How deep the roots of injustice?

Wednesday, 29th April 2009 at 8:00 UTC Leave a comment

It was somewhat inevitable I might get around to writing something about the world post-April 1st. It has taken a little getting used to, with the sudden swathe of differing activities and events, campaigns and legal cases, and the sudden fascination of Evening Standard with police not displaying their numbers.

What has been most interesting has been the continued coverage of the situation as a series of isolated incidents. Though its becoming clearer and clearer that these were not wholly isolated incidents, it does seem from news coverage that it was more bad luck than anything else, and I think the treatment of the Tamil demonstrations has been used to try and fit with this; how else have a large group of protesters gotten away with a non-lawful protest for so long?

But what of the IPCC’s declaration that G20 police were wrong to remove their numbers? From what friends saw, higher ranking police were heard on the day telling their subordinates to remove their numbers before going near protesters. Police should never need to remove the numbers except maybe to wash their kit. They should never be in a position where they leave a station to undertake work without the number visible. This is something protesters have been complaining about for years, and only now the issues get raised.

As to the violence, this isn’t sporadic at all. There were entire lines of police all engaging in the same tactics, all working together to create the maximum long lasting mental drain on protesters, to smash morale and reduce numbers and to signal that people shouldn’t involve themselves in protests.

Sadly I suspect that message will have been heard louder and clearer due to the press coverage. People might sound sympathetic, but I hardly blame them if their reaction is to say “good luck” and pass up the offer of joining in. Some will go against this flow, but not the numbers we need if we’re to prevent the government handing the environment and the economy over to big business to abuse for their own gain. If anything, the very necessary task of holding officers to account will distract activist resources, mostly time, away from the very issues which are becoming ever more pressing.

The world of modern policing is complex, and involves international training and tactic sharing agreements, some of which are highly secretive. We shouldn’t be surprised if we hear something about such sharing between Israeli and British police, as the Israelis are seen as experts in crowd control, with exceptional experience at dealing with protests. They are, after all, selling Britain new style airport security systems and the likes, so the moral case against collaborating with them is clearly not present.

Successive EU presidencies have included summits for “Interior Ministers” (we send Home Secretary’s, the closest equivalent), and these have recently been obsessed with matters including dealing with “security threats” from large crowds as well as typical bomb threats, as well as ID cards and other measures to curb liberties.

As policing against such things as file sharing, hacking, drug dealing and so forth gets more coordinated, so does policing against everything else. Whereas once states would view protests in one country as beneficial if they destabilised them without a threat of spilling over, now states will rush to each others’ aid. Both sides, it seems, can play the solidarity game.

We saw German and Danish police in Sweden at the European Social Forum last September, including Danish police arresting a group of young Danes arriving in Malmo, following the trend in football policing. It is likely British protest groups will increasingly find themselves facing familiar police when travelling to give solidarity overseas, for instance. And it is also likely more effort will be put into keeping apart different nationalities of protesters; the return of the good old divide and rule tactic.

Recently there’s been a spate of other articles from around the world. Amnesty International accuses Greek police of serious human rights breaches since rioting broke out in December, and the Egyptian police have been reported preventing protests. Because we are so heavily trained to think about different countries as different entities, its easy to forget that this all fits together.

After all, the IMF issued around 145 to 150 points in its Structural Adjustment Plans during the 1990’s when ‘helping developing nations open their markets’, of which one was always an agreement that force would be used to crush the ensuing uprisings when, not if, they happened. In some ways, what we saw in London smacks of this entirely; bail the banks out, watch jobs disappear and smash the face of anyone who dares take action against it. Look who made the biggest re-emergence during the G20!

And if countries in the West are capable of being involved in the callous practice of torture, why should we be surprised if a little brutality against democratic activity doesn’t come in handy when the issues get too close to bare? After all, we now know the British government was very happy to get its hands dirty in the brutality of torture overseas, why not brutal policing at home?

People have said recently that we shouldn’t go too far in creating a view of the police as a wholly bad institution. Seeing patterns and investigating institutional and systemic programs of anti-protester brutality is simply dealing with the problems. For pure observation’s sake, lets put the limit marker down somewhere around about the fact the Met are also in deep trouble for failing to arrest a rapist for 4 years; that might be taking things too far.

But at the other extreme, to continue down the path of least resistance, merely taking individual cases ignores the fact the whole operation was problematic, that it exposes a system of police opposition to new ideas, would not do the victims justice. For these weren’t individual police officers.

First and foremost, these were members of the riot squad (or TSG, but essentially that’s their role). We should consider what it is that would motivate someone to join: a determination to help keep protests peaceful, or the power trip being handed a helmet, shield and baton and told to go and enforce the peace (sic) involves. You don’t join the riot squad to be nice to people.

Second, lets cast our minds back to climate camp last year, and the revelation that the policing bill was being paid by the Home Office. Far from assuming that the police took on protesting the climate camp as an unwanted task, it appears the Home Office itself was chomping at the bit to get its boys and girls out to deal with us. That we didn’t just go away is probably the biggest crime committed by protesters on April 1st.

Third, lets note that the most worrying events were possibly those at Ramparts and the convergence centre, where police raided with Tazers and a pet team of ITN camera crews. This marks its own shift in policing, and whilst many predicted the Tazers, sadly I think the ITN camera crew might be more noteworthy. We think of embedded camera crews as something that happens in Iraq, where TV reporters stop saying “the troops are getting ready to go in” and start saying “we are getting ready to go do this”. We can definitely expect, after all the pressure on the media, a very big push to get the media under police control, to have the media report form the police’ perspective, and this will be incredibly damaging. Thankfully, at the moment at least, it looks like YouTube is going to help cushion the effect.

We must not look at individual actions of officers in a vacuum, especially not when history tells us that this continues on and on. We should look back and see the trends. A friend told me how it reminded them of Stonehenge 3 decades ago, how only the equipment has really changed. We must be mindful of the many networks being created, and conferences taking place between governments to discuss the crushing of street-level dissent, for instance. 

Anyhow, much else has been written and to be honest, the big concern I have right now, to echo the words of a famous legal observer, is that we don’t lose sight of the two biggest issues facing the world now: the economic crises and climate change.

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Entry filed under: Activism, Free Space, Human Rights, News, Participation, Politics.

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