G20 protests: The politician's view
Liberal Democrat shadow justice spokesman David Howarth
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Thursday, 09, Apr 2009 10:08
Liberal Democrat shadow justice spokesman David Howarth writes for inthenews about his views on the policing of last week's G20 protests and the subsequent death of Ian Tomlinson.
David Howarth: I was worried in advance of the protests, first, that we would see a repeat of the disproportionate policing at the Kingsnorth climate camp and, secondly, that the police and certain elements in the media, by ramping up the prospects of violence, were setting off a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I was reassured to some extent by a meeting I brokered the day before the protests between climate camp legal observers and the senior police officers in charge of the operation. Commander Broadhurst, the gold commander, was clearly trying to move away from the strategy of tension and was talking the language of proportionality. But I was still concerned that police officers seemed to have an entirely different view of proportionality from that of the climate camp. In particular, the police view seemed to be that even peaceful protest should be forcibly challenged if it interfered with road traffic to more than a minimal degree. That is why I still thought it worthwhile to go along with other parliamentarians to act as observers.
On the day, the climate camp element of the protest seemed at first to go very well. There was a carnival atmosphere and goodwill on all sides. The Bank of England protests went less well, although one of the still unresolved mysteries of the day is why the incident in which a masked person threw a piece of scaffolding into the surprisingly unprotected window of the Royal Bank of Scotland seems to have been observed by hundreds of photographers and film crews already in position and by precious few other people.
It turned out, however, that the police drew no distinction at all between the two protests - eventually 'kettling' them both. It is important to understand that 'kettling' does not just involve blockading a protest - a tactic of dubious legality even in the light of the Oxford Circus case, which, contrary to the police's version of it, says only that blockading can be proportionate if there is a big enough threat of disorder. It also involves aggressive advances by riot police using shields and batons to confine the protestors into a smaller space. Footage of this tactic being used at the climate camp in Bishopsgate shows officers lashing out at protestors with the edges of their riot shields, a manoeuvre that one day is going to have tragic consequences.
The sad and shocking death of Ian Tomlinson adds a wholly different dimension, but raises two wider questions itself: did the macho public relations strategy of talking up the violence add to the problems of controlling junior police officers on the ground; and how come the police were allowed to get away with giving out information that was at least as misleading as that which they gave out at the start of the Menezes incident? All these questions need to be investigated, and many people, both in the police and in the media, should be doing some soul-searching.
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