Sunday, April 19, 2009

"the lie of Authority"

posted by k

I hesitated to post about the policing of the G20 protests in London. I wasn't there. But for once it was possible to follow the confusion and complexity of what happened through press reports. The Guardian's live blog, using Twitter, was particularly helpful as it gave brief reports with times as the events happened.

Watching from my laptop, it seemed to me that the policing was sprodaically more violent than it needed to be from the very beginning of the protest. The attack on RBS, initially by a single protestor (against protests from at least one fellow-demonstrator) and then by a small group, was puzzling.

RBS is currently the most unpopular bank in the country because of the arguments about the pension of its previous boss Sir Fred Goodwin (Fred the Shred). There had been an attack on his home and some of his cars and newspapers and journals all over the world were suggesting that banks and bankers were in danger. So why wasn't the RBS building in the city of London boarded up, like all the neighbouring shops and offices, during the G20 demonstrations? It's as though someone wanted a nice, photogenic attack on a bank.

Looking at photos of the event, I'm struck by how few people were involved in the attack on the bank. There's a crowd of demonstrators, press and photographers simply watching and recording what is going on. The attack on the bank was plainly not the action of the majority of demonstrators. It could probably have been stopped by the police at the very beginning - but it wasn't.

Publicity before the event may have suggested there would be violent protests and that bankers would be in danger. The call to "hang the bankers" was plainly understood as a joke and there were similar jokes from city employees. As in previous years, city workers waved bank notes at the protestors.

But everything began to turn nasty. There was a report of a man dying of a heart attack, rescued by heroic police as anti-capitalist demonstrators pelted them with bottles. That report came from the police and it turned out to be a lie. A series of videos showed the man, Ian Tomlinson, being pushed by the police and hit with a baton. He was attacked by a one of a group of police who were masked and had removed their identification numbers. It was a group of demonstrators, including a medical student, who went to his rescue and they were initially told by police to go away. The latest post mortem suggests that the cause of death was the police attack on Ian Tomlinson. As for the thrown bottles, one account suggested that a single plastic bottle might have been thrown before all the demonstrators realised that someone needed urgent help. The Guardian's collection of witness statements gives a better idea of what happened than any single source can provide.

Usually demonstrators aren't taken seriously when they talk about police conduct. When I was held in a pen by the police some years ago (there were 75 of us on an anti-war demo and 200 police), the police initially denied both the numbers involved and the length of time we'd been held. It was a shame for them that they also penned in the editor of a small local paper.

This time, the demonstrators had cameras which recorded events. And, although press photographers were sometimes told to move away and stop filming, they had pictures and video footage too. Again, the Guardian has led the way in assembling video evidence and posting it on the newspaper's website. Other newspapers have also commented on the way the protests were policed and on the death of Ian Tomlinson. This was just as well as the initial reports said that there was no police film and no CCTV footage. The Police Complaints Commission has now admitted that this was untrue.

Although between 1 in 25 and 1 in 50 of the British population took part in demonstrations against the Iraq war, the advance publicity about the G20 demonstrations has led to mistrust of the demonstrators. It's worth reading what they have to say. It's also helpful to look at the film of the Climate Camp to understand what most of the demonstration was like and how the police caused most of the violence. I found the video in the Daily Mail which is emphatically not a left-wing paper nor a supporter of the protests.

The conclusion of the video, in which the police attack the protestors, suggests that the police aren't "out of control," as is often suggested. When I see the police at demonstration or at railways stations on football match days, they are wearing earpieces so that they can receive orders and act in a co-ordinated way. It seems to me that the police are very much "under control" - and that is much more frightening.

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