In every case there was a build up to the demo where the police, in particular, hyped up the threat of violence and the supposed need for aggressive policing. An atmosphere is created in which these police tactics are deemed acceptable and even reasonable, even though they rely on high levels of surveillance and violence.
So you can almost sense when it’s going to happen. The media and police hysteria round the G20 demos, with daily reports of threats of demonstrator violence, was of course misplaced. It was Ian Tomlinson who died after being hit by a police officer, and it was demonstrators who were baton charged, bitten by police dogs, penned in and harassed.
Over the past year or so there seems to have been a change in tactics by the police. The protests over George Bush’s visit last summer were met with baton charges and arrests. The demonstrations over Gaza were policed in ways very similar to those of the G20. On 3 January a breakaway demo to the Israeli embassy was viciously attacked in an underpass at Piccadilly.
A week later thousands of protesters outside the Israeli embassy were “kettled” for hours, only let out individually, batoned and filmed in unprecedented levels of surveillance. Demonstrators were injured, some hospitalised. All of this was catalogued and sent to the Metropolitan Police commissioner in February. We have still not received a reply.
There are different explanations as to why this has happened. Some put it down to Gordon Brown becoming prime minister, others to Boris Johnson replacing Ken Livingstone as London mayor (although the police shot Jean Charles de Menezes dead in 2005.) Or it could be to do with the deepening economic crisis that is leading to growing discontent and anger over a whole range of issues. There are a growing number of protests, industrial disputes including occupations of factories, harassment of young people, especially Muslims, and a politicisation caused by job cuts and unemployment.
One of the aims of this sort of policing is to deter people from demonstrating. This is important for the ruling class at a time when there’s a lot more to protest at. The best antidote to it is to keep on protesting.
It’s always a shock to new protesters when this happens. Last summer on the Bush demo many people were taken aback by the level of police violence. You don’t always see the naked aggression of the state being used. Sometimes years can pass without it being used overtly.
During the campaign against the Iraq war police and politicians probably judged that public opinion was such that it was impossible to police in that way. But that aggression is always there. And often it’s used to back fascists and the extreme right against the left. That was the case in 1974 in Red Lion Square, where Kevin Gately was killed demonstrating against the National Front; 30 years ago in Southall where Blair Peach was killed by police while demonstrating against the National Front; and in 1993 Welling where a mass demonstration against the BNP “bookshop” was attacked by police (all reasons among many why you can’t rely on the state to deal with fascists).
Today one aspect of this increasingly aggressive policing is the criminalising of young people and especially young Muslims. That was evident from the Gaza demos, but also from the very high level of stop and search and the increasing surveillance of young Muslim men accused of “terror plots”. The 12 Pakistani students arrested last month (on the same day as the police were under pressure over the G20 and Ian Tomlinson’s death), allegedly over a “serious terror plot”, have all been released without trial but 11 of them are threatened with deportation. This has caused outcry among Muslims.
But the terror laws are used by police more widely than the admittedly terrifying arrests of suspects. They are also being used to justify surveillance on other crimes quite unrelated to terrorism and to justify the sort of policing of demonstrations that we have seen recently. For example, the Bush demo was not allowed to go up Whitehall allegedly on grounds that it might be a cover for terrorists.
Of course the racism and attacks on civil liberties which have grown in recent years are a direct consequence of the “war on terror”, a war which is unwinnable and unjustifiable, and which itself uses brutal methods including airstrikes and torture to achieve “success”. Latest developments over Iran and the increase in the number of US troops in Afghanistan will go hand in hand with an increased atmosphere of tension in Britain. So while Obama is threatening to bring US nationals to justice over torture in Guantanamo, his policies will create more miscarriages of justice, more terror laws and more vicious policing.
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