All entries for Friday 24 April 2009

April 24, 2009

The G20 Demonstrations: What I Saw

Climate Camp inspired me to go to the G20 protests. The International Panel on Climate Change says we need to act fast on climate change. It's crunch time, with very little meaningful action having been taken so far, despite the consensus on the extreme seriousness of the issue. As well as speaking out about climate change, the camp in the city had a specific target: the European Climate Exchange – a carbon trading farce which has allowed EU governments to spin their way out of implementing meaningful carbon emission reductions. My personal experience of the events and their aftermath shocked me, and has set me thinking more about how the police works in this country: how far is it really supporting or repressing truth, political discussion, freedom of assembly and indeed our civil liberties?

There's a history of Climate Camp being mistreated and misrepresented by the police. Kent police misled the public by saying that lots of police had been injured until a Lib-Dem Freedom of Information request revealed that these “injuries” were actually wasp-stings and officers accidentally shutting their fingers in car doors, etc. It sounds implausible, but the camp is leaning towards Ghandianism in its peacefulness. There have been no cases of violence against police from the movement, despite dozens of cases of violence from the police. Climate Camp just wants meaningful action taken on climate change and believes that politicians, business and the public are ignoring the urgency of the issue.

To begin with the policing seemed fairly appropriate. There were a couple of thousand people enjoying the sun, setting up tents, talking to the media, standing on bus-stops with banners, dancing to a pedal-powered reggae sound-system, using the temporary compost toilets... you name it. It was peaceful, and to be quite honest, the police could almost have policed it in the same way that they would a fun-fair.

Police, however, donned increasing amounts of riot gear through the course of the day and their numbers gradually increased. Where we were camping, at the north end of Bishopsgate, the line grew thicker as they brought out boiler-suits, heavy gloves and finally helmets with visors down. At around 6.30pm the police surrounded the camp, not allowing anyone out. Two thousand people were trapped, including the media, passers-by and workers from the surrounding offices. No explanation was given.

The tactic, known as 'kettling', is often used for crowd control at football matches, and I can see why it is sometimes justifiable if police need to find out who perpetrated a serious crime. In this case however, it seemed like politically motivated detention. We were 'kettled in' from 6.30pm to 11pm – an arbitrary length of time. The effect was to demonise a peaceful protest and put people off: an infringement of our right to freedom of movement and liberty.

The group of 30 of us from Warwick sat down peacefully as a line of police tried to push us back and break up the camp. It was a tricky thing to do, as we were out on a limb, at one corner of the barrier of locked-together bikes that marked the northern end of the camp. Reacting in the way we did, by sitting down and starting to sing, we helped pacify a group of police – some of whom began to lift up their riot visors – clearly uncomfortable in the situation. One Warwick student heard that the police were saying they were going to deal with “the shits” from the south end, and this is indeed what later happened. As the evening drew in, the police finished with the protesters at Bank. Still fired-up, it seems they decided it was our turn, especially since the media and two MPs had gone home.

At the G20, there were dozens of cases of unjustified assaults by the police. Ian Tomlinson's has come to the fore as he was the only person who died. It's amazing no one else was killed. A Warwick student, for example, saw a man in the foetal position being kicked by 8 to 10 police. Tomlinson's death was initially reported as a case of a man who died of a heart attack, while protesters stopped police from rescuing him by blocking them and throwing bottles. It now transpires, as shown on the video evidence, that he was beaten by the police in a unprovoked attack minutes before he died, and that protesters did not stop him from receiving aid, but in fact called the ambulance and encouraged the crowd to stay back while the police administered first-aid. The more you read about Tomlinson's death, the worse the story gets. The initial autopsy proved unreliable, the police falsely claimed there was no CCTV and the City of London police were allowed to investigate a death in which their own officers were involved. The Tomlinson case is representative of how little the public knows about the true nature of the policing at the G20. Thirty-second news-clips mainly showed violent people smashing RBS, and favoured the police's version of events. Furthermore, the case is indicative of a police culture that treats protesters as “shits”, acting in a tribal manner and dishonestly covering things up - though I don't want to generalise all police in this way.

At midnight, our group from Warwick decided to leave because we felt unsafe staying overnight due to the police. Shortly afterwards, police beat their way through protesters at the south end in an orchestrated operation: battering peaceful protesters as they went. When our group left just after midnight, we passed forty police vans lining the road on the way out – continuing for half a kilometre down the road. Reliable friends saw police assaulting people as they left.

Despite the police having kettled the Climate Camp in for 4-5 hours, nothing was thrown at the police, and the protesters were peaceful throughout. The same cannot be said about the police, who stated in advance that they were “up for it” and seemed to lump all protesters together as violent.

It's important to understand the role that police played in causing the clashes that occurred elsewhere at the G20 protests. Climate Camp responded without violence, but it's not hard to imagine that not everyone would. Police crushed protesters back and unjustifiably forced them into a confined space for hours. And, as one commentator said, “the thing about kettles, is that they have a tendency to boil.” Protesters were demonised by the police in advance of the G20. But there are also other factors at play, such as the police mentality and indirect political pressure to not be embarrassed by protesters. I was slightly traumatised by the whole affair and slept badly for several nights afterwards. It brought home how very real the injustices in the world are.

Climate Camp’s lawyers have prepared a dossier of over 400 eyewitness statements that claim to have witnessed or been victims of police brutality. I don’t know what exactly what needs to be done about the police, but there needs to be a systematic change of culture. We need a police force that recognises its first duty is to citizens' rights, not the government. Secondly, police who behave like thugs need to be rooted out. It doesn't look like this is happening at the moment. The police have obfuscated the Tomlinson case and an officer found guilty of assault last week already had 60 complaints to his name. Thirdly, police need genuinely independent oversight. Too often, the police act as if they are above the law. The Independent Police Complaints Commission is hugely slow and ineffective, and too many of the people who run it are retired policemen.

The culture of the media also needs to change, with BBC News in particular lacking any scrutiny of the police. There is a worrying tendency for the media to be dismissive of protesters, and get sidetracked into reporting on the practicalities from the police's point of view, instead of discussing the issues that tens of thousands of people are protesting about. Our group from Warwick got on BBC news 24, sky news and video clips on the guardian website, but the overall coverage left a lot to be desired.

With this in mind, I want to end the article with a paragraph on climate change. Massive change is needed and carbon allowance schemes are a good idea, but the European Climate Trading Scheme doesn't help to reduce emissions and is being used by the EU as a way to put off dealing with the issue. The solutions are out there. Plans have been drawn up for how to make Britain carbon-neutral (zerocarbonbritain.com). It's a question of political will. We need bold decisions from political leaders as well as ordinary people to take the necessary steps, even if it upsets some business leaders. We currently only spend 0.0083% of our GDP tackling global warming.


This article is still a bit too long (3 sheets of A5 in size 10). I feel editing it down more would cut out key points,  but please say if you see any bits could be taken out.


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