The right to police

The events of 1 April this year and the G20 protests seem to have produced a very difficult dilemma for the Metropolitan Police, both in terms of their handling of the very protests themselves, and within the follow-up enquiries into their methods of containing such movements. The handling of the protests, the way in which the police acted with unreasonable force – given the numbers involved and the generally peaceful attitude of the majority of the protestors – has been widely criticised. And yet, all of this appears to be somewhat a trial by the media; mobile-phone cameras have snapped moments of hotheadedness by the police, within what was sure to be a stressful environment, and these moments could be mere drops in the ocean given the numbers involved within the movements throughout the G20 protests. The ‘Youtube culture’, where everyone now has the power to freely and easily distribute footage, has certainly produced some damning evidence, but several questions remain to be begged. First of all, it is questionable whether the police acted with unreasonable or even uncharacteristic force – previous clashes demonstrating far greater rates of violence. Secondly, it would be worth examining whether there is an ethos of brutality within the riot police, and finally, whether new tactics are required for dealing with protest movements which safely contain, but do not impinge on our right to protest.

{{ quote It would be a harsh assessment to damn the entire police operation on the day }}

It would be, I think, generally accepted that any large protest movement will have hangers-on who attend merely for the opportunity to vandalise, destroy and fight the police. On and around the day, news programmes televised frequent sound-bites from hooded and masked youths, who professed this to be their sole intention for attending, and as a result, an equipped and prepared police force is something of a prerequisite for this kind of demonstration. It is true that the G20 demonstrations were intended as peaceful and, given the figures of arrests and unrest, this would seem to have been, generally speaking, the case. Yet this is, and can never be the whole story, and it would be naïve to train a police force to believe that the protesting masses outnumbering them fundamentally have noble and peaceful intentions. In order to effect a wide scale protest, protest leaders must accept any and everyone who ask to join to their cause, whatever their personal motives for attending. This, complete with its fundamental and inherent dangers, is the reason why a strong police presence was and will always be wholly necessary for the G20.

That said however, the three separate incidents of, at least in the case of Ian Tomlinson, unprovoked violence would perhaps point to some innate desire within the police force to attack the protesters who face them. It is undeniably tragic that Mr. Tomlinson, himself not even involved in the protests, was killed in a moment of unwarranted aggression, and it is almost certain that the officer involved, breaking regulations in hiding his identification numbers acted wilfully and deliberately, though probably not with the intention to kill. These three unrelated incidents of demonstrators being attacked by police officers would be condemned as brutal by any reasonable person, but I believe it is important not to lose sight of two facts, first of all, that these are exactly three unique incidents amongst a crowd of over five thousand, and second of all, that policing tactics for protests in the UK are far less severe than those employed on the Continent. Whereas water-cannon, rubber bullets and shots in the air are used frequently to disperse protests which have, or have the capacities for going sour, policing here appears to rely much more strongly on the ideas of containing protests. This is not to say that the tactics employed on 1 April were perfect – but that they were less reactionary and less extreme than contemporary incidents elsewhere in Europe, and most importantly, they have the capacity to be improved.

Yet, and in this case there is strong evidence in its favour, policing tactics have been one of the biggest dilemmas facing the heads of the Met at present. There have been reports of large waves of police officers charging protesters in an intimidatory fashion, and – as with the examples above – of responding with force unfitting to the force that was enacted upon them. Yet perhaps the most controversial tactic employed is that of ‘kettling’ – containing large groups of protesters in very small areas for extended periods of time. The official line for this tactic is, invariably, one of ease of policing, and there is some truth behind this; past protests in London have resulted in stampedes and destructive rampages by groups – but there would appear to be a large degree of psychological (and therefore ‘legal’) brutality taking the place of the illegal and widely condemned physical brutality seen in the past. The police review chief, Denis O’Connor, examining the events of 1 April has condemned kettling, highlighting the risk to the elderly, pregnant and those without food or water for such an extended period of time.

Perhaps the most blatantly illegal action taken by the police however, outside of the direct violence against protesters, would be the fact that anyone left within the cordon once it was ‘kettled’ was required to give up personal identification and submit to an obligatory photograph upon leaving, gaining a police record for fundamentally not doing anything illegal. This is, of course, inexcusable, and it is perhaps the only really unforgivable act of the events of 1 April, for although the violence against protesters, and the death of Mr. Tomlinson were shocking on every level, they can be put down – to some extent, to gross misjudgements of conduct taken in blind moments of recklessness.

It would appear that the police therefore, have found themselves in a bit of a bind. Few would dispute that there are those with disreputable intentions on both sides, officers and protesters alike who are motivated to commit violence, but I believe it would be a harsh assessment to damn the entire police operation on the day, and likewise to damn the entire protest movement on the grounds of a few thugs. It is undeniable that the police got many things wrong, but what other tact can be taken? A genuine strong-arm approach would lead to a slippery slope of curbed right to protest, and a stifling of public opinion, whilst a weaker approach would lead to chaos. If the ‘kettling’ technique is ever to be employed again, Met chiefs will have to produce a cordon which allows protesters to leave at whim, whist the other shocking incidents of hidden identification, obligatory relinquishment of personal I.D. and physical violence against protesters will have to be stamped out – no matter how difficult this will be to achieve.


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