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Wednesday, April 08, 2009 

Accidental death of a non-protester.

Both Shuggy and Chris Dillow are right in pointing out that the police treatment of Ian Tomlinson was far from shocking, as some others have claimed. If anything, the officer who violently pushed him over when there was no need whatsoever to do so was taking part in some of the less dangerous action with the protesters that day. As long as Tomlinson didn't hit his head, and from the video it seems that he didn't, a push like that is only likely to result in grazed or cut knees and hands, along with the temporary shock that comes from being bundled over when you're not expecting it. The cracking of heads which other officers were engaged in all day, causes far more potential for concern. If however you have a weak heart, as it seems Tomlinson did, the sort of altercation which he was involved in with the police can quite easily lead to the complications which he seems to have subsequently suffered.

The entire slow emergence of what actually happened as opposed to the police version of events is also not shocking; rather wholly predictable, following the same pattern as that of earlier events where the police have been involved in inflicting either serious injuries or even death on completely innocent bystanders. The first obvious example is Jean Charles de Menezes, where the misinformation if not outright lies which emerged from the Metropolitan police before leaks from the Independent Police Complaints Commission inquiry established that much of their story was entirely false. Confusion and different accounts of what happened are always likely to be the order of the day to begin with, and we should expect that over time that the story will change. Once the police realise however that their original statements about what happened are inaccurate, they should be quick to correct them. This was what they completely failed to do in the case of de Menezes, hence the continuing myths that he had run from the police and had leapt the barriers, amongst others. It's hard not to conclude that half of the reason why the police fail to do this is because they know full well that first impressions and reports colour people's attitudes and are hard afterwards to shift, meaning that those who defend them will have a far easier job. They must have known full well, for instance, that they had not been showered with missiles, let alone "bricks", as the Evening Standard had it while they tended to Tomlinson; as video has subsequently showed, at most two bottles were thrown in their general direction, and the protesters quickly demanded that be stopped. Equally, some of the officers must have known full well that Tomlinson had at least been pushed, if not further assaulted before or after then as others are also alleging. Instead all we heard was that his death was "natural causes", and even up until 6pm yesterday the BBC was still denying that there was any news in his death whatsoever, treating the Guardian footage as a parochial "London" story.

Perhaps even more instructive though as to how far the police will go in denying their involvement in occasionally brutal tactics is the treatment that was meted out to Babar Ahmed when he was arrested. Medical examination showed quite clearly that he had been seriously assaulted despite putting up no resistance, but the Met completely denied any wrongdoing, right up until six years later in the High Court when the commissioner had to shamefacedly admit what had happened so that the officers themselves did not have to give evidence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the officers involved had a cache of complaints made against them, overwhelmingly from Asian and black men, the letters of which had mysteriously gone missing. None of the officers involved appears to have been disciplined.

Nice as it would be to establish a complete pattern, it still doesn't entirely fit. For while the policing at last Wednesday's protest was almost inevitable after the police themselves and the media had repeatedly hyped up the idea there would be violence, at other demonstrations it has been a different story, possibly because of the short notice the police have had of them rather than actual tactical differences. The Gaza protests in January for example were for the most part poorly policed, as well as poorly organised, as clearly no one had expected the numbers which turned up, and the disorder which happened could have been nipped in the bud if the police had stepped in sooner to arrest the troublemakers, for which they would have had overwhelming support to do. At the continuing Tamil protests in central London, the police yesterday foolishly rushed in to confiscate flags which they claimed were emblems of the Tamil Tigers, a proscribed terrorist organisation, when they were instead the normal Tamil flag. On the Gaza protests, the flags of Hizbullah, Hamas and some even claimed al-Qaida were swung, draped over backs and flown with no such intervention from the police. The lack of consistency is striking, and it has to be assumed that the police do what they do when they can get away with it and when they can't they fall back. Tamils it seems are easier targets than potentially hot head young Muslims.

Once you have stripped everything away, the responsibility for the policing of the protests does not however fall on the heads of the cops themselves: it rests with the state, or the government, itself. The practice of kettling, of riot police attacking protesters who were either sitting down or involved in the entirely peaceful Bishopgate climate camp is not just down to the police hierarchy but to the politicians who authorise or even encourage such tactics. As Shatterface pointed out last week on Liberal Conspiracy, during the 80s the left routinely referred to the police as Thatcher's shock or storm troopers. That applies just as much today if not more so, except now they're New Labour's first line of defence. Can the casual deprivation of liberties and the right to protest, such as the continuing ban on demonstrations within a mile of parliament really be separated from the actions of the police last Wednesday and across the country over the last few years? Last Wednesday was just the most visible demonstration of the contempt for the right to protest which has continued to develop. Those watching the scenes, whether of the lone band of idiots who smashed up the RBS branch or of those bleeding from their heads after accidentally coming into contact with police batons will have only taken one message from such pictures: that registering your anger in such a way is wrong, and that if you continue to do so regardless of that fact, then you've only got yourself to blame if you're left with a few bruises. Those who might have wanted to do something similar will have been deterred by the deprivation of liberty they would have undergone, unable to leave when they wanted to, and likely to be hit if they looked as though might be about to do something that they police arbitrarily decide is verboten. For both the government and police, it's a win-win situation.

The one very weak bright spot to take from the emergence of the video showing what happened to Tomlinson is that it has fatally undermined the supposed ban on taking photographs and video of police officers. No one can now argue that such measures are necessary when without such material the truth would have never been exposed. True, it won't stop individual officers from continuing to demand that material be wiped, but such abuse of power is still likely to be given short shrift. The video should also put pay to the idea that protesters with masks are inevitably up to no good; if they are, then the police who cover their faces, as Tomlinson's attacker did, should be subject to the same scrutiny. There needs to be a full, independent inquiry before blame is apportioned, but the Met is once again looking like scoundrels and blackguards, simply because it and the government can neither tell the truth or explain their true motives.

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Perhaps...though I feel that those stating that this isn't shocking are indulging in the political form of "I listened to this band when they were underground, man".

It isn't shocking to those that already had their doubts about our authorities, that already didn't believe what was said, and didn't believe the establishment would change. For those of us that believed in one or more of the above it is shocking.

And that's a good thing, more people shocked, outraged, and making a fuss the better. Much better than not being shocked and not making a fuss, eh? ;)

I hope no-one is reading this anymore, as it was written immediately after the event and much more evidence has come to light about how tomlinson was treated, and the fact he did not die from a heart attackm which is all that had been reported at the time this was written.

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