The Tomlinson Affair: The Death of a Newspaper Seller Is Rocking a Policing Empire


The G20 Summit continues to reverberate through British politics over a week after a day of protests saw thousands of people take to the streets of London.

 

On April 1 2009, as thousands of those protesters sought to escape from a "kettle" erected by hundreds of riot police around Bank Square in London, one man died nearby. At first, it was thought that a protester had been killed by police, but this proved untrue. Many protesters were bloodied and bruised, but none died.

 

The reality is in some ways even more saddening. The dead man was a 47 year-old man, a recovering alcoholic who worked at a newspaper stand and loved football. Friends suggest that he was a kind man, an everyman of sorts – not a protester by any means. If his death was an accident, then it would be deeply tragic.

 

But Ian Tomlinson’s death was not an accident. It was a product of over the top, brutal, policing by a force which had been ordered to put down all dissent against the G20 Summit of global leaders being held in London. It is looking more and more like a case of manslaughter by the police, creating a whirlwind of scandal and humiliation around London‘s authorities which threatens to destroy their credibility and to disarm them of many of their cherished means of quashing protest.

 

In a way that protest organizers could not have anticipated, the affair has created a tidal wave of anger against the police.

 

Since Tomlinson’s death, the authorities have been in full retreat – all the while seeking to spin a narrative which downplayed the role of police in the newspaper seller’s death and framing it as a pure accident.

 

On the day of the protests, initial statements from the Metropolitan Police suggested that Tomlinson had died of a heart attack while walking home through the protests. According to a statement released shortly before midnight on April 1, police learned of Tomlinson’s collapse when "A member of the public went to a police officer on a cordon in Birchin Lane, junction with Cornhill to say that there was a man who had collapsed round the corner."

 

That was at around 19 15. Medics were then sent to the stricken man who lay in St. Michael’s Alley and had stopped breathing. It was then that officers "called for LAS [London Ambulance Service] support at about 1930" while "officers gave him an initial check and cleared his airway before moving him back behind the cordon line to a clear area outside the Royal Exchange Building where they gave him CPR."

 

The statement made the claim that "officers took the decision to move him as during this time a number of missiles – believed to be bottles – were being thrown at them" – which the Evening Standard newspaper expanded upon, alleging that bricks had been thrown at police medics tending to Tomlinson.

 

After being moved to the "clear area" ambulances arrived and transported him to hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival. There the statement ends.

 

The police also announced that a post mortem would be carried out on Mr Tomlinson to establish the cause of death and, by 3 April, the Press Association was reporting that City of London police had carried out the post mortem, finding that he had died "of natural causes" having suffered "a sudden heart attack while on his way home from work."

 

Before that examination could be concluded, however, the police released information about the dead man, naming him as Ian Tomlinson, and claiming that he had fallen victim to a heart attack.

 

Judging from the statements and medical examinations carried out by the police, on 3 April, Ian Tomlinson’s death continued to appear to be an accident. The 47 year-old newspaper vendor and father simply stumbled into a highly charged situation in which he panicked. In the melee which surrounded his collapse, medical aid was delayed by the crush of protesters and police, making a successful resuscitation far less likely.

 

With this narrative taking centre stage, many in the press continued to link Tomlinson’s death to riotous behavior by protesters. The police had claimed in their initial statement that medics had to move the dying man as bottles were being thrown and their safety had been endangered. This was spread widely in the press, not least by the Evening Standard newspaper, whose April 1 edition led with the headline "Wave of Violence Sweeps Across the City" while in its April 2 edition, the Standard also carried a two-page spread with the headline "Police pelted with bricks as they help dying man."

 

If left there, the death of Ian Tomlinson might have been blamed on the protesters who allegedly denied him effective treatment by intimidating police medics. It would also have exonerated police when allegations were emerging that they had sidelined first responders giving Mr Tomlinson first aid and, even more gravely, that Tomlinson had been confronted by police before his collapse.

 

Yet the account offered by the police is wrong on almost all counts.

 

The first evidence to suggest that the official narrative was incomplete or misleading came from postings on the Indymedia website, a news portal frequently used by activists to plan protest actions and disseminate information about violence against protesters.

 

A statement by witnesses entitled "Death at the G20" challenged the account being offered by the police in several respects. A group of students who witnessed Tomlinson’s collapse gave a much more detailed picture of what happened than the press had so far delivered. It was a picture which, instead of painting protesters as violent yobs, suggested that they had immediately organised to help the dying man, and had not unleashed a barrage of missiles against medics when they arrived.

 

One witness, for example, wrote that, after a police charge, "The woman giving first aid stood in the path of the crowd." When police arrived, the first aider and a fellow protester who was liasing with ambulance crews were elbowed aside. As witness Peter Apps put it, "they pushed her forcibly away from him. They refused to listen to her [the first aider] when she tried to explain his condition. The ambulance dispatcher wanted to talk to the police, the phone was being held out to them, but the police refused."

 

In conversation with this reporter, all four student witnesses maintained that the barrage of missiles was pure myth. Standing on Cornhill almost a week after Tomlinson’s death, Apps pointed out precisely where the man had collapsed – against the wall to 77 Cornhill. As Apps told me, "when the police arrived [they] formed around and pushed  [the activist speaking to the ambulance] off and then bang, you heard the bottle hit that Cornhill sign, and then everyone started shouting "stop," and then the bottles stopped." In the witnesses statement, Apps maintained that "it didn’t come close to the police" and "nothing was thrown afterwards."

 

Other witnesses agreed. A few plastic bottles had been lobbed at police. According to Elias Stoakes, for example, an empty lucozade bottle had hit a policemen on his back. But there had been no dangerous barrage of flying glass and certainly no bricks. Activists immediately turned and demanded that any throwing stop, which it did.

 

The witnesses’ statement also challenged the role that police played in assisting Mr Tomlinson. As noted above, police shoved aside those who were already assisting him, in the process cutting off contact with ambulance staff. As the initial first aid responder told me, although "they asked if I had seen him collapse" which she had, they demanded that she move along. While "the man who was on the phone to the ambulance had obviously been asked by the operator to speak to the police, but the police said that they were dealing with it, can you just move along."

 

Thanks to the Indymedia posting, and the formation of a group to publicize the testimony (g20witness@gmail.com) that it contained, the authorities were put on the back foot, and have been ever since. The day after the protests, as the G20 met in London‘s Docklands, hundreds of activists met in the City of London in protest against the death of Ian Tomlinson, which was looking increasingly less like an accident. Meanwhile, the Guardian picked up the story, giving pride of place to those featured in the Witnesses Statement, and has run with it ever since.

 

On 2 April, the paper reported that a photographer had captured Tomlinson "standing in front of a line of police dog handlers minutes before he fell over." As Jasper Jackson put it, "The picture I have of him is of him stumbling in front of the protesters and in front of the police dogs looking dazed."

 

The Guardian reported that "Pictures…suggest that Mr Tomlinson initially fell to the ground by a window of 11 Royal Exchange, outside the Mont Blanc shop, in front of five riot officers" – which was not where witnesses had placed his later collapse, while "Seconds later, he is seen walking past a line of police dogs."

 

It was becoming clear that the assertion that the dead man had simply suffered a heart attack was a half truth at best. As student Andy Bowman told the paper, police "officers were white as sheets…some of the officers were saying he had a blow to the head and some were saying he’d collapsed of a heart attack."

 

The confusion deepened a couple of days later when the Guardian reported the testimony of photographer Anna Branthwaite. Branthwaite told the paper that "I can remember seeing Ian Tomlinson. He was rushed from behind by a riot officer with a helmet and shield two or three minutes before he collapsed." Another witness, actor Amiri Howe, reported that he had seen Tomlinson "hit "near the head" with a police baton" while another unnamed female protester saw a man "hit the top front area of his head on the pavement. I noticed his fall particularly because it struck me as a horrifically forceful push by a policeman and an especially hard fall; it made me wince."

 

Evidence was mounting that Tomlinson’s death was far from accidental. Witnesses were queuing up to submit evidence to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which had been forced to open an investigation into the death, all of them challenging the version of events released by police in the immediate aftermath of April 1.

 

Pressure from activists and the press also appears to have swayed the IPCC (which has often been criticized for its weakness in standing up to abuses by police forces) to persist with its enquiries. As the Guardian reported on 4 April, after Tomlinson’s death "An IPCC statement was due to be released the same day and is understood to have portrayed the death as a tragic accident" but "the statement’s release was postponed as the complaints body received information that police officers may have been more involved in events than previously thought."

 

That is, pressure from witnesses, protesters and the press prevented the IPCC from executing a cover-up on behalf of the Metropolitan and City of London police forces. Instead, the complaints body shifted responsibility for the enquiry from the Metropolitan police to the City of London police.

 

But the pressure was increased still further on 7 April, when a video surfaced which clearly showed Ian Tomlinson being violently shoved and beaten on his legs by riot police in Royal Exchange Buildings, a passage which links onto Cornhill, some fifty feet from the site of his final collapse.

 

Yet further testimony from Anna Branthwaite suggested that the film did not begin to show the whole incident. As she wrote in a statement to police, "He was rushed from behind by one officer. I saw one riot police officer throw him to the ground and hit him twice with a baton. He was then scrambling to get to his feet and the officer continued to push and throw him forward."

 

Branthwaite also maintains that "the police are trying to say that it was mayhem. But it wasn’t. It was just pedestrians and a few protesters."

 

This contradicts the assertion by Peter Smyth, the Chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, that when, "On a day like that, where there are some protesters who are quite clearly hell-bent on causing as much trouble as they can, there is inevitably going to be some physical confrontation…Sometimes it isn’t clear, as a police officer, who is a protester and who is not."

 

According to Branthwaite and the other G20 Witnesses, it was quite clear who was protesting, and who was causing trouble. It wasn’t Ian Tomlinson, who Branthwaite maintains "was walking on the street away from the police with barely anyone around him when he was attacked from behind."

 

Moreover, and unfortunately for the IPCC, the video showed Tomlinson being pushed to the floor in front of a row of City of London police, with their distinctive red and white checked visors clearly visible. This has since led to the IPCC into a humiliating U-turn, ditching the City of London Police, taking responsibility for the investigation upon its own shoulders and ordering a second post mortem.

 

Since then, further footage has emerged via Channel 4 News, whose reporting team was manhandled by police on April 1. Its footage, which shows the same incident, clearly shows Tomlinson being beaten on the legs and then shoved violently to the floor. Its release, and the pressure generated by witness statements and protests, has led to the officer directly involved to come forwards to the IPCC for questioning.


But it is not just the individual officer who should be on trial.

 

From claiming that Ian Tomlinson had no contact with police officers, the authorities have been forced into defending themselves against charges of attacking a man who subsequently died. As ex-deputy commissioner of the Met Police, Brian Paddick puts it, "the officer seen striking Tomlinson could potentially face a charge of manslaughter, for which the maximum penalty is life imprisonment." But the whole force is on trial, and not just for the death itself.

 

Since April 1, London‘s police have distinguished themselves by a facility for misleading the public and seeking to insulate themselves from all responsibility for an innocent man’s death.

 

"An alternative narrative"

 

So what happened to Ian Tomlinson on the evening of 1 April 2009?

 

From eyewitness testimony, photographs and the video footage that are available to us, we can outline a fairly detailed narrative of how he came to die. It does not fit easily with that offered by the police, and much of the press, when the incident first occurred.

 

It’s likely that Tomlinson was trying to get to Bank station after leaving work with a newspaper seller near Monument Station, to the south of the protest site. To get to Bank, he would have to pass through the crowd of protesters and the police cordon which at that stage continued to pen them in. So Tomlinson would most likely have tried to pass through the cordon on Threadeneedle Street, perhaps passing through the short Royal Exchange Buildings passageway twice.

 

After meeting resistance from the police in Threadneedle Street, he would have been turned back. At this stage, if Anna Branthwaite is right, he was caught up in a sweep by riot police and dog handlers which passed through Royal Exchange Buildings. Branthwaite, from a vantage point at the junction of Threadneedle Street and Royal Exchange Buildings saw Tomlinson grabbed by a riot policeman, who pushed him forwards. At this point, Branthwaite saw him hit twice by police batons when on the floor before "the officer picked him up from the back, continued to walk or charge with him, and threw him."

 

The next we know, according to witness Kezia Rolfe, Tomlinson was seen to fall back suddenly in the middle of Royal Exchange Buildings. As Rolfe Put it, "It was as though he had been spun" causing him to fall and "hit the top of his head hard" where he lay for 30 seconds or more before being helped up by a protester. This is corroborated by Amiri Howe, who saw Tomlinson hit on the back of the head by a baton which "was like a pencil."

 

It is worth noting that this version of events has been distilled by the IPCC into one in which Tomlinson was seen "getting caught up in a crowd and being pushed back by police officers" but by this stage it seems that he had been assaulted twice by police.

 

But in the version offered by eyewitnesses, we now come to the moment captured on film. A riot policeman pushes Tomlinson forwards, hitting him around the legs and, possibly, on his neck, before lunging forwards and throwing him to the floor. As he doesn’t seem to spin or hit his head, this may constitute a third fall. Branthwaite had fled the police dogs by this point, which leaves a gap between her testimony and that of others who were not in Threadneedle Street. This should be a focus of the enquiry, which we are told, is looking at CCTV footage of Tomlinson in his journey across Royal Exchange Buildings.

 

After being pushed to the floor, Tomlinson was helped up by a protester again, and stumbled into Cornhill away from the main protest site. He travelled about thirty feet before collapsing against 77 Cornhill where he fell against the wall and to the floor. Witnesses of the collapse, however, have told me clearly that they did not see him hit his head hard against the wall or the floor and, when on the floor, he was still able to speak. As one witness told me, he said that he was fine three times. Tellingly, none of the witnesses interviewed by myself or the press have suggested that Tomlinson was clutching his chest or speaking about any symptoms of a heart attack. The witnesses that I spoke to on Cornhill, as we stood next to an improvised memorial to the dead man, expressed surprise that the police could be so sure that he had suffered a heart attack. One, a medical student, told me that "His breathing problems seemed to start after his level of conciousness deteriorated, not before" while the most obvious sign of his distress was spasms in his legs.

 

Any medical speculation is just that, however, speculation, but police cannot have offered no evidence that Tomlinson suffered a heart attack. Indeed, a workmate of Tomlinson has told the press that "Although Ian had his health issues, he had never had a heart attack before" and had even run a half marathon fairly recently.

 

Whatever the medical reality, eyewitness testimony suggests that Tomlinson did not receive the best medical care possible in the circumstances. In Cornhill, police refused to listen to those who were caring for him or speaking with ambulance crews, brushing them aside and forcing them to leave the area. After one bottle was thrown at the wall well above them, they claim to have moved the dying man, but eyewitnesses have not verified this. Visitors to the site would be surprised if he had been moved from 77 Cornhill into St Michael’s Passage, a distance of only ten yards, offering little more protection from missiles. In any case, the missiles were largely a myth. If Tomlinson was moved away from protesters, he was moved for reasons other than the security of police medics and the man himself.

 

This alternative account has emerged due to the pressure exerted by eyewitness accounts and the Guardian, which comes out of the story with huge credit. And it is an account which raises huge questions about policing in the United Kingdom. On a basic level, we need to know what happened between Threadneedle Street and Cornhill. How many times was Ian Tomlinson knocked down? Why did the police not help him up, and why did they attack him with such force?

 

It has been reported that the police who felled him were members of the Metropolitan Police’s Territorial Support Group (TSG). The TSG has been detailed by the government to use tasers in policing demonstrations. Indeed, in the days before April 1, police spokespeople talked about the deployment of special units armed with taser weapons, the first time that such an admission has been made before demonstrations in the UK.

 

Was Ian Tomlinson the victim of a taser attack?

 

Why did police summarily dismiss first responders with knowledge of Tomlinson’s condition? Did they know that a man had collapsed in front of them when, according to witnesses, they ordered a charge in that very direction? Where and why did they move him, and with what results for his condition?

 

Then there is the aftermath. How did the police judge that Tomlinson had died of a heart attack before a post mortem could be carried out? Why did they claim that he was moved due to a hail of missiles thrown by protesters when protesters had acted swiftly and in some cases courageously to protect his life? Why did they claim that Tomlinson died from natural causes and had no contact with police when the opposite is clearly true? Why is a second post mortem now needed? Why was the first one wrong, and who pressured the coroner into making their judgement?

 

These are specific, crucial questions, and the answers are likely to be damning. But the broader questions need to be asked as well. Kettling, for example, has been unmasked as dangerous to both protesters and public alike. The penning of thousands of people in confined spaces is guaranteed to result in anger and resistance, yet it is common practice in the UK. The energy created by the kettle in Bank Square generated the confusion and mayhem into which Ian Tomlinson stepped. Tens of others were also wounded by police batons and general violence as they sought to escape from their confinement.

 

But perhaps the biggest question of all is one that goes to the root of the problem. When will the police be brought to heel and made accountable to the people?

 

The IPCC has been shown to be little more than a tool of the authorities, by assigning those who committed an act of violence to investigate it. The police have continually secured greater powers – legally and through technological developments – to suppress protest. April 1 2009 showed graphically how a police force that is not accountable to the people becomes a law unto itself. Hundreds were brutalised, over 100 arrested, many were terrified and one man died.

 

The danger is that the officer involved in the beatings seen so far on film will become a scapegoat. "Senior police sources" have already briefed the press to prepare such a trial. As one told the Guardian, "There is no excuse for what he did…adding that at the very least he had committed a serious disciplinary offence and a criminal assault."

 

But as countless protesters and reporters have documented, beatings and intimidation were characteristic of the police tactics on April 1. The brutality of one masked thug was no accident. His bosses provided the excuses that allowed him to beat an unarmed man who was walking away.

 

The question then remains: Will the Tomlinson case bring reform to the British police?

 

Activists continue to press for justice for the family of Ian Tomlinson and for protesters who were caught in one of the UK‘s most heavy-handed policing episodes. On Saturday 11 April, they will be meeting outside Bethnal Green police station and marching to the Bank of England, while another demonstration will take place in Redditch, the constituency of the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith. 

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