I do not believe that legitimate peaceful protesters attend events in masks, and consider that the failure of protest organisers to condemn such behaviour is damaging to the credibility of peaceful protest. But masked police are a far greater threat to civil liberties than masked protesters. The reasons why troublemakers at protests should cover their faces are nastily obvious. That goes for the police as well as for “anarchists”.
Of course protests are highly charged. No sensible person wants them to get out of hand, and it is the job of the police to make sure that does not happen. But the police are not the neutral actors in these highly ritualised dramas that they purport to be. They see the staging of protests primarily as confrontations that are directed against them and treat them as battles that have to be won.
The police have come to view protests as opportunities to express their own political beliefs, and advertise their own frustrations. Protesters often jeer that the police are state patsies, unquestioning in their defence of their masters. The police, in turn, appear to go out of their way to confirm that this is so.
Any small suggestion that the police are there to protect and manage citizens exercising their democratic right to question political processes they see as misguided or wrong, has been jettisoned. Collectively, the police see all protesters as the enemy, and believe that any person who becomes drawn into a protest, however casually or innocently, is fair game and gets what’s coming to him.
This is not the view of a few bad apples in the force, although there are indeed extreme elements in the police who are every bit as keen on promoting violence for its own sake as some protesters are. Instead, that view comes from the top of the command structure. The police think nothing of penning all protesters into confined spaces for many hours, in what they say is a technique that controls agitating minorities, but what is actually a technique that condemns all present to collective punishment, which sometimes continues for many hours.
She makes a good distinction between the Metropolitan Police as an institution and by implication the significant numbers who were policing the Climate Camp well that afternoon. They too were undermined by the institution of the Met, which doesn’t acknowledge the basic humanity of any protesters, and are encouraged in this by Jacqui Smith’s Home Office. Take the police’s behaviour at the Kingsnorth Climate Camp last summer, where they behaved in just as brutal and summary a way, again citing violence against them as justification for their behaviour. That was proven to be a complete lie when subjected to a Freedom of Information request about the nature of the injuries sustained by the officers – there was none.
Footage of riot police attacking peaceful protesters at the Bishopsgate Climate Camp last Wednesday evening, then detaining them all for five hours before attacking them again, should have raised alarm. There, the police covered their numbers when legal observers exhorted people to take note of the details of officers who had used unprovoked violence against them. Again, those actions suggest that the police know they are acting illegitimately and are determined to evade the consequences of their behaviour.
Yet what are those consequences? Recent months have seen a slew of disturbing cases that scream of police prejudice, incompetence or unaccountability. The most high-profile of these was the de Menezes inquest, in which it became grievously obvious that a Brazilian electrician was shot dead at Stockwell Tube station after a catalogue of errors in the wake of the 21 July attempted bombings. These errors, apparently, were nobody’s fault, and nor were the desperate machinations of the Met as they played for time in the aftermath of the killing, rather than voluntarily releasing an honest assessment of their failures and a sincere apology.
These cases may seem quite different. But again and again – from the Rachel Nickell debacle to the Barry George fiasco, and in the identikit cases of rapists John Worboys and Kirk Reid – the foul-ups of the Met have one thing in common. The police go into a situation with their minds made up, their strategies already laid out, and their justifications rehearsed in advance. They never acknowledge their mistakes, but always protect the officers who make them. So they never, ever, learn anything. The amazing thing is that they keep on getting away with it.
Isn’t it just? They have an institutional failing, in being unable to accept the need for reform. Take Ian Blair and Paul Stephenson railing against institutional racism. Take the former’s desperate machinations to protect Jean Charles DeMenezes’ murderers. Take the revelations about their Territorial Support Group using torture against suspects and actually fighting the case. It’s a relief that even though all branches of government are completely skewed against justice right now, we still have a free press who remain determined not to be cowed by the ‘powers-that-be’ and take their roles seriously. It’s telling that the evidence against the Met has so far been given to the press, who have then passed it on to the IPCC, who didn’t take their responsibilities seriously until pressured into doing so by the press.