Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Police violence against the peaceful majority of student protesters and passers-by should be punished too - they shouldn't be above the law

Student protesters have come in for a great deal of criticism in the media lately, but a lot of it has been less than balanced – with a ridiculous fixation on the relatively minor incident involving Prince Charles and Camilla. The minority of protesters who have made serious attacks on police, for instance throwing snooker balls, often causing serious injuries to officers, will get little sympathy and will likely get jail sentences. However the majority of non-violent protesters are not responsible for the actions of this minority – and, with a few exceptions, too little attention has been paid to the continuing and increasing instances of random police violence against non-violent protesters and passers-by, which so far follow a long established pattern of police being above the law. This too often turns the police uniform from what it should be – and still is when worn by many decent officers – a uniform whose wearers uphold the law and only act in self-defence or defence of others – to a shield which allows those who have let power go to their heads, or who want to be able to attack others without consequence, to be immune to prosecution for their actions.

 “Kettling” for short periods to identify and arrest those responsible for violence or serious criminal damage may be legitimate. However when extended for long periods - up to 7 hours in sub-zero temperatures in London recently and in the G20 protests, it becomes effectively illegal detention without trial (1).

Non-violent protesters like Alfie Meadows, seriously injured last week by a baton strike to the head, have been attacked by police for no apparent reason. Meadow’s life was only saved by an ambulance crew refusing to cave to police pressure and 3 hours of brain surgery. Meadow only survived because his mother was nearby and both had mobile phones. She said she remembered the Blair Peach death and knew he needed treatment fast. Meadows’ mother said that despite police claims that they would allow clearly peaceful protesters to leave the police were “The police had been very violent all day. Whoever was trying to get out, they weren't allowing them.”. Police initially refused to allow a Professor to accompany Meadow out of the “kettling” to get an ambulance; and tried to turn the ambulance carrying him away from the nearest hospital , as police were also being treated there (2) – (4).  This was illegal and suggests an unacceptable attitude among some police that all protesters, peaceful and violent, are the enemy in a war.

Passer-by Ian Tomlinson, who wasn’t even a protester but trying to go home from work, died after repeated assaults by the same police officer during “kettling” in the G20 protests, seen by witnesses and recorded on video, with his attacker never charged (5) – (6). The officer will face a disciplinary hearing held by the Metropolitan Police, but such hearings usually lead to all charges being dismissed (two examples later) (7). 

Police have continued to sweep up passers-by along with journalists and non-violent protesters in “kettling” the recent student protests in London and in many cases to attack them with batons and mounted charges and even refuse them medical treatment (8) – (10).

For instance Guardian journalist Caroline Davies emailed a colleague on the first day of the protests in London saying that another journalist, Shiv Malik, had told her the following

The crowd surged in an attempt to break through the police line, and I was caught on the same side as the police but facing towards them with the fence behind me. The fence came right up to the police line. The police started to push back then they started using their batons on protesters. I was caught then and pushed up towards the front. I ducked, my glasses were knocked off my face so I was trying to hold them. Then, basically, a baton strike came to the side of my face and then onto the top of my head. Directly onto the crown of my head.  I felt a big whacking thud and I heard it reverberating inside my head. I wasn't sure whether I was bleeding or not. I moved off to the side and asked a police officer if I was bleeding. But he just said 'Keep moving, keep moving". Then I put my hand to the top of my head and looked at my palm and I could see there was blood everywhere. I then asked another police officer, who was wearing a police medic badge, if he could help me. And he told me to move away as well and told me to go to another exit.’ (11).

Witnesses and a video also seem to show police dragged a disabled protester from his wheelchair and struck him and others trying to stop them with batons (12).

When some police are placed above the law public safety is lost. When police killed protester Blair Peach in 1979 through a baton strike to the head, no-one was ever tried. When a joint police and British military intelligence operation killed Brazilian electrician Jean Charles De Menezes due to stunning carelessness and disorganisation – and police spokespeople churned out a series of rapidly disproven lies to try to justify the action - no-one even lost their job. Metropolitan Police Chief Sir Ian Blair later resigned over a dispute with Mayor Boris Johnson (13) – (14).

When 6 foot plus, body armoured, police officer Sergeant Delroy Smellie was approached by 5 foot tall protester Nicola Fisher at a vigil for Ian Tomlinson, he turned, first told her to go away, then , as she continued to argue with him, hit her twice with his hand and then took out his baton and struck her hard across the leg with it twice – all caught on video (15). Whatever your view of whether Fisher was justified in haranguing or challenging him or not Smellie’s response was un-necessary, violent and in no way defence of himself or anyone else. Yet his force and a District Judge both decided he had no charges – criminal or disciplinary to face.

Another officer, caught on CCTV video dragging a female prisoner across the floor of a police station before picking her up and throwing her face down onto the floor of a cell, causing injuries and bleeding to her face, was similarly cleared of all charges on appeal after being convicted at his initial trial (16).

We can’t afford to let police forces, judges or politicians misguidedly protect a minority of thugs within police ranks the way the upper hierarchy of the Catholic Church has protected paedophile priests – and make no mistake, a minority of those who join the police do so in order to abuse that position and hurt people, just as with those paedophiles who become priests or teachers or nursery staff for the same reason. If we do the rot will spread and we will risk a police state. Police forces only enhance public safety when they are strictly required to obey the same laws they enforce.

There are police who uphold the law and only use force when there’s no other option, proportionate to that used by others - and only in self-defence or the defence of others, often in the face of provocation, threat, or attacks which can or have caused serious injuries. They deserve our full support and respect.

However those who lash out at random – or because they think they can make violent attacks themselves, shielded from prosecution by their uniform – should be charged, tried and sentenced like any other suspect– and expelled from the force if found guilty. The latter are unfortunately too common, largely because politicians, judges and senior police officers are often so biased or so fearful of being seen as “soft on crime” or as “not supporting the police” that they will not uphold the law when police officers break it – even when deaths result.

We should not always place the blame solely on the lowest ranks either. Politicians and senior police officers making strategic and tactical decisions must bear responsibility for some of the results of those decisions.

Governments and big parties also give seemingly unconditional support to police most of the time for another reason – they rely on the police to crush opposition to their policies, especially when, as is often the case, those policies benefit a minority at the expense of the majority or a larger minority (usually the poorest and those on middle incomes). The police, granted secure jobs by the state, have a traditional alliance with the government in crushing the poor and the newly unemployed when the government sacks public sector employees and cuts benefits for the poor, the unemployed and the disabled.  In the 1980s the main target were the miners. In the 1990s, poll tax resisters.

Many people who witnessed the trouble at the student protests at Millbank, when student protesters occupied Conservative Party headquarters and smashed windows, believe that either the police were hugely incompetent in their estimates of likely demonstrator numbers and so police numbers required ; or else they were sending the Coalition government a subtle message – don’t keep threatening us with cuts along with the rest, because you’ll need us to protect you from public anger against those cuts.

(Only a few dozen students cheered the idiot who dropped the fire extinguisher – with the majority on the ground booing at the dropping of it and chanting “stop throwing shit” (16))

Nor has the Coalition delivered on it’s claims to be restoring civil liberties. Instead anti-terrorism police, who might have been better focusing on actual threats, have questioned a 12 year old schoolboy for attempting to organise a picket of David Cameron’s constituency offices to protest the planned closure of their youth centre. It’s not clear whether the police were acting on the orders of some superior or member of government or on their own initiative.


(1) = guardian.co.uk 10 Dec 2010 ‘Being kettled was a shocking experience’, by Jaqui Karn,

(Karn is a researcher on crime ethnography whose work has been published by the London School of Economics –http://www.willanpublishing.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=1843921952 )

(2) = Kingston Guardian 10 Dec 2010 ‘Kingston professor says protester with serious injuries was "hit by police"’,

(3) = Independent 10 Dec 2010 ‘Police investigate truncheon attack’,

(4) = Observer 12 Dec 2010 ‘Police officers 'tried to stop hospital staff treating injured protester'’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/dec/12/police-injured-protester-hospital

(5) = Guardian 07 Apr 2009 ‘Video reveals G20 police assault on man who died’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/apr/07/video-g20-police-assault (also gives eye-witness statements contradicting the Metropolitan police’s initial version of events which was reproduced in many newspapers)

(6) = Guardian 22 Jul 2010 ‘Ian Tomlinson death: police officer will not face criminal charges’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/jul/22/ian-tomlinson-police-not-charged

(7) = guardian.co.uk 27 Jul 2010 ‘Ian Tomlinson death: police officer faces disciplinary hearing’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/jul/27/ian-tomlinson-death-paul-stephenson

(8) = Guardian 27 Nov 2010 ‘Letters : Police kettling stirs the pot of student unrest’,
http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/nov/27/police-kettling-stirs-student-unrest (see 1st, 3rd and 4th letters)

(9) = guardian.co.uk 10 Dec 2010 ‘Being kettled was a shocking experience’, by Jaqui Karn,http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/dec/10/kettled-shocking-experience

(Karn is a researcher on crime ethnography whose work has been published by the London School of Economics –http://www.willanpublishing.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=1843921952 )

(10) = Guardian 26 Nov 2010 ‘Student protests: Met under fire for charging at demonstrators’,

(11) = Guardian News Blog ‘Student protests – as they happened’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/blog/2010/dec/09/student-protests-live-coverage ; see entry for 4.31 p.m

(12) = East London Lines 10 Dec 2010 ‘Disabled journalist describes “violent” police as opponents of tuition fee rise vow to fight on’, http://www.eastlondonlines.co.uk/2010/12/disabled-journalist-speaks-out-about-violent-police-as-dust-settles-on-student-demonstration/

(13) = see this article on my website and the source links at the bottom of it, http://www.duncanmcfarlane.org/menezes

(14) = BBC News 17 Aug 2005 ‘Police shooting - the discrepancies’, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4158832.stm

(15) = Independent 17 Jun 2009 ‘No disciplinary action for G20 assault case officer’, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/no-disciplinary-action-for-g20-assault-case-officer-2003173.html

(16) = guardian.co.uk 18 Nov 2010 ‘Police sergeant cleared of assaulting woman suspect in custody’,

(17) = New York Times 10 Nov 2010 ‘Video of Student Protests in London’,

1 comment:

calgacus said...

The officer caught on CCTV dragging a woman across a police station floor and throwing her face down onto a cell floor has been sacked, so some justice has been done in that case - well done to those who sacked him.