Ian Tomlinson's death was not an isolated incident but symptomatic of an endemic culture of violence in the policing of protest in Britain. Yesterday's verdict that PC Simon Harwood was not guilty will only bolster the impunity of the Territorial Support Group and an atmosphere in which protesters are unquestioningly viewed as legitimate targets by the police and media.
Three years later I remember the headline clearly: POLICE PELTED WITH BRICKS AS THEY HELP DYING MAN. The Evening Standard had spent the previous two weeks playing up stories that an apocalypse was going to strike London on April 1st 2009, as protests were planned against the G20 summit. Faithfully parroting police reports before the event that it would be “very violent”, their reportage of Ian Tomlinson’s death was equally obsequious, swallowing the official statement without question. “POLICE came under a barrage of missiles as they tried to save the life of a man who collapsed during the G20 protests in the City. The officers were hit by bottles thrown from the crowd as they were forced to carry the man to a safe location to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.” It was an indictment of every value journalism purports to represent.
A week later, thanks to a mobile phone clip a very different story emerged. Not only had the police batoned Tomlinson and knocked him to the ground, but it was a student nurse who had come to his aid, only to be moved away by officers. At first the Met even claimed to Tomlinson’s family that the officer might be an impersonator – a protester with a stolen uniform. The barrage of missiles was a fiction. The anarchist “violence” amounted to some broken RBS windows whilst police violence (real, actual violence) had left a man dead.
Regardless of yesterday’s verdict, we should be clear: Simon Harwood (the police officer on trial for manslaughter) is responsible for Tomlinson’s death. If you start at A, end up dead at C, and were attacked at B, the causation is no great mystery. If Harwood has regrets, it was because he wouldn’t have done it had he known “how poorly” Tomlinson was, which presumably means we’re all supposed to walk around with signs saying “Don’t baton strike. Poorly” as we go about our daily business. You’d hope that posing no threat to anyone whatsoever might be sufficient enough not to get beaten up by your public servants in 21st century Britain, but apparently this isn’t the case. If you make it a career habit, as Harwood did, it’s hardly a surprise that one day a victim has a pre-existing indisposition to violent assault.
Despite this we shouldn’t accept the rogue cop narrative. The charity Inquest notes that there have been just over 1400 deaths in police custody or following police contact since 1990 and not a single conviction of manslaughter. Clearly not all of these will be due to incidences of violence and neglect – but Tomlinson’s case is only one amongst many examples of police brutality leading to death. The public order unit Harwood was a part of, the TSG (Territorial Support Group), claims it recruits from the ranks “on merit, and much emphasis is placed upon their personal ability, motivation and good communication skills.” Yet Harwood already had ten complaints to his name by the time he joined the unit, and had been quietly dropped from the Met once before on medical grounds before disciplinary proceedings could begin against him.
Between 2005-2009, 5000 complaints were made against the TSG, with only 9 upheld, leading the Metropolitan Police Authority (the Met’s watchdog) to warn that TSG officers were seen as “practically immune” to criticism. Anecdotally, innumerable incidents of TSG violence are seared into my memory, nearly all of them involving unthreatening, unarmed young people posing no danger to the officers in question. I’ve come away with the feeling that a significant proportion of TSG officers, are, as London Assembly member Jenny Jones said of Harwood yesterday “thug[s] in uniform”, looking for the legitimacy of a police badge and the impunity of the legal system.
It is worth thinking about the culture which feeds this legitimacy, often facilitated by the mainstream media. As witnessed in the example of the Standard, the rule of thumb is that whilst protesters will inevitably be described as “violent” the moment that, say, a window is broken, police attacking protesters with batons, tasers, CS spray and shield strikes are never described as such. If it’s mentioned at all, it will always be under the pseudonym “robust”. The double standards are also apparent in the justice system. For protesters, what would be minor infractions in the context of everyday life become serious criminal offences in the context of public order. For the police, it is the other way around: Harwood used the abstract context of disorder on the day to justify his specific actions, which included pushing over a BBC cameraman, then another person who was helping someone on the floor, before going on to attack Tomlinson.
As David Graeber points out in Direct Action: An Ethnography (2009):
“Activists are not usually guilty of anything more serious than infractions of certain codes or ordinances: for instance, regulations against walking or standing in the street. These are not criminal matters. However, when they refuse to comply with police orders, they are, indeed, attacked, and often end up with their heads smashed against walls or shackled in torture positions [...] So rather than the legal application of force to enforce the law, what we actually have is the largely unregulated use of violence to back up regulations”
Tomlinson’s case was an even more extreme example, since it’s hard to see exactly what regulations, let alone laws, he was breaking. For Harwood, Tomlinson was being “deliberately obstructive”, which is policespeak for “walking too slowly in the opposite direction”.
Another factor is the persistent attempt to ‘other’ protesters, reinforced by lurid tales of gratuitous violence directed at the police. Graeber goes on to note how during the alter-globalisation movement in the 1990s there were prolific reports given to police of protesters using: concrete chunks, BB guns, wrist rockets, “large capacity squirt guns” loaded with bleach and urine, molotov cocktails, vans transporting poisonous snakes and reptiles, acid, dry ice bombs, faeces, and even flaming teddy bears launched from catapults (which was nearly true, except they were never on fire – and were launched to make an ironic statement about claims that protesters were violent).
Similar tales emerged during the UK Student protests, the Telegraph reporting that on March 26th “ammonia filled lightbulbs” and “fireworks stuffed with coins” had been thrown at police. I even challenged the reporter in question at the time, who replied that “given that paint bombs were clearly throw [sic], windows were visibly smashed and sticks and bottled [sic] thrown at police - as captured by countless photographers - on what basis do you doubt Scotland Yard's statement that amonia [sic] was thrown at officers?” I hope I don’t need to point out the logical fallacy at work.
The purpose is clear: to make police and the public hate protesters. It’s supposed to give an extra edge to the common stereotype that they are just trust fund kids with nothing better to do than cause a bit of chaos, or benefit-cheat layabouts who can only make the demo because they’re not in work and are leeching off low-paid, hard-working taxpayers like the police officers themselves. The pre-operation briefing may as well be: “Don’t listen to their talk about social welfare cuts and corporate tax avoidance: they just want to throw piss, shit, and ammonia at you, and when they’re done with that, a few volleys of flaming teddy bears too.”
Public order units will say they exist to protect people. But force is being deployed politically – in scenarios where, were they not deemed threatening to public order, they would at most warrant a letter in the post not a baton to the head. This is then coupled with a culture of demonising protesters as a barbaric ‘other’ to whom the only response can be violence. It was into that world that Tomlinson innocently wandered three years ago, and he paid for it with his life.