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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  1. be brutally honest! I had to cut out about 60 or 70% of what I wrote to fit it onto two pages, so if there’s anything you feel I’ve totally ignored, do say…

    23 Apr 2009, 01:19

  2. Mark Carrigan

    This is really good. A few typos:

    “Ignoring whichever genius that named their police operation (Glencoe) after an infamous Highlands massacre”

    I think you either need to remove the ‘that’ or replace it with ‘it was who’. Or maybe rephrase it along the lines of “ignoring the outright idiocy of naming their police operation [...]”?

    “refusing to let them attend their press conferences to air their sides of the story.”

    This sentence reads slightly confusingly because of the multiple ‘their’. Maybe replace one of them with a noun? Also I think it should be ‘side’ of the story even though the protesters are plural. Although I’m not 100% sure.

    “when even more centrist publications of The Economist”

    Should this be “like the economist” rather than “of”? Also I’m not sure centrist is the best term here. Maybe establishment or small c conservative?

    26 Apr 2009, 18:08

  3. changed!

    26 Apr 2009, 19:01

  4. Sorry this is late! But:

    a mounted policemen—> either a mounted policeman OR mounted policemen

    after police lines pushing forward—> after police lines pushed forward

    lamenting that “violent anarchist groups” from the 90s (that didn’t actually exist in the 90s) were reforming to cause chaos—> this is just a suggestion but i read “reforming” in the dirty sense of the word first time round. Would it make sense to put “re-forming”?

    Really good article, Sami.

    x

    26 Apr 2009, 21:00

  5. aha, I love how “reform” is a dirty word now. like “kettle” and “misadventure”, it has been sullied by use by bad people. I thought “reassemble” avoided all problems _

    26 Apr 2009, 21:08

  6. I like it a lot.
    much nodding of heads

    29 Apr 2009, 01:40

  7. Michael Levinson

    In the weeks since the G20 demonstrations on April 1, I often had the feeling that my discussions about these events with friends and family somehow missed the point. I came to the conclusion that the reason for this was quite simple: in the discussions we had, the terms of debate, the positions adopted and the assumptions underlying the arguments were those of mainstream ‘common sense’, the ‘common sense’ presented by the mainstream media (by which I refer to almost all the daily newspapers and TV news channels). As several contributors to this blog have pointed out, there are a number of problems with this ‘common sense’ – and I suspect that these problems have been ignored in many discussions about these events, not just my own. Therefore I would like to use this space to summarise some of what I see as the key problems with this ‘common sense’:

    1. “The police were in a tense situation, uncertain of what might happen. In such a situation it is understandable and perhaps forgivable that some of them lashed out.”
    As Sami has noted, most of the media reported the events as if the ‘clashes’ between police and protesters were evenly matched (when in fact the police deployed riot shields, helmets, truncheons, dogs, and horses). More than that, though, the media reported the clashes without any discussion of what took place before the pushing, shoving and hitting started. My observation was that before the clashes the police deployed a whole range of techniques which – whether intentionally or unintentionally – served to aggravate not only the ‘violent few’ but many ordinary people who had come to peacefully participate in the demonstrations. The media latched onto one of these techniques, kettling. I would suggest that the most significant technique used – far more effective than kettling – was the media hype before the event. There is no doubt in my mind that a lot of the tension felt by the police and protestors was not because of the kettling, but because for days and weeks beforehand the media had been warning that this would be a large, violent protest. Who do we blame for this sensationalisation of the event? The police, for telling the media how many police they were planning to deploy and for offering the reporters the sensational soundbite “we are up for it”? The companies with offices in that area, who drove some of their staff into an almost hysterical fear with their suggestions for dressing-down at work and arriving at the office at ‘unusual times’ on that day? Or the media themselves, for focusing – as the media almost always does these days – on the possibility of violence rather than the agenda of the protestors, almost to the point of egging both police and protesters on?

    [contd.]

    29 Apr 2009, 07:42

  8. Michael Levinson

    [contd from above]

    2. “Some individual policemen might have lashed out, but basically most of them were just doing their job.”
    Sami is right that after the news about Ian Tomlinson broke, there was at least some coverage of ‘apparent’ assaults by the police; but for the most part, the coverage gave the impression that the problem was individual ‘bad coppers’ rather than the strategies or approach of the police commanders. If this was the case, many of my friends and family reasoned, then the lashing out can be excused as an anomaly that occurred because of the ‘tense situation’ faced by the police. Rather than excuse the behaviour of a few individual police officers as an anomaly, I would tend to condemn the approach of the police commanders, based on a couple of observations. As Sarah Reader noted in her blog entry, there were individual police officers who were willing to engage in dialogue with the protesters, but this suddenly ceased when an order came from down the line that that particular line of police should now advance. At this point all dialogue ceased and the police started to advance with neither warning nor explanation to the protesters, and, many times, with a lot of force. I saw this happen in a number of places in the Bank kettle. I heard from the Warwick contingent at the Climate protest how the police suddenly stopped talking and started to advance, damaging tents and bicycles as they went. I heard from a kid how the police had started to advance east along Victoria Street towards Threadneedle Street at about 4pm, pushing protesters back, and when the protesters responded by sitting down and staging a peaceful protest, the police started hitting them with truncheons and shields. The narrative of individual ‘bad coppers’ is entirely irrelevant as a topic of debate in this context. What I have mentioned here were deliberate actions by the police instigated and directed by police commanders, and they have been almost entirely left out of the media debate and the ‘common sense’ of the discussions that many people have been having about the event ever since.

    [contd]

    29 Apr 2009, 07:43

  9. Michael Levinson

    [contd from above]

    3. “There is no problem with people having peaceful protests, but some of those anarchists went there with the intention of violent protest, wanting to fight the police and smash buildings, and that’s not right and force used to stop it is completely justified.”
    Something that is not being discussed, and which needs to be discussed, is: what is violence, and what is terrorism? As Noam Chomsky convincingly argues in his essay “The Journalist from Mars” (included in the 2002 edition of his book Media Control, and also available online at http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Chomsky/Journalist_Mars.html), there is a new (or perhaps not so new) ‘common sense’ definition of terrorism, found throughout the “vast coverage and commentary about the war on terrorism”. The official definition of terrorism in US code and Army manuals is “the calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious or ideological in nature”. If damage to a building is a form of violence, according to this definition, the attack on the RBS branch on Threadneedle Street was a terrorist attack.

    As Chomsky notes, the trouble with this definition of terrorism for western governments is that many of their own policies also fit this definition. Perhaps most obviously, the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq are forms of state terrorism – according to this official definition of terrorism. This, Chomsky suggests, is why western governments – and the western media – don’t use this official definition, and instead have introduced a new ‘common sense’ definition of terrorism. This new definition is: terrorism is ‘what they do to us’. Anything the armed forces and the police do to protect ‘us’ from ‘them’ is acceptable. It is counter-terrorism. Where does this definition leave us? It leaves us with a definition of ‘us’ that includes not only ‘the people of this country’ but also the police, the armed forces, and the government. It leaves us with a definition of ‘them’ that includes anyone who complains or criticises ‘us’ or has a grievance against ‘us’ and decides to act upon it. As such, it offers the police, the armed forces, and the government a carte blanche to do whatever they like against ‘them’.

    We need to rethink our ‘common sense’ acceptance of this definition. I think that there are many actions of the police, the armed forces, and the government which are, and should be recognised as, terrorist – according to the US code and Army manual usage of that term. Every time the government accepts a policy that ignores climate change, or refuses to acknowledge proposals that might be a realistic response to climate change, that is a terrorist act, a violence done against future generations. The policies of the New Labour government under Blair and Brown, the Bush administration in the US, and most of the governments in other developed countries are responsible for the current credit crunch, and have deployed inadequate policies in response to the credit crunch, and that these policies can be considered as terrorist acts, as a violence done against the people of this country and of many other countries.

    [contd]

    29 Apr 2009, 07:44

  10. Michael Levinson

    [contd from above]

    If this is accepted as the case, we will have shifted the terrain of our discussions to a new ‘common sense’. On this new terrain we can take different positions on violence and terrorism. Some of us may think that “the calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious or ideological in nature” is never acceptable; others may think that a violent act may be justified where it is deployed in response to an unjust violent act. I do not seek to make an argument here for either of these positions. My point is that seen in this context, the ‘common sense’ reaction to the protesters who attacked the RBS branch might be different. Rather than see them as vandals attacking private property without justification, we might come to understand that on that day they decided to deploy a violent act in response to what they saw as an unjust violent act.

    29 Apr 2009, 07:45


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