The rightwing press has briefly turned against the police, but normal service will soon resume.
If a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged, a liberal is a conservative who has been twatted by the police. As the tabloids turn their fire onto an unfamiliar target – the unprovoked aggression of Her Majesty’s constabulary – the love affair between the cops and the rightwing press has never been more fragile.
The policing of the G20 protests at the beginning of this month was routine. Policemen hiding their identification numbers and beating up peaceful protesters is as much a part of British life as grey skies and red buses. Across 20 years of protests, I have seen policemen swapping their jackets to avoid identification, hurling people against vans and into walls and whomping old ladies over the head with batons. A friend had his head repeatedly bashed against the bonnet of a police van; he was then charged with criminal damage to the van. I have seen an entire line of police turn round to face the other way when private security guards have started beating people up. I have seen them refuse – until Amnesty International got involved – to investigate my own case when I was hospitalised by these licensed thugs (the guards had impaled my foot on a metal spike, smashing the middle bone).
But none of this featured in the conservative press. The story was always the same: we would stagger home after our peaceful protests were attacked by uniformed skinheads to discover that we were "Anarchist Thugs on the Rampage" whose attempt to destroy civilisation had been thwarted only by the calm professionalism of the police. Violent police action mutated into violent protests. The papers believed everything the police told them.
This began to change when the police foolishly attacked a Countryside Alliance march in 2004. In the spirit of impartial policing, the cops gave these reactionaries the treatment they had been doling out to generations of progressives. It was grotesque, disportionate and entirely familiar policing, but there’s a world of difference between bloodstained hemp ponchos and bloodstained tweeds. The exposure of the lies the police then told about the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes and the shooting of Mohammed Abdul Kahar made the newspapers – which had reproduced the official version – feel stung.
In other circumstances, Ian Tomlinson, the passer-by who died after being thrown to the ground by police, would have been treated by the press as a violent anarchist who had assaulted the road with his body. But video footage and disillusionment has changed that – for a few days at least. On Friday the front page of the Daily Express carried lurid pictures of the injuries sustained by a woman at the G20 protests, under the headline "Police Did This to Me: It was just like being whipped by the Taliban".
Yesterday the Daily Mail posted up a film made by climate camp activists(1). Its columnist Melanie Phillips, who is yet to be celebrated for her support of radical causes, opined that "there are always elements in the ranks [of the police] who want to give people a good kicking."(2) A column in the Telegraph explained that "there are individuals who join the police just because they like hitting people"(3), while the Spectator lamented the "disgraceful actions of a few Met officers"(4). Today’s Guardian poll suggests that the police are losing the wider battle for public opinion too.
The papers maintain that a few rogue officers got out of control. But as testimonies collected by Climate Camp’s legal team show, police violence at the G20 demos was organised and systematic(5). It is true that the police appear to have been carried away by testeria (a useful word which describes testosterone-fuelled male rampages). But this keeps happening, and senior officers make no attempt to prevent it.
Before the protests, the police fed stories to the media about terrorist plots hatched by G20 demonstrators(6). "We’re up for it and we’re up to it," Commander Simon O’Brien told the press(7). Organisers from Climate Camp asked if they could attend police briefings to journalists in order to put their side of the story. They were rebuffed. The police initially refused to meet them even to discuss the protesters’ intentions. The police plan was called Operation Glencoe: it was named after the site of a notorious massacre.
If the police at the G20 protests were pumped-up, testerical, itching for a fight, it was partly because their commanding officers have spent years blurring the distinction between peaceful campaigners and terrorists. Until recently, this strategy worked well: by turning quiet protests into angry confrontations, the police could show the public that unless they received ever greater powers and resources, the country would be overrun by violent mobs. Now it has backfired.
Don’t expect this momentary backlash to change anything. The police appear impervious to criticism. Just eight days before the G20 protests, the parliamentary select committee on human rights published a report on the policing of protests(8). It recommended that "counter-terrorism powers should never be used against peaceful protestors"; and that "the presumption should be in favour of protests taking place without state interference". The police ignored it. They used counter-terrorism powers to stop and search climate campers having supper at an Indian restaurant(9); they sought to prevent peaceful actions from taking place. Interestingly, they also appeared to allow a group of genuine rioters to break into a branch of RBS. This too is a familiar pattern: the police beat up peaceful protesters and stand by when vandals create some easy headlines for the tabloids.
The public revulsion towards the police lies about Mr de Menezes didn’t prevent them from attempting a similar cover-up over the death of Ian Tomlinson. Just as the furore over Mr Tomlinson reached its peak, the police again curtailed the right to protest when they pre-emptively arrested 114 people close to a power station(10). Their purpose was to impose sweeping bail conditions on the protesters, which will come in very handy when the decision to build a new coal-burning power station at Kingsnorth in Kent is announced. Yesterday the Guardian published evidence of collusion between the police and Kingsnorth’s operator, E.On(11).
The police behave like this, despite the opprobium of left and right, because they know they will get away with it. They know that the government won’t rein them in; that the Independent Police Complaints Commission eats out of their hands; that the sternest sanction an officer can expect for beating or killing a passer-by is some extended gardening leave. They know that in a few days’ time the rightwing press will revert to publishing stories about the anarchist baby-eaters seeking to turn Britain into a bloodbath.
But something else has changed in this country: the resolution of the protesters. Despite repeated assaults, they appear to become better organised and less afraid. That, so soon after Operation Glencoe, 114 people were prepared to risk arrest and another beating testifies to the resilience of this movement. These people know that protest is not a threat to democracy but its cornerstone. They know that the issues they contest outweigh any harm they may suffer. They know that getting beaten up is a sign that state has lost the argument.
5. The Climate Camp Legal Team, 18th April 2009. Demonstrating Respect For Rights?
The Policing Of The Climate Camp In The City On 1 April 2009. http://climatecamp.org.uk/themes/ccamptheme/files/report.pdf
8. House of Lords, House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights, 23rd March 2009. Demonstrating respect for rights? A human rights approach to policing protest. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/jt200809/jtselect/jtrights/47/47i.pdf
9. The Climate Camp Legal Team, ibid.
Published in the Guardian, 21st April 2009