Can the Met change their stripes?

Last August, thousands of people camped out at Kingsnorth power station to protest against the continued use of coal power in the UK. Despite eye-witness reports and video evidence that police abused stop and search powers, removed their badge numbers, employed sleep deprivation tactics, harassed journalists, arrested any protesters who tried to demand their legal rights, and engaged in unprovoked violence against peaceful protesters and their private property, the police were not meaningfully challenged by anyone with the authority to do so. In fact, it wasn't until after events were repeated at the G20 protests in April 2009 that official questions were asked about the policing of dissent in the UK.

Early this year, cyber-liberties activist Cory Doctorow wrote an article for the Guardian about the Kingsnorth camp.

We've known about all this since last August - seven months and more. It was on national news. It was on the web. Anyone who cared about the issue knew everything they needed to know about it. And everyone had the opportunity to find out about it: remember, it was included in national news broadcasts, covered in the major papers - it was everywhere.

And yet ... nothing much has happened in the intervening eight months. Simply knowing that the police misbehaved does nothing to bring them to account. Transparency means nothing unless it is accompanied by the rule of law. It means nothing unless it is set in a system of good and responsible government, of oversight of authority that expeditiously and effectively handles citizen complaints. Transparency means nothing without justice.

Ironically, the article was delayed due to an administrative error, resulting in its publication shortly after the G20 protests. It was already true, even before the same mistakes were made all over again: and in April, it could just as easily have been talking about the events earlier that month. The Met have lied, again and again, about events on the day and the strategies that led to them. The Commissioner and Assistant Commissioner have placed blame solely on 'rogue' individual officers, denying all knowledge of deliberate and systematic use of violence. Hundreds if not thousands of officers were pictured engaging in unprovoked and disproportionate violence, but almost none have lost their stripes or their jobs. The senior officers in charge of the operation have got away scot-free. No officer who illegally detained or criminally assaulted a member of the public has been arrested or charged.

Next week, the Camp for Climate Action is returning to London for a week-long gathering of sustainable living and activism training. The campers are braced for the worst; Legal Observers, MPs and journalists will be present, and you can bet that if the police engage in unprovoked violence, YouTube and Flickr will instantly be flooded with evidence. But will that transparency lead to justice?

For a host of reasons - the death of Ian Tomlinson certainly, changing media attitudes towards police seen to have 'got away' with shooting Jean Charles de Menezes perhaps, or even that battering articulate middle-class liberals rather than working-class black teenagers is always a more high risk strategy - whatever they may have been, the political landscape had clearly changed.

The events of the G20 were a turning point in public opinion. The press has largely abandoned its original campaign of misinformation, and the Evening Standard, which published some of the worst of the pro-police propaganda, has officially changed its colours, and recently ran a ssympathetic story about a woman whose complaint was upheld by the IPCC.

Although the various committees (such as the new Civil Liberties panel formed by the MPA, which seems to be more interested in future policy than justice for past wrongs), investigative bodies and reports commissioned since April have not resulted in any substantive consequences for the Met or TSG, the former does seem to realise that all eyes are on them this time.

The police's new, all-smiles approach to the August camp, conspicuously lacking any apology or admission of previous guilt, has been called a "charm offensive" by journalists. The Metropolitan Police's PR campaign includes a twitter account (presumably in response to the Campers' successful use of live social media to co-ordinate their event), a change in senior personnel, and meetings with Climate Camp legal advisors. A bitter pill, one suspects, to the police liaisons who tried repeatedly to engage with the Met before the April camp, and were not only rejected, but subsequently blamed for the "lack of dialogue" cited as a factor in the escalation of events.

Common sense suggests that the police are going to behave next week. The camp will probably not obstruct a major road or airport, and nor is it likely to take place in the heart of the City. Of course, similar circumstances didn't help the Kingsnorth protesters, but the Met are doing their best to convince the activists - and the world - that "the policing will be reasonable if the Camp is reasonable". But if it isn't, nothing we've seen so far suggests that those responsible will be brought to account.

If the Met's PR campaign extends to not engaging in mindless violence, as well as just saying they won't, then the August camp could be seen by some as an anticlimax. But the primary narrative for activists is not one of a street war between protesters and police, but one of raising awareness about the issues of climate change and sustainable energy. When the media isn't pretending that nothing happened, coverage of protests gone wrong generates more discussion about policing than it does of these issues. The police have proved themselves keen in the past to silence inconvenient dissent; next week's activists can only hope that the greater public scrutiny focussed on the Met will enable their voices to be heard.




Re: Can the Met change their stripes?
Posted by denny (94.194.xx.xx) on Wed 19 Aug 2009 at 20:42 [ Send Message | View Weblogs ]

This post by Guy Aitchinson on OpenDemocracy is also worth reading. Regarding the media's coverage of this story so far, he says "It really does indicate just how bad things have got for the state of our democratic rights that a story along the lines of "Police may permit peaceful protest" is now news-worthy."

[ Parent | Reply to this comment ]

The Met have hired Social Media consultants
Posted by denny (94.194.xx.xx) on Thu 20 Aug 2009 at 10:58 [ Send Message | View Weblogs ]

This story would seem to explain where the Met have acquired a clue about Twitter.

Let's hope this is just part of a larger strategy, moving the Met further toward communication and positive engagement, and further away from aggression and confrontation.

[ Parent | Reply to this comment ]

Re: The Met have hired Social Media consultants
Posted by Helen (90.152.xx.xx) on Thu 20 Aug 2009 at 11:03 [ Send Message | View Helen's Scratchpad | View Weblogs ]
Yeah, depends how they approach it. On the one hand, don't the police force (on a national level) already trawl google for mentions of themselves, and are known to actively pursue slander lawsuits against people who write comments "detrimental to the reputation of the force"? On the other hand, if they're talking about getting involved in conversations as part of online community policing and outreach, a human touch can't possibly be a bad thing.

No talking back ;)
Posted by denny (94.194.xx.xx) on Thu 20 Aug 2009 at 11:51 [ Send Message | View Weblogs ]

The fact that their Twitter account for CC explicitly says that they won't respond to @replies isn't a great start on the 'getting involved in conversations' side of things, but maybe given time they'll get there.

Re: No talking back ;)
Posted by Helen (90.152.xx.xx) on Thu 20 Aug 2009 at 11:53 [ Send Message | View Helen's Scratchpad | View Weblogs ]
...And then we just wait for the Daily Mail to start frothing at the mouth about what a waste of taxpayers' money it is for police officers to be paid to use twitter. :)

Re: The Met have hired Social Media consultants
Posted by Helen (90.152.xx.xx) on Thu 20 Aug 2009 at 11:04 [ Send Message | View Helen's Scratchpad | View Weblogs ]
... and if they reply to this, we know they're not only getting their money's worth from the software, but are actually bothering to use it? :)