Rising anger at police thuggery

Since the G20 protests three weeks ago, there has been a rising tide of protest against the thuggish behaviour of the police which was witnessed, and recorded, by demonstrators and some bystanders, particularly at the protest in the City. While the practice of penning demonstrators into the site of the protest for several hours after the event should have passed off has had its defenders, the videoed evidence that a man who died, allegedly of a heart attack, had been attacked by police officers without any provocation has caused outrage, and rightly so.

It’s reached the point where the front pages of several major newspapers, including the Daily Star and Daily Express, feature a woman who had been struck across the leg with a police baton at the demo, complaining that she looked like she’d been attacked by the Taliban (you can see the mark on that page, and it’s an angry mark). The Guardian has carried several letters two days running this week (here’s today’s), unusually without any attempt to “understand” the awful pressures the police are under, etc. Among the letters in yesterday’s collection was from a former Austrian tourist (former, because he says he’s never coming back) who complained that the police had stopped him taking pictures of buses, telling him that it was illegal to take pictures of anything involving transport (news to anyone who’s seen the many books containing nothing but pictures of buses in every branch of Smith’s) and forced him to delete them. This is quite credible, because the pages of photography magazines in the UK, such as Amateur Photographer, have contained letters complaining of being stopped by the police or private security guards for taking pictures in public places.

The New Statesman had a four-page feature, entitled Public Enemy Number One, which points out the similarities with the De Menezes slaying in 2005, including the fact that the police tried to spin a web of lies immediately after the incident, alleging that they were pelted with bottles and other missiles as they attempted to save his life; in reality, it was members of the public who tried to save his life as the police, some of them masked and with numbers hidden (their numbers are supposed to be display in silver figures on their shoulders, so that they can be identified; having them hidden often means they are up to no good), stood over him and did nothing. With De Menezes, the news reports featured some flack telling the public that the victim had a puffy jacket with wires coming out of it (he did not have a jacket on at all), among other untruths.

Part of the feature is an article condensed from an interview with a teacher who became a policewoman, but quit after just weeks in the job. She found that the police treated those they thought low-class with contempt, in one case taking a teenager arrested for trying to steal a car, who had already been handcuffed and was on the floor, and throwing him into a van; when this officer complained, she was ostracised. She found senior male officers treated both female police officers and members of the public, such as rape victims, with similar contempt, and heard it said of someone who had died of an overdose, “one down, a thousand to go”.

A common theme in deaths at the hands of the police is the impunity. Not only do police officers not get punished in the courts for these killings; there is usually not even a trial at all, nor even job losses, as was scandalously the case in the De Menezes case, in which politicians seemed to be falling over backwards not to blame the police. Politicians have made a point of appearing to support the police, again and again, even when they are clearly in the wrong, and have usually increased their powers rather than restraining them. The popular press has colluded, railing against the Macpherson report, published after the killing of a young black man in south-east London in 1992, claiming that “political correctness” was impacting morale in the police. When Jon Gaunt rant the morning talk show on BBC London, I recall listening to complaints about police discriminating against white men in recruitment. On (at least) one occasion, the white-sounding male caller said that a senior officer had had a word in his ear after his son had been turned away, telling him that if his son was another colour, he would have been admitted.

The police are treated with a tenderness not afforded to other professions. The way the tabloids howled until Sharon Shoesmith, the former director of children’s services in Haringey, the north London borough where “Baby P” was murdered by his family after having been known to staff in her department, you would have thought the staff had killed him rather than simply not doing enough to protect him. I’ve personally lost an agency driving job for telling a noisy kid to shut up. This past week, a nurse was struck off for secretly filming inside a hospital, where she witnessed filthy conditions and general bad practice at a hospital; another nurse, interviewed on a Channel 4 programme two weeks ago, expects to be struck off using the hospital computers and email addresses for eBay during lengthy idle periods at work. A few years ago, a woman who was dying of a gunshot wound inflicted by her husband, who had then shot himself, was left to die by the police because they imagined that it was all a ruse to get the police into the house so that the husband could shoot them. The family took the police to court, and lost.

I find the obvious differences between the police behaviour at the G20 protests and that at other demonstrations, such as the anti-war or pro-Palestinian marches, or the Tamil vigil at Parliament Square (after the Westminster Bridge occupation was over) interesting. Despite the smaller sizes, the police have a record of being much more heavy-handed, even with peaceful demonstrators. Why is this? Well, part of the reason is that the green and anti-capitalist protest movements have a history of real direct action rather than just protest and that gains for them would mean real losses for powerful interests and disruption to everybody’s way of life, but its participants are also easy to dismiss as “trustafarians” — middle-class people, even products of public schools, running around and playing at revolution. The ridicule persisted until after the protests, when it became obvious that the man who was killed was the opposite - a City paper seller who no doubt shared none of the protestors’ politics. It would be an enormous public relations disaster for the police to be seen laying into Muslim demonstrators, or even Tamil ones, on YouTube.

Sadly, I suspect that this thuggish behaviour of the police has been receiving all this attention and protest because white, middle-class people have realised that they are targets now as well: the victims were a shambolic, middle-aged white man and a pretty young white woman, not a stereotypical aggressive black person (male or female). It is, of course, not news to black and Asian people that some of our police are thugs. This is not the only recent scandal involving bad policing — remember that we have had two big controversies about lackadaisical investigation of rape in London in the last month and a half — and one might hope that they lead to serious reforms of the way the police are investigated and how they operate, and an end to the culture of impunity. However, some of those crowing right now did not complain much when the police were harassing black men in the streets and left “their people” alone, and will not complain if they forget about “political correctness” and go back to their old ways.

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