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The Blind Commissioner: twenty-five years of police, press and popular protest June 18, 2009

Posted by Rhian E Jones in Politics.
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The coverage of April’s G20 protests has been marked by an unprecedented level of public acknowledgement of unprovoked police violence, not only towards the uninvolved Ian Tomlinson but also towards peaceful protestors at the Bishopsgate climate camp. Press reports and online discussion forums have been awash with buzzwords like ‘kettling’, as well as displaying outrage, shock or sheer bafflement at the death at police hands of an unarmed and unthreatening individual. An exacerbating factor in this indigation has been the initial media coverage, which painted those present as violent anarchists and repeated false police claims that their efforts to help Tomlinson had been hampered by missile-throwing protestors. For many, the death of Tomlinson has involved a shattering of faith in police ability to protect citizens and maintain order, and in the media’s readiness to report their conduct objectively.

But police brutality during public disturbances is nothing new, and neither is the tendency of mainstream media outlets to repeat uncritically police claims of provocation or antagonism by demonstrators. Tales of disproportionate and unprovoked violence against participants have circulated around every major industrial, environmentalist, economic and anti-capitalist demonstration of the past thirty years. Such claims, even when backed by eyewitness accounts and amateur recorded footage, have struggled to be heard over media and government insistence on eulogising police conduct, and it is this that is perhaps the most novel aspect of coverage of the G20 protests.

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, an event which saw an extraordinary and now largely-forgotten level of government-sanctioned violence by police against a large section of the populace. The material and emotional investment in the strike by miners and their supporters led to highly-charged confrontations with police on picket lines up and down the country. The use against strikers of riot shields, truncheons and police horses and dogs became commonplace; restrictions were placed on freedom of movement as miners travelling to solidarity pickets were stopped en route and turned back or arrested. The mass picket of Orgreave coking plant in June 1984 saw, for the first time in Britain, the use of Police Support Units carrying not the normal full length protective shield used to guard against missiles, but short shields that could be used aggressively in conjunction with batons. These units acted as ‘snatch squads’, following charges of the crowd by mounted police and beating or arresting individuals – a tactic developed for use in riots by colonial police forces in Hong Kong.

Press and television coverage of such clashes was almost uniformly hostile to the strikers. When broadcasting footage of Orgreave, the BBC, incredibly, transposed the sequence of events, making it appear that police cavalry charges had been a defensive response to antagonism by stone-throwing pickets rather than an act of aggression. Only in 1991 did the BBC issue an apology for this, claiming that its action footage had been ‘inadvertently reversed’.

The tactics used in the Miners’ Strike were also in evidence during the mass protests in 1990 at the imposition of the Poll Tax. On 31 March a march and rally involving 200,000 people degenerated into some of the worst rioting seen in central London as a result of police ineptitude and overreaction. Following the rally, riot police attempted to clear Whitehall of marchers, despite both their retreat and advance being blocked by further lines of police. As scuffles broke out and members of the public became caught up with demonstrators, mounted police charged protestors and riot vans were driven into the crowd. Nearly 5,000 people, mostly civilians, were injured. Media coverage of the protest ignored the extent of police aggression and instead followed police and government leads in blaming the violence on anarchist elements – a claim disproved the following year by a police inquiry. At the trials of arrested demonstrators, police video itself was influential in acquitting many defendants, suggesting that police had fabricated or inflated charges and confirming doubts about policing styles developed during the 1980s.

As the ideology and operation of protest adapted to a changed political arena after the end of the Cold War, policing evolved towards a policy of containment and suppression. The ‘kettling’ technique used outside the Bank of England at G20 was used against participants in London anti-capitalist demonstrations as early as 1999. At May Day protests in 2001, police corralled 3,000 people, including uninvolved bystanders, in Oxford Circus for 8 hours. Those inside the cordon were denied access to food, water, medicine and toilet facilities and had their details and images recorded before being released. This tactic has since been used at several demonstrations to control, subdue and gain personal information about protesters, despite police having the extraordinarily limited power simply to stop and search in anticipation of violence. 

The significance of G20, then, lies not in the policing of the demonstration itself, but in the channels available for its reporting and consequent public awareness. G20 was notable for the amount of press and amateur reporters participating in and observing the protests, as well as interested civilians armed with cameras and mobile phones. One of the latter, a New York businessman, provided the video of the police assault of Tomlinson shown on the Guardian‘s website.

It is this broadened and democratised arena of reporting that has made the greatest difference to coverage of police at protests. The initial press opprobium directed at bottle-throwing anarchists altered swiftly and dramatically under the weight of contradictory evidence, producing an extraordinary consensus of opinion on the Tomlinson case from across the political spectrum. The variety and sheer number of observers, as well as their access to media outlets such as YouTube, has enabled the public presentation of an ‘insider’ view of police actions, increasing the power of protestors to expose previously unknown or disputed police practices and to challenge subsequent press denials or misrepresentation. Despite the tragedy of Tomlinson’s death, G20 may yet provide an opportunity to unite public opinion in favour of greater police accountability and media transparency.



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