Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The State on Trial?

During the second week of the Ian Tomlinson inquest, almost exactly two years since his death on April 1st, 2009, media attention has been focused on the testimony of the officer who struck him with a baton and pushed him to the floor, almost certainly causing his death. After a long-running media campaign beginning with the Guardian’s release of video footage from the attack, it seems the IPCC and Metropolitan Police cover-up campaign will no longer be able to protect PC Simon Harwood. The family’s public grief, the media attention and the huge amount of new evidence volunteered by bystanders and protesters have made mincemeat of the original network of lies released by the police. Harwood’s own testimony on Monday and Tuesday of this week has led to his admitting at least half a dozen untruths in his story. While it may be too late to prosecute him, he is now being set up to take the fall - and the flak.

Ian Tomlinson’s death
Ian Tomlinson was a precariously-homed casual Evening Standard seller, usually based at Monument Station and living in Smithfield. His customary walk home took him directly through the Bank of England area. On the evening of the 1st April, this meant going directly through the ‘kettled’ area, or as it has now been described by the Met, the ‘Breach of the Peace Bubble’. It seems he may have doubled back on himself several times in the streets between Monument and Bank as he found his way blocked, and at one point was moved on by riot police, who ‘nudged’ him with a van.

Behind the Bank of England, between Cornhill and Threadneedle Street, is the alleyway known as Royal Exchange Buildings, where Ian Tomlinson encountered the officers who would cause his death. In video footage he appears to be walking away from a small cluster of officers and dog handlers, hands in his pockets, looking down and showing no signs that the officers had addressed him. An officer in riot gear and balaclava, with no visible numbers on his yellow jacket quickly advances from behind a dog handler and strikes Tomlinson from behind with his baton, raising the baton to head-height before bringing it down. Almost immediately afterwards the officer pushes Tomlinson with both hands, causing him to fall to the ground. Tomlinson puts his hands out too late and lies on the ground until he is helped up by a masked protester. None of the dozen or so police officers in the video make any attempt to help him. Half an hour later Tomlinson was dead, having staggered back along Cornhill. An ITV cameraman and a medical student tried to offer medical assistance but were pushed back by the police. The initial botched post-mortem suggested he died of cardiac arrest unrelated to any physical contact. This, of course, was before The Guardian released its video. Later it was revealed that the cause of death was internal bleeding caused by force from a blunt object, probably aggravated by Tomlinson’s cirrhosis of the liver.

PC Harwood
PC Simon Harwood, 43, had served in the Metropolitan and Surrey Police Forces for at least 15 years. Following an investigation into an aggressive attack on a driver in the late 1990s, he retired on medical grounds the day before his hearing for misconduct. Days later he was rehired in a desk job. According to the Telegraph he was later investigated for a second violent misconduct. After the release of the Guardian video showing Ian Tomlinson’s death Harwood apparently told his superior that he believed himself to be the man in the video. The Met and the IPCC decided an internal investigation would suffice, despite Harwood’s previous record and the fact that his act had resulted in the death of a ‘civilian’. Had the first post-mortem not been ridiculously botched by Dr Freddy ‘Incompetent’ Patel, a manslaughter charge might have been possible, though highly unlikely. By the time public and media demands forced the police to act, the six-month time-limit on assault charges had elapsed. (A more detailed and fairly-well referenced account of the events following Tomlinson’s death can be found on Wikipedia , along with links to a plethora of news outlet coverage.) Finally an inquest has become necessary, due to the strange unwillingness of the Tomlinson family and their supporters to forgive or forget either the death or the cover-up. Now it remains to be seen who will shoulder the blame- if anyone?

‘Robust’ Policing
There are two kinds of police violence seen at protests, although they are not unconnected. Firstly the is the kind of planned, mass violence that we have seen recently at student demonstrations: group police intimidation, threatening behaviour, violent crowd control and top-down orders to use ‘robust’ or ‘active’ policing tactics. With this come the orders to use disproportionate numbers of officers, dogs and horses, and the authorisation of kettles, road-blocks and mass arrests. It’s very often difficult to trace the orders to ‘manage’ demonstrations like this back to its source: the police commissioner? The Home Office? The Prime Minister? After Tomlinson’s death, for example, ‘kettles’ were frowned on for a while. However after Milbank they were reauthorized, apparently by the Tory government who obviously wanted to discourage protesters from joining the Anti-Cuts movement.

But secondly there is the tacit acceptance throughout the force that if thuggish or pepped-up officers want to use the cover of these operations to get their kicks, they will be protected by the force. Seasoned protesters will already have come to the conclusion that the Met turns a blind eye to the significant proportion of police officers who see policing a demonstration as a great day out - a chance to get up close and personal with the great unwashed, to get baton-happy on the kids, safe in the knowledge that their violence will not be followed up. We’ve all seen the officer who steps out of ranks to use his baton on a bystander, the ones who take turns to kick protesters on the floor, the one who makes no attempt to hide the pleasure he derives from his own power. Then there are the officers who are merely scared, inexperienced, badly briefed or trained, and who react violently to difficult situations, left to do so by their superiors. After all, what are the chances of repercussion, particularly when the victims are students, lefties, hippies, crusties or ethnic minorities? Furthermore, these rogue officers actually serve a purpose for the Met: easily deniable, they perform on-the-ground intimidation that cannot be officially sanctioned, but which divides demonstrations into those who will rise to their bait and those who prefer to remain peaceful and are likely to either be scared to return or feel distanced from groups of more forward even aggressive protesters. Hence the protest is split, as perfectly illustrated by the March 26th demonstration, a culmination of the police’s after-dark dividing tactics.

Rogue police officer Simon Harwood appears to have enjoyed a lovely day out during the London G20. He was assigned to drive a carrier van. Told to stay in the van, which was parked with several others, he wandered off to ‘attempt the arrest’ of a protester spraying graffiti. Although he failed to complete the arrest he did manage to slam the protester’s head into a door. Then instead of returning to his van, he continued in search of adventure. His next victim was an ITV cameraman, whom he pushed to the ground, later alleging he ‘did not see the camera’. Though in mobile phone communication with his colleagues he was not with any particular group of officers, apparently just intervening where he thought his help was needed. Coming to Royal Exchange Buildings, he hit a man on the shoulder for asking to leave the cordon and swung his coat at another. Next came the encounter with Tomlinson, which apparently caused him no concern until weeks afterwards, Tomlinson having managed to walk away from the scene of the attack.

By the end of the second day of Harwood’s testimony, his story was not looking good. After he claimed to have been ‘in fear of his life’ as protesters hurled missiles, videos shown in court revealed an empty sky. Other videos and pictures shown to the jury proved he was not wearing his number, that he attacked the BBC cameraman unprovoked, and that in attacking Tomlinson he raised his baton high over his head to put his full force behind the blow. Under questioning from the Tomlinson family lawyer, he defined reasonable force as ‘if an officer believes force is reasonable, it is reasonable’. By the end of the day much of his original story had come apart, forcing him to admit that he did not fall down, that he did not lose his baton, that he never received a blow to the head, and that at the time of Tomlinson’s death there were not ‘violent and dangerous confrontations’ all around him, as he had originally claimed.

So it seems that whether or not Harwood does any actual time (and this writer would be more than happy to see him behind bars), the end result of the inquest will at least strongly imply his guilt. Well, he is guilty, so that is all very well. Everybody likes to see a bad man being caught and punished. Thank goodness for camera phones and YouTube, and next time you get on the wrong side of a police boot, make sure that your neighbour gets his i-phone out. The positive effects of new media on effective demonstrating have been lauded time and time again, and that is as it should be.

However, it would be rash to see this in any way as justice being served. Instead, the Ian Tomlinson murder will slot onto a long string of police attacks on the working class, leading at best to minor reforms within the service and never to the real decision-makers being punished. The Stephen Lawrence case, with the attention it drew to institutionalised racism in the force, is another example of this. While reforms have been made, racism is still rife in the police force. When it comes to policing demonstrations, the decisions are effectively taken even higher up. And had Ian Tomlinson not been a ‘civilian bystander’, a tax-payer with no connection to the movement, his case might never have even come this far. Policing the police is still extremely difficult, and extremely hit-and-miss. The IPCC, the independent inquiries, the legal courts and the government will not tolerate attacks on the force which protects and maintains them without a struggle. And to get real justice for Ian Tomlinson, the culpability of all of these must be investigated.

Of course, the police are people too, and in any revolutionary situation, a major step towards victory will come when they are won over to our side. With this in mind, it is necessary to support the Police Federation in their campaign to protect police jobs threatened by the cuts. Nonetheless, in a time of increased political activity and with more demonstrations predicted, we must bear in mind that the police are the instruments of a repressive state, and will act against us not only in open and direct ways, but through an all-pervasive structure of open and concealed violence, which seeks to disguise itself as the acts of a minority but is condoned, protected and sometimes even organised by the UK policing system.

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