All entries for Thursday 23 April 2009

April 23, 2009

We Watch The Watchmen

The name of Kevin Gately may ring bells amongst some of you. A Warwick student, he was killed at a demonstration against the National Front in 1974, almost certainly by mounted policemen during surges of the crowd after police lines pushed forward. He was not a seasoned protester, nor was anyone ever brought to justice after his death – mainly because there was no way to conclusively prove with evidence, regardless of the amount of witnesses testifying against the official police story, that he was hit. This story has regretfully been replayed recently, but with one major difference: despite police overtures after the incident, this one was heavily documented. The new mediums that both we and the powers above communicate by have highlighted a number of things: how the Met hasn't changed since De Menezes; different ways to try to sway the opinion of “the public”; and how independent news sources and blogs are more on the pulse of the nation.

The police managed to sabotage their supposed aim of keeping the peace early on. Ignoring the idiocy of naming their operation (Glencoe) after an infamous Highlands massacre, the police tack also smacked of hypocrisy in their liaising with protesters. Outwardly, they were complaining about the “summer of rage”, telling bankers to dress down, lamenting that “violent anarchist groups” from the 90s (that didn't actually exist in the 90s) were reassembling to cause chaos... what better way to prejudice people that putting out the hackneyed idea that protesters were just “intent on coming on to the streets to create public disorder”. I'm sure I don't have to point out what a self-fulfilling prophecy police predicting violence is. Strangest of all was their insistence for protest groups to “talk to them” and keep them in the loop – strange, because in practise the police force were refusing to meet protesters, and also refused to let protest groups attend their press conferences to get their side across. I mean, who was gonna know that the police were rebuffing them all? Papers at that point still blindly listened to police over us normal citizens.

On the day, the major news outlets were poised for a story, and were trying really hard to make the first few hours (before the protests got fully under way) seem interesting – at the start of the day, reporters outnumbered protesters about 10 to 1 in some places. The second there was any form of confrontation, it was reported as “clashes” between police and protesters (a phrase that makes it seem a lot more evenly matched than when a line of police herds protesters around, but still). It was quite telling that from the BBC there was a lot more hype about newsworthy events, like the Space Hijackers APC and the generic “black-clad anarchists” statements, than any attention towards what the protesters were actually there for. The “increasingly ugly mood” in Threadneedle Street was attributed in reports to the protesters, with barely any mention of kettling or disproportionate police force. When it was reported about Ian Tomlinson's (IT's) death, of course again the focus was on how the poor police were trying to help, whilst the unhinged protesters were bottling them – with comments from “pelted with bottles by a screaming mob” (Mirror) to him dying after being “caught among the mob” (Telegraph).

Interestingly, the reports were a lot different coming from the independent, people-run media – just going to show the difference between embedded reporting with a press pass, and actually being a part of the masses proper. Twitter and the blogosphere were awash with people pointing out it was the protesters that helped him along, it was the police that ignored the first calls to help when there was a man down, and so on. Note that, in this disparity, the major media outlets (outside of the Guardian) learnt nothing from the De Menezes affair, and proceeded to quickly publish the “official” version of events for the morning papers.

Cracks started appearing in the official line of “protesters irrational, police did well to keep the peace”, when even less progressive publications such as "The Economist" went against the party line: in an article a few days after the protests, they commented on how indiscriminate the kettling tactic had been, and how the police were not exercising the keen judgement they were trained to. Stories about IT lamented that a non-protester had died, implying that if he were a protester his death would have been more justifiable. BBC News 24 made no mention of the destruction of Climate Camp, and the problems of widespread kettling and unwarranted police violence were widely unreported, though anyone with half a brain to search Youtube and Google would have seen how much the papers had seemingly missed. There is allegation that even when the video came to light showing how IT was in fact illegally assaulted by officers, the BBC refused to report it because it was “just a London story”.

After the video hit the 'net, something interesting happened. Stories of other attacks started emerging, and as time went on articles stopped talking about “apparent” assaults and instead referred to “a police officer beating a man in the head with a riot shield”. Reports started popping up about the government's statement in March about how kettling should be avoided in most circumstances, and started focusing more on the reasons behind the protests and the duties the police should be providing for us. Online news articles even got edited to be more in line with this new “pro-protester” stance... the tide swayed away from blaming the protesters for IT's death, and instead realised that the initial police reports had been at best misguided, and at worst downright lies.

These protests indicated how times have changed since Kevin Gately's death. As has been said, ““traditionally research on the police suggests the main reason why it's extremely difficult to bring officers to book for wrongdoing is that police actions take place in circumstances of low visibility”. The recent upsurge of sousveillance got these incidents of police brutality reported, and have hopefully taught both mainstream media and the rest of us a lesson: never blindly trust the “official” version of events.


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