the G20 protests: truth and mirage
Everyone in London has been following the saga of the G20 protests and the police response to it. But I keep finding things other people haven't seen, and other people keep finding things I haven't seen, and when I told my mum and dad about this at the weekend they hadn't heard about any of it, so I'm not sure how far this has spread in the national press yet.
And even if you're in London, if your sources are the BBC, the free papers or the Evening Standard, you've probably got a distorted version of events.
I wasn't at the protests; I was at work, and the evening was my partner's birthday, so I was spending time with him instead. I'd been invited to the Climate Camp by various hippie friends, and considered going to it, but I had mixed feelings about using the G20 as a vehicle for general protest. The G20 was convened as a financial summit to sort out global recession and world trade. I'd read up on it a bit and had a sketchy understanding of quite how complex the whole messy business was, and I felt that the world leaders would have their work cut out to curtail protectionism, and keep trade links from breaking which might take years to rebuild. Never mind world peace at the same time. President Obama has been criticised for trying to fulfil his progressive campaign promises at the same time as sort the economy out, and not really achieving either; critics argue he should fix the economy first and then deal with the rest of it. And while the Copenhagan summit is arguably too late to deal with climate change, it's only in six months' time, so I was sort of disinclined to tell the G20 they should be sorting out Jobs, Justice and Climate Change at the same time as all the complex financial stuff.
Since then I've rethought that. Not only because we should be thinking about environmental and financial crises holistically if we want to solve them, rather than compartmentalising - I don't think that's realistic with our present governmental system, but I still think it's true - but because the police response to the protests was shocking, and I wish I'd been there with a camera, been there non-violently, so I could have added my voice to the eye-witness accounts flooding the internet over the next few days and insisting that the media representation of what happened was wrong.
Okay, there's a lot to get through here, so I'm going to attempt it in roughly chronological order.
The G20 protests: attempting to see through the smoke
These are the first reports I saw:
Police clash with G20 Protesters BBC News on Wednesday, 1 April 2009, 15:46 - putting the instigation of violence squarely on the heads of protesters
G20 protests: Riot police, or rioting police? - George Monbiot for the Guardian, Wednesday 1st April 16:16
G20: The strong arm of the law - Rowena Davis and Sunny Hundal for the Guardian, Wednesday 1 April 17:36.
Hobby horses of the apocalypse! Penny Red, Wednesday 1 April
Added 09/04/09: G20 - The best press photos - April Fools Day - April 1, 2009
On the night of Wednesday 1st April, I followed friends at the protest through facebook, texts and twitter. Reports were that they had been kettled for no reason, the police were being very heavy handed, stopping people leaving with batons and shields. Some protesters were angry and fighting back. It was all very ugly but no-one could get out. People were frightened and angry. No-one knew who had thrown the first punch but there was a general consensus that if it was a protester, it was a case of a rogue individual rather than a united group initiative.
Meanwhile the London papers, the Metro, the BBC are full of stories of violent anarchists, destroying property and breaching the peace, and forcing the poor police to rein them in. I don't have links for those because they made me so pissed I closed without saving. Some of the following articles link back to them though.
On Facebook I am surrounded by people who were there, linking to blog posts and eyewitness accounts. People started to talk about the kettles; they started to talk about the events after police tried to close Climate Camp down on April 1.
The Guardian continues to be the only paper corroborating the eyewitness reports I'm receiving through blogs and personal accounts on social networking sites.
Did the handling of the G20 protests reveal the future of policing? - Duncan Campbell for the Guardian, Friday 3 April
Since Climate Camp is where I would have been, had I been there - if I'm going to protest anything it's climate change, there's no point protesting about the recession in my opinion - I am fascinated and horrified by the reports coming in of police behaviour after dark, once they've cleared all the journalists out of the area.
The siege of Climate Camp by Stuart White, April 2, 2009
What I saw - Various eye-witness accounts of police brutality when they cleared out Climate Camp on the evening of April 1, organised by a medic who was baton-charged by police.
At 7:10 I was sitting around near south end, north end had a bicycle-powered sound system up and people dancing, there were a few (<10?) drunk idiots slumped round being incoherently rude to the police but absolutely no threat or sign of violence. It was just turning too dark for TV crews and commuters had left. Then this happened (link to youtube video). Riot police turned up maybe 6-8 deep south end (video I do't think shows lines behind the two front lines who were actually charging), two deep north end, started kettling us (no-one in or out). Then the south end baton-charged. They charged us sat down praying, they charged people sitting round eating tea, they were hitting people faster than they could run away, and going for heads rather than legs. At first people tried standing in front of them hands in the air (to show you are't holding weapons), but they were getting beaten up so people ran, and they were still getting hit. I saw three people throwing fruit, but as far as I could tell that was as violent as resistance got. You can see on the video people chanting "This is not a riot" and "shame on you", no-one hitting the police back.
Greens protest formally over G20 police tactics - "The protesters' stories of police brutality and the police's story of complete professionalism just don't stack up," says Jenny Jones
These two posts by Bristle are good collections of photos and eyewitness accounts:
Watching the police: Attack on the G20 Climate Camp (part 1)
Watching the police: Attack on the G20 Climate Camp (part 2)
Let's refresh our memories as to what these violent, anarchic protesters actually getting up to that was so provocative:
The mainstream press still hasn't picked up on the unprovoked brutality of police against protestors on the night of April 1st. They are, however, starting to question the original "evil protesters, professional police" narrative, because of the investigation the Guardian ran this week into the death of Ian Tomlinson, inside the kettle near the Bank of England on the afternoon of April 1.
Video reveals G20 police assault on man who died
and accompanying articles:
Police 'assaulted' bystander who died during G20 protests
Ian Tomlinson death: G20 witnesses tell of dogs, batons and an attack by police
De Menezes taught the Met nothing by Duncan Campbell
Extended Youtube footage - including of a single bottle being hurled at police as they shielded Tomlinson from the crowd. (A far cry from the rain of bricks claimed to have been thrown at polce medics by protestors in the Evening Standard.)
Ian Tomlinson: What happened? - by GreenerBlog with links to eyewitness accounts.
Added 17:56 "Krishnan Guru-Murthy of Channel 4 News says that ITN have exclusive footage that 'shows police clearly striking out at him with a baton.' Will be on the news tonight at 7 PM." (thanks to )
Added 09/04/09: G20 Police Attack Protestors Causing Severe Injuries (Youtube video)
Added 09/04/09: Sousveillance notes by Denny on Thuesday 9 April on the use of batons by police medics in the Bishopsgate kettle.
Added 09/04/09: And this is finally getting international coverage:
Questions About Police Tactics During G-20 - NY Times, April 6, 2009, 6:26 pm
What we have here seems to be media propaganda resulting in a mirage, and victim-blaming on a grand scale. This means that most people in the UK still believe the protesters were the original instigators of violence, that the police only responded to force once a riot had already begun, and that the police response was restrained and legitimate. This propaganda needs to be challenged.
Correcting the media narrative of the G20 protests on April 1, 2009, from CeaseFire Magazine, Tuesday, April 7, 2009 21:21
"Anti-capitalist protesters embarked upon a wrecking spree within a City branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland today," shrieked The Times on April 1, "and engaged in running battles with police as G20 demonstrations turned violent. Police were forced to use dogs, horses and truncheons to control a crowd of up to 5,000 people who marched on the Bank of England, in Threadneedle Street, on the eve of the London summit."
This narrative of events is entirely typical. Under the headline "Police clash with G20 protestors", the BBC reported that "protesters stormed a London office of the Royal Bank of Scotland", later adding that: "officers later used 'containment' then 'controlled dispersal'" (BBC, April 1). The Guardian reported: "The G20 protests in central London turned violent today ahead of tomorrow's summit, with a band of demonstrators close to the Bank of England storming a Royal Bank of Scotland branch. [S]ome bloody skirmishes broke out as police tried to keep thousands of people in containment pens" (The Guardian, April 1).
What is interesting about this narrative is that it precisely reverses the events of the day.
Media quietly admits smearing G20 protestors by Sunny Hundal for Liberal Conspiracy, April 3, 2009 at 1:10 pm
As of today, the BBC are finally starting to catch up with events: G20 death man's son seeks answers
Added 04/09/04: The BBC is still behind everyone else: How should the police handle protests? on Have Your Say, Wednesday, 8 April, 2009, 16:55
added 16:13: G20 policing caused man's death: police coverup and media lies (lots more coverage at Indymedia London)
added 09/04/09: Did Costumes and Props Undercut the Seriousness of the G-20 Protests? Is the media to blame for focusing so much on what is most visually arresting, or are the protesters at fault for spending too much energy attracting attention and not enough articulating practical steps that might actually change the system?
Added 09/04/09: G20 assault: how Metropolitan police tried to manage a death - The Guardian, Thursday 9 April 2009.
It began with an anodyne press release from the Metropolitan police more than three hours after Ian Tomlinson died. It ended with a police officer and an investigator from the Independent Police Complaints Commission asking the Guardian to remove a video from its website showing an unprovoked police assault on Mr Tomlinson minutes before his heart attack.
Okay, so. I don't want to join the hyperbolic brigade screaming that the police are murderous pigs. Eyewitness evidence can build a compelling case, but it's not proof, and there is already a counter-mirage being thrown up by over-excited liberals making uncorroborated claims of police violence. People saying Ian Tomlinson was beaten to death with police batons, etc. Lots of people have been angry with the police since 1991 and some of the myths springing up around the G20 are frankly unhelpful. But this doesn't mean eye-witness accounts should be dismissed out of hand, and this doesn't mean the press coverage is any less fanciful.
I wasn't there. I can't work this out just by browsing the internet; there should be an independent inquiry (rather than by the police watchdog, who as a point of policy use police reports as evidence rather than taking any independent interviews from witnesses!). All I'm trying to do here is raise awareness. This is more complicated than the BBC would have you believe. Stay sceptical. Ask questions.
Edited 18:05: People are engaging with this, getting angry, reposting it. That's great. Some of you are writing blogposts or to your MPs; even better. I do want to re-iterate the warning above, though.
For instance, a few people have already started circulating the claim "the police baton-charged a prayer meeting". This claim derives from the accounts given at What I saw. These reports make for powerful reading, and I was very emotionally affected by them. Thus far, however, they appear to be the accounts of a small group of acquaintances, who would have re-inforced each other's version of events before posting. They match some reports outside the group (linked above) but so far I haven't seen video or photo evidence of the police charging seated protestors, or the attacks by police getting bloodier than what you can see here.
The prayer meeting claim seems to be corroborated by the fact that a 'Buddhist meditation circle' and 'prayer for peace' were scheduled to take place at around the same time as the police charge shown in the above video - between 6-7pm on April 1st. However, this would have been taking place inside Climate Camp, not at the edge where people were standing up as the police approached.
That's not to say it didn't get nastier after dark, or that the eye-witness accounts posted to blogs are fabricated. However, I think it is important when writing about this, particularly to MPs, to focus on the evidence that is backed up by several independent sources. If you care about this, I would advise you to put the sensationalistic headlines down and concentrate on the stuff we can make a strong case for. There is more than enough of this to make a point.
I am anxious that the protesters and their supporters are in danger of shooting themselves in the foot by getting over-excited and making exaggerated claims. The meme of violent police is as catchy as the meme of violent protestors. If we pounce on the most dramatic claims, and they are subsequently disproved, it may weaken any remaining case we try to make.
What the Met have to say
Here are some articles covering the police point of view of events:
Police are now effecting a slow dispersal of the remaining group of protesters who formed part of the Climate Camp demonstration at the top end of Bishopsgate. These people have now been demonstrating for over 12 hours. While this has been peaceful, they are being moved because Bishopsgate is a main arterial route. To allow them to stay would cause serious disruption to the life of the community in this area. Police are using powers under section 14 of the Public Order Act to do this. They have made every effort to tell protesters they would need to leave, warning them several times through loudhailers. (evening of April 1)
Blogs by police officers who were working at the G20:
G20: Sheepdogs and Wolves - Friday, 3 April 2009
Most officers were on extended shifts (12 hours minimum though most did 16+ each day) and when things went properly pearshaped we had no relief and were just kept on, regardless of when we were due to start the next day. On the 1st for example, most of the serials were on an 0800 start, they didn't finish until 0200 and were then due back on for 0430 - so much for a minimum of 11 hours between shifts. After spending 14 hours getting battered with bottles and poles in one of the cordons in the City we were retasked to clear and take the climate camp.
(JQP points out: "There is no evidence that anyone on any police barricade spent '14 hours getting battered with bottles and poles'. Since that would have involved non-stop violent assault onthat picket from 10am onwards right up to the moment climate-camp was finally wrecked circa 1am." The first charge on Climate Camp happened while it was still light.)
Whose Street? Our Street!. (There are more links in the sidebar to other police blogs. I haven't had time to go through those yet but looks like there's quite a lot of material if you're interested.)
added 17:13: G20: The upside of 'kettling' John O'Connor for the Guardian, Thursday 2 April 2009 16.30
added 09/04/09: Sigh by mummylonglegs on April 1, 2009.
Fools pretending to be protestors. Terrorists pretending to be protestors. Vandals pretending to be protestors. Greenies, Beardies, Trots, Commies, Scroungers, Losers and Wasters all pretending to be protestors. They are not protestors, they are fuckwits.
Under surveillance: police target environmental protesters and journalists This Guardian video was found by Denny - it was filmed last year, but the commentary clearly illustrates police attitudes towards the free press and the right of the public to protest.
Context and commentaryOkay. There's more, but that pretty much frames the picture that has formed for me over the last week. Here's some analysis by people who have more time to write about things than I do.
Some historical context: A Brief History of Violence by Rhian Jones
Directionless Bones, a militant radical, on violence and police strategy:
Put People First, Psychological Biases, and the Role of Violence
G20 Protests: Perspectives on Police Tactics, Part 1 - Liberal Moralism
G20 Protests: Perspectives on Police Tactics, Part 2 - Militant Strategy
Machiavelli for Anarchists, Part 3 - Public and Private, Contracts of the Powerful and the Powerless
JohnQPublican, commentating on eye-witness reports, media management and hypocrisy:
Feast of Fools
They predicted a riot - containing a useful critical analysis of some of the eyewitness accounts.
Feast of Fools II: Foot in Mouth
I still blame police brutality by Sunny Hundal for Liberal Conspiracy, April 2, 2009 at 4:21 am.
So who will excuse police brutality now? by Sunny Hundal for Liberal Conspiracy, April 8, 2009 at 4:38 am.
Sunny was one of the four journalists who were present during the protest on behalf of the Guardian; hence that paper's sympathy with eyewitness reports even when they contradict the official version of events.
Added 17:40: G20 death is a sign of systemic problems in the policeby Ian Dunt for Yahoo News, Wed April 8 at 11:01am.
Picture the scene: it is around 14:00 BST. A group of peaceful protestors around the Bank of England are kept about 20 metres apart from another group of peaceful protestors on Mansion House Street. Much has been written about the effect this has on demonstrators - namely to make them more irritable and rowdy than they were previously. But it must surely have an effect on the police as well. At best, the people they are policing are treated as cattle. At worst, they are treated as a public disorder event which hasn't happened yet.
They are not, of course. They are British subjects exercising their democratic right to protest. But police behaviour is influenced by the words of their commanders, and the operational basis on which the policing is conducted.
Added 09/04/09: G20: Police turned my dissatisfaction into anger - Saturday 04 April 2009 15:17 by Longdancingboy
A moment before the clashes started, when the crowd had started to push forward against the police line I thought to myself, "God, those cops must feel pretty scared". Their line of a few dozen was trapped in between two groups of many hundreds. They had no way out. I was honestly worried for their safety if there was a crush.
Then a strange thing happened. The instant the officers started raining down blows the heads of anyone and everyone I lost all sympathy for them. In a flash they had gone from being on my side, there for my protection and safety, to causing harm to innocent people. I actually became afraid of being hurt by the police.
And this when I had been a Special Constable for eighteen months when I was at university. I know from first-hand experience that it's a tough, dangerous and mostly thankless job, even when they're not on the front line of an angry crowd. Yet suddenly my perspective shifted. Now they've lost my respect. This makes me extremely sad.
It has been suggested to me that it is possible that the mainstream press was so slow to point blame at the police because of the stringent legal regulations in place which restrict this. I have been informed that the police can, and will, sue journalists for slander if they make claims about the police or individual police officers that cannot be proved in court. I don't have any sources for this, but would appreciate them.
Okay. I should do some work now. Feel free to add links in comments. I'll keep this entry public; you're welcome to link to it.
Edit 18:54: Denny and I will be at the G20 Meltdown protest this Saturday. See you there?
EDIT 22:01 Wow this is moving fast...
Ian Tomlinson death: New video footage from G20 protests gives fresh angle on attack - Wednesday 8 April 2009
Footage originally released on ITN Channel Four News at 7pm this evening, showing the police office who attacked Tomlinson drawing back his arm and hitting him full swing with the baton from behind.
Ian Tomlinson death: Police officer comes forward to IPCC - Wednesday 8 April 19:50
Good, the individual has accepted culpability and police use of batons against protestors will hopefully be called into question. Clever, the individual handing themselves in deflects culpability from higher up the chain of command - where responsibility for police strategy and conduct still lies.
I hope this doesn't close the whole story down. I hope it paves the way for more revelations. Because this was a big deal, but it was by no stretch of the imagination the whole deal.
Edited 22:41: John Q Publican apparently agrees with me: Feast of Fools III: Guilty.