Kettling and the right to freely demonstrate

policeviolence1

Police thugs randomly searched and brutalised G20 protesters. Chris Strafford reports

The G20 summit saw thousands of people protest outside the Bank of England on April 1. The demonstration was called by a variety of groups under the banner of G20 Meltdown.

From early on the police had protesters hemmed in a ‘kettle’, which restricted access, compacted the crowd and prevented people leaving. The mood quickly turned sour, as the police kept pushing the crowd tighter and tighter. Later riot police began to attack, hitting out indiscriminately.

The police were clearly up for a fight and had been over-exaggerating the threat of violence in the weeks prior to the G20 summit. Unfortunately, the bankers will be “hanging from lampposts” and other such “humorous” statements, however qualified, from comrade Chris Knight et al played into their hands.

Sections of the media then did their bit playing up of threat of violence for all they were worth in order to excuse the pre-planned police violence well before what the G20 Meltdown organisers called their “carnival street party” had even begun.

It was in this atmosphere that Ian Tomlinson lost his life. It seems he was not part of the demonstration, but just on his way home from work. What is clear from numerous eye-witness reports1 and now a video released by The Guardian2 is that he was caught up in the action and collapsed, apparently from a heart attack. I say ‘apparently’, because a post mortem was held with indecent haste and “heart attack” was given as the cause of death, even though medical personnel are asked not to use the phrase on death certificates because of its vagueness.

The rightwing media and the BBC did their utmost to either bury the story or push the blame onto demonstrators for preventing the police from helping the man and then allegedly hurling bottles at medics. The video footage clearly shows the opposite. The police assaulted Tomlinson and then refused to aid him after requests from protestors.

An investigation is underway by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Normally one would expect a complete whitewash, but in this case a section of the establishment has decided to weigh in against the police – not only the likes of The Guardian, but the Liberal Democrats too.

It was obvious to anyone who was at that demonstration that the tactics of the police were dangerous, provocative and at times downright brutal. So what we have to be wary of is the possibility of blame being pinned onto a single officer. The attempted cover-up must have gone all the way to the top, as the statement which was released on April 1 bears no resemblance at all to the events that occurred and have subsequently been caught on numerous pictures and video. There should be a public enquiry into Tomlinson’s death that allows us full access to all police footage and documents relating to the protests; there should be absolute transparency to enable the public to scrutinise the events.

For the best part of a day protestors where kept inside the ‘kettle’, with sporadic outbreaks of violence from the police and angry attempts to break out by protestors. Bottles and other small objects where thrown at the police and at one point several hundred people did break through, only to be quickly pushed back by reinforcements of riot police. At around 7pm the police began a concerted effort to squeeze the remaining 2,000 or so demonstrators (by this time people had been allowed to leave) into a smaller space. Again demonstrators responded with bottles … and so did the police.

Stories of agents provocateurs are commonplace, but for the first time I saw this with my own eyes. Two plain-clothes officers were throwing bottles and were chased away by demonstrators suspicious at their behaviour. On reaching police lines they showed warrant cards and were let straight through. Presumably the aim was to justify their own brutal violence and tactics in front of the watching media.

The police could not even claim to be protecting anybody, but ‘kettling’ has been validated by the highest legal authority. As The Guardian reports, “The tactic was challenged in the courts by two people who were held for seven hours at Oxford Circus, central London, during the May Day protests in 2001. They claimed their imprisonment breached their rights to liberty, but a House of Lords judgment ruled the tactics legal.”3

The ruling on this legal challenge gives the police the power to detain masses of people without charge for hours at a time, if they suspect (or claim to suspect) a threat of violence to people or property. By this tactic the police have in effect overruled the legal right to free assembly and to demonstrate – which evidently must include the right to move to and from the scene of protest.

It also gives the police the opportunity to pick out and profile known activists. The only way you could leave the ‘kettle’ was through a police line, where surveillance officers would pick out individuals for search and/or arrest. In this way the police were able to collect a vast amount of information about protestors – relating to their political affiliation as well as their personal details.

On April 2 nearly a thousand people gathered once more outside the Bank of England to protest against the brutality meted out to G20 Meltdown and Climate Camp protestors, and called for an independent investigation into Tomlinson’s death. At first the police response was as violent as it has been the previous day, although eventually they were pulled back – perhaps it dawned on senior officers that pictures of police brutality at a demonstration against police brutality would not be good PR.

There was a further demonstration of around 600 people at the Excel Centre, largely from different exile communities. This passed off without violent incident, but saw the police stop and search hundreds of individuals.

The state is arming itself with new laws (and new weapons, such as taser guns) at a time when in the current economic climate, protests are likely to become more common. The police are undemocratic and largely unaccountable. In their place, communists pose a workers’ militia; alongside that, universal military training and service for all under democratic control.

Our movement needs to get smart and get organised. We need to be able to defend our movement, our demonstrations and our picket lines. But only a mass workers’ party can hope to do this in a consistent and efficient way.

Notes

1. london.indymedia.org.uk/articles/1019
2. www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/apr/07/ian-tomlinson-g20-death-video
3. www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/apr/03/g20-protests-police-tactics

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