Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Fighting the law...

With increasing age, I have noticed that, while I have somewhat more suspicion of the state, I have greater sympathy toward the police on an individual level. It's a strange feeling, and possibly a very idiosyncratic mix, I admit.

It so happens that I'm also currently working on a research project related to a rather heated debate about accusations of the misuse of police powers and allegations involving the erosion of civil liberties in an earlier period of British history. As a result of that combination, I have been following the recent accusations of police brutality surrounding the G20 protests in London a few weeks ago (my, how time flies) with some interest.

I should say the now expanding accusations of police brutality, as the Guardian has today offered a feature containing various videos of incidents of conflict between protesters and police.

Now, there are a lot of difficulties with interpreting some of these things: we only get snippets of information, we have only a limited view of the situation, a lot of context is missing, etc.


And, it should not be forgotten, there were a fair number of people out for trouble on that day -- am I the only left-of-centre person who's a bit tired of the 'black block' and their pointless destruction of banks and fast food restaurants? -- and that it is the police's job to keep a limit on that sort of thing.

I'm not exceptionally open to generalised 'fuck the police' kind of rhetoric.


And I'm also aware that 'police brutality' is a pretty relative term. Over the last few weeks, I've read a lot about American police methods in the early 20th century. Which has been...well, pretty chilling.

There are, also, some pretty extreme examples of that genre of behaviour around the world that make what happened (at least so far as we know so far) at the G20 look like playground fun.


But, still, I'm left wondering...

...what the fuck?

No, really: the Tomlinson case is bad enough, as were the attempts by a few tabloid papers to smear the man who was attacked -- from behind -- by police.

I don't care whether he'd had a few drinks or he hadn't taken the quickest route home, or wasn't getting out of the way of the police as quickly as they wanted him to.

I would see the right to have a few drinks and walk around the streets without being struck from behind by a state-sanctioned thug in a mask and body armour to be one of the essential things that is one of the great privileges of living in a Rechtsstaat and not some kind of hell-hole like...I don't know...Dubai. (Via Geoff.)

Had Tomlinson been attacking someone, ok.

Had he been seriously causing a danger to someone, ok.

However, and this sounds kind of obvious to me, the police should not have the power to beat us into acting according to their convenience. No matter how many annoying punk kids in hoodies they've had to endure on a given day.

Which brings me to the video released today (I think) of an encounter that occurred on the day after Tomlinson's death, apparently at some kind of memorial to him.

The Guardian doesn't seem to allow video embedding, but I'll wait while you go watch it. (I would suggest looking at it a few times to take in the details.)

If you read around the internet or look at the comments on YouTube videos of the event (which I'm not embedding because the quality isn't so good) you get a lot of the 'the bitch deserved it' kind of thing.

Which is pretty unpleasant. To say the least.

Watch it again: someone -- a guy with a newspaper -- tries to walk past the police cordon and is told he can't. He discusses the issue, seemingly, in a reasonable manner. The camera moves to someone else -- a guy with a camera -- who is also refused exit. (Presumably, this is the 'kettling' tactic that everyone is now talking about.)

The camera pans back and Man With The Newspaper, is now being shoved about by a few of the officers, for no good reason that I can see.

The crowd reacts as you might expect.

Then a short woman begins remonstrating with a police sergeant, who then backhands her, and the crowd reacts.

Again, as you might expect.

Or maybe you don't expect that.

Alright: maybe we're just different kinds of people with different kinds of attitudes to the arbitrary exercise of authority, but I have to say, there have been few times in my life that I have really wanted to hit someone, and one of them emerged in reaction to that cop's strike.

The police should not be authorised to respond to a some cheeky verbal bollocking by someone who is clearly not a threat to them by striking that person in the face and...then...batoning her in the legs after she, quite understandably, expresses (shall we say) her disapproval with the way she has been handled.

Even if you're of the persuasion to think that this screechy woman was an annoyance, think about this: how effective was the policing that you see on display in that video? Context is difficult, I know, and if new concrete evidence emerges, I'm happy to change my view.

But, please, those cops managed to turn what seemed to be a reasonably quiet protest into an enraged crowd in about thirty seconds through their physical overreactions to mild provocations.

And, in the end, dealing with being called a 'fascist' several hundred times in a day without striking out randomly is part of the job description. Being a public servant of this sort involves discipline, not the license to distribute some bruises wherever you happen to feel it worthwhile.

Of the various videos on offer at today's Guardian site (and, if I didn't know better, I'd be a bit disappointed at the fact that some of the other papers that go on about 'freedom' all the time when it involves health'n'safety regulations gone mad or a few too many EU regulations about banana shape have said little or nothing about this) I think one of the most telling involves no violence at all.

It's the one where (scroll down to '2 April, 3.46pm, junction of Royal Exchange Passage and Cornhill') a very friendly officer (at least initially, and, a confession: I've not been able to take British police entirely seriously since they started wearing fluorescent jackets all the time) tells a group of the press to leave the area for a while 'under section 14 of the Public Order Act' in order to help them 'resolve the situation'.

Questioned about what exactly it is they're going to do and how the absence of the press might make it easier, the officer turns to threats, suggesting that they could either follow his orders or 'spend the rest of the day in the cells'. When it is suggested that this just might constitute 'threatening the press' Officer Friendly offers sarcasm, and then further threats.

It's not a pretty scene.

But it's rather educational.

It's my humble view, perhaps not a widely shared one, that any policing in a free, constitutional state should be able to be done in the full light of day and press attention in order to remain legitimate. (With the possible exception of absolutely necessary undercover work required for dealing with, say, organised crime or terrorism, etc. I'm not naive.)

It strikes me that that is neither a controversial opinion, nor one that has much to do with 'left' or 'right'.

Or am I wrong?

I have to say, I'm not impressed with the Met and the City of London police on this occasion.

But I am becoming increasingly aware of the importance of cheap and ubiquitous video cameras.

1 comment:

Geoff Coupe said...

It's all very depressing and does not bode well for the future. I note that the cop who backslapped and batoned the woman did not have any identification on his shoulders.