NEW REVELATIONS of police brutality at the G20 demonstrations in the City of London continue to emerge: one woman hit across the face and then struck with a baton; a man knocked to the ground with a police shield and a young woman knocked unconscious by a baton.
A third post mortem has been ordered for Ian Tomlinson who died after being assaulted and hurled to the ground while he was trying to make his way home from work and found his way barred by police cordons. The first post mortem said he died from a heart attack; the second said he died from internal bleeding.
The press is in an uproar, full of pictures of riot police with batons raised and identity numbers covered.
Many veteran political activists, along with some of the police themselves, will be wondering what all the fuss is about. All these police tactics have been used for decades – if not centuries. Certainly in the 1960s police used the “kettling” technique against demonstrators outside Rhodesia House, protesting against the racist colonialist regime of Ian Smith in what is now Zimbabwe.
Back then demonstrators expected to be hit by police and come away with quite serious injuries. But only other political activists and Black and Irish Londoners would believe it. The media insisted that “our bobbies” were all “wonderful” and middle class people believed it.
In the 1970s two anti-fascist demonstrators – Kevin Gately in Red Lion Square and Blair Peach in Southall – were murdered by violent police. There was some outrage then at police brutality but after lengthy inquiries, officialdom announced that Kevin Gately had “an unusually thin skull” and had unknowingly been walking about in danger of dying from the slightest tap on the head all his life and Blair Peach’s death was similarly something the police could not reasonably have expected. No police were ever prosecuted.
In the 1980s the Wapping printers and the miners learned at first hand just how brutal British bobbies can be. In the early 90s police engineered frightening clashes with anti-poll tax demonstrators to discourage newly politicised first-time protesters.
Seasoned marchers learned to distinguish the regular police who walked alongside the marchers and the elite special riot squads like the Territorial Support Group (TSG). They were notorious for being hot-headed young thugs in uniform, who hid their identity numbers and enjoyed trying to strike terror into any political activists. They were also notorious for racism and driving around north London in vans looking for black youths to assault for “suspicious behaviour”.
But in the lat 1990s there was a change – at least in London. The Stephen Lawrence inquiry put policing under the spotlight and Ken Livingstone was elected Mayor of London.
The change was noticed first by leftwing photographers like the late Mike Cohen, who suddenly found police at demonstrations being polite and civil. For about a decade there were no serious violent clashes between any demonstrations and police. The policing of protests was limited to making sure marchers did not inadvertently wander into the path of oncoming traffic; it became possible to chat to the police officers alongside the marches. It all became very civilised and remote from the real class struggle.
But a year ago Ken Livingstone lost his seat to Tory Boris Johnson. Once of Johnson’s first acts was to get rid of Metropolitan Police chief Ian Blair – a blatantly political act that pleased the rightwing dinosaurs at the top of the Met. The first Stop the War demonstration after that showed the big change in policing policy – everything went back to the bad old days.
But there is now a major difference. Modern technology has allowed the police to watch our every movement – but it also allows us to scrutinise them. Now reports of police brutality have to be believed and many middle class Telegraph and Daily Mail readers are quite surprised and think police violence and tactics are something new.
It’s a fair bet that, after all the lengthy inquiries, no police will ever be prosecuted. They may get a mild talking to for hiding their ID numbers. But the state – now it is feeling under pressure from rising working class anger at the economic collapse – is not going to go back to the gentler policing of Ken Livingstone’s time. The state is going to be more overtly brutal, it has no choice.
But the hundreds of cameras carried now by demonstrators and open access to post images on the web where they can be viewed around the globe mean there will no longer be any illusions about it. The ruling class hopes this will deter protesters but history suggests it will politicise and activate young workers.