Police violence is not new

James Counsell 8 June 2009

James Counsell – Sidney Sussex

On April 1st, a large man in a balaclava and full body armour hit me three times with a two foot steel baton. That same day my girlfriend was thrown to the floor and struck in the back by a man dressed suspiciously similarly. It may have been the same person; the sole method of identifying those beneath the armour is a number on a detachable lapel, which in both instances was conspicuously missing.

The brutality, intimidation and cowardice belonged to the arsenal of the common thug; the uniform alone betrayed that these men were police officers.
My great crime was being caught in a police ‘kettle,’ a cordon of riot police sealing all exits from the G20 protests, preventing any access to food, water, toilet facilities and medical attention for eight hours. My lashing came because as the police line advanced, a woman had fallen behind me; I put my hands in the air and attempted to explain I was unable to retreat, and as a consequence was beaten. Any experienced protestor will tell you this is nothing new. Police used similar tactics against the EDO protests in Brighton this year, against the Kingsnorth climate camp last year, and worse against the Countryside Alliance marches in 2004. Violence against protestors and the hiding of ID numbers is a ubiquitous experience amongst those brave enough to risk dissent. This time, however, the consequences are unprecedented.

On March 23rd the Joint Committee on Human Rights produced a report on the policing of public demonstrations. It expressed an unequivocal principle: “Whilst protests may be disruptive and inconvenient, the presumption should be in favour of protests taking place without state interference. Human rights law makes clear that the balance should always fall in favour of those seeking to assert their right to protest, unless there is strong evidence for interfering with that right”.
No editor would argue against this lofty legal principle. Yet historically the media has portrayed all incidences of brutality against protestors as being a showdown between violent anarchists and the stoic forces of law and order; the people and their agents versus the agents of hate.

In 2005, this all changed, as the police pumped false information regarding the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes into the public domain. The media felt sufficiently stung to be more cautious in the future. The opportunity to exploit this breakdown in relations presented itself at the G20 protests, where the citizen cameraman demonstrated its true potential; the media is now awash with amateur recordings of police violence.

Despite being the most recorded square mile in the world, the CCTV footage of the attack on Ian Tomlinson never emerged. This incident would have disappeared had technology not allowed the protestors to subject the police to the same relentless surveillance we have had no choice but to become accustomed to. The Climate Camp legal team has produced a dossier of ten videos and 400 testimonies to hand to the Home Affairs select committee investigating the brutalities. The Chief Inspector of the Constabulary has launched an internal investigation, and the Independent Police Complaints Commission is looking into the 185 complaints it has received – the most ever.

The violence on that day was systemic and organized. It was not the result of a few rogue officers, but of a police force having adopted a mentality of opposition to the general public, empowered beyond the remit of accountability by endless counter-terrorism laws, and geared up for a fight against any show of organized dissent.

The lesson we have learnt is simple: if we want, once again, to have the most restrained police force in the world, we must always be prepared to treat them with suspicion, to record them in their actions, and hold them to account when they fail the public they exist to serve.

James Counsell is a 1st year SPS student