspapers have praised the police, unsurprisingly, but even the liberal press have trotted out nonsense like the laughable ‘protest tourism’ of Deborah Orr in the Independent and the claim, by the idiotic Sandra Laville in the Guardian, that the Met are “said to be among the best public order officers in the world” – by whom? And the ‘best’ at what, shutting down legitimate protest?

Over at the amazing Climate Camp, it felt relatively calm for most of the afternoon, despite the surly aggression of the police officers in the boiler suits who clearly felt they had drawn the short straw as they stood at either end of the occupied road outside the European Climate Exchange. Sadly the calm didn’t last: from around 7pm, riot police violently attacked the camp, injuring many who had been engaged in peaceful protest and once again refusing to allow anyone to leave the area. As the police advanced, Climate Campers held up their hands and chanted “peace not violence”, but it didn’t do any good – the police waded in with their batons. See the following footage of the violence of the police:

I hope that police tactics will come under greater scrutiny over the coming weeks, not least because of the shocking news of the death of a protester caught by in the ‘kettle’ near the Bank of England. This has been referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, for what little that is worth, whilst the police have already spread smear stories saying they were attacked when providing assistance to the injured man, which have been contradicted by eye-witnesses. As anyone who recalls the aftermath of any death involving police contact will know, lying seems to be the standard police procedure in these circumstances. But if the police get away yet again with their decision to treat all and any protester as violent and dangerous, there are a number of major potential consequences for any demonstration that doesn’t involve a stroll from Embankment to Hyde Park along a prescribed route.

Firstly, the prospect of creating anything like the carnival atmosphere of peaceful opposition and freedom of expression that existed at Climate Camp, or briefly outside the Bank of England, will have been taken away, perhaps forever. As a result, future protests are likely to be less collective and coordinated, more autonomous, aiming to ensure they are more difficult to cordon off and control. That’s fine for the committed activists but uncertainty about protest plans and the fear of violence from the police – the only genuine fear felt by most people yesterday – risks making people think twice about exercising their right to protest in any manner other than one ‘approved’ by the state.

Moreover, if non-violence protest is routinely met with beatings, intimidation and harassment, then what point is there in chanting “peace not violence” when no-one cares and no-one is listening? What incentive is there, if fact, not to forcefully defend yourself? At the moment, I’m not so sure that is such a bad idea, even though I have never been comfortable with violence. I certainly saw the breaking of a few windows at a Royal Bank of Scotland branch yesterday as staged for the scrum of photographers. But if hundreds of police officers square up with their shields and their batons hoping to batter a few scruffy hippies and instead get a bloody good kicking, isn’t that bully’s justice? Why should those prepared to exercise their right to self-defence deserve condemnation rather than praise? To misquote a statement that is often also attributed to Orwell, could it be that “people can protest peaceably in their streets only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf”?

Our police ‘service’ should remember that whoever is winning at the moment can change. There’s nothing inevitable about invincibility and if you assume that every protester is violent and dangerous, one day you may well turn up to repress another protest and find out your prejudices have come true.

If that happens, yesterday’s events in the City will start to look like... well, a peaceful picnic on Bishopsgate...

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