Opinion: Dangerous and intimidatory police tactics made G20 violence inevitable

First let me put this in context, I was not involved with any group demonstrating in the city for the G20 protests. I am not an anticapitalist (I’m a Lib Dem) I work in marketing, for a charity and have never taken part in direct action.

However, I am concerned about climate change, one of the issues on the G20 agenda. I wanted to see exactly what the climate camp contingent were about, and what kind of message they wanted world leaders to hear. Considering the vast majority of scientific opinion believes we are in severe danger from climate change and lack of action thus far, I thought they might have pretty important reason to be out on the streets. I also wanted to see whether reports of heavy handed police tactics’ on earlier demo’s was accurate.

I’m sorry to say that, on the basis of what I saw, the police tactics were designed with nothing in mind other than to oppress a peaceful protest and make a violent situation inevitable.

This particular group of protesters were encamped in a tent city near Bank. Having wandered around at lunchtime, and after work amongst them, it appeared to be universally peaceful . They were in no way associated with the more violent protests the police dealt with earlier in the day at the Bank of England.

The climate camp occupied about a 100 metre stretch of street running a couple of streets parallel to Bishopsgate. The thousand or so protestors had erected a tent city, complete with bunting, cake, live music, stalls, even a stand-up lavatory for those caught short. Until about 7pm in the evening it was entirely peaceful – until the police moved in.

Two lines of police in riot gear penned each side of the street and without warning stopped anyone from entering or leaving. Just a couple of minutes after this ‘penning’ began, we attempted to exit the street only to be aggressively told by riot police that no-one could leave if they were involved in the protests. When questioned further one stated that ‘there were criminals in there’ and ‘this lot have been causing trouble at bank and we are going to go in and get them’.

Having failed to get out at the Liverpool Street end we tried the south end of the street. Here we saw protestors with faces covered in blood being dragged away, whilst others staged a sit down protest to try and avoid being pushed into the crush by the riot police. We slipped around the side of the street but were initially denied exit. After pleading with one of the more reasonable riot police I got out with my friend at the other end – but only after I showed my ID card to the police officer and explained we were just observing and in no way involved in the protests.

Unlike the thousand or so hapless people remaining there, I was lucky enough to have an ID badge from my charity (which happens to specialise in human rights) so the police changed their tune. Unfortunately the others got left to their fate. In one case I saw first-hand this meant an unprovoked truncheon attack from a female police officer. According to a work colleague of mine who also witnessed this event, other people staging a sit down protest were beaten and trampled underfoot as the police moved forward.

I can categorically say that I saw not more than one or two anarchists in the camp (who are easily recognisable being dressed in black) who were doing nothing threatening at the point I saw them. The hard core of the other more aggressive protestors were still penned in outside the Bank of England, putting the police justification for deploying riot police at climate camp on shaky ground.

As I left, anger started boiling over at police protest and at least two bottles were thrown from the initially peaceful demonstrators – thus the police had their excuse for suppressing the demonstration. But all I ask is that the truth is reported – it was their own tactics which caused a crushed crowd, panic and violence.

This country is founded upon the peaceful right to protest – as I said to one of the riot police who would not let me leave. We are not a police state. Whoever was responsible for the police operation here deserves to be condemned, but then I suppose encouraging violence justifies their ever spiralling security budgets.

* Andrew May is a former campaigns organiser for the Lib Dem, and active Lib Dem. Andrew has set up a Facebook group to campaign against police violence during peaceful protests: you can join it here.

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24 Comments

  • Alix Mortimer 2nd Apr '09 - 1:37pm

    On related note, here’s footage from the police breaking up the climate camp later in the evening. Footage of the event you’re talking about. Note numbers of hands in the air. (Although I did find the “This is not a riot!” chant amusing in a way not wholly intended. “What do we want?” “Fewer riots!” “When do we want them?” “Er. Is this a trick question?”)

    http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2009/04/426086.html?c=on#c219340

  • Personally Andrew, I will not be condemning the Police.

    If activists want to peacefully protest and make a point they should go and hold a climate camp in a field or a park.

    If on they other hand they hold a similar protest at a major road junction in the middle of a city, blocking traffic and public transport, preventing people going to work, they are going to have to be removed, at great expense, by the Police.

    If the Police command can be criticised it should be primarily for not removing this smuggard group of the self-important more rapidly. That they did not suggests they used their strategic judgement to minimise the risk of violence and contain all the idiots in one location to minimise disruption in other parts of London

    Did they use excessive force? I suspect and judging from your eye-witness report in some instances individuals probably did. Those officers, where complaints are properly received, and they can be identified should and probably will be disciplined.

    But frankly I don’t sympathise much with those on the end of the truncheon, unless really caught up in it through no fault of their own.

    If you willingly go to a protest you know is deliberately designed to provoke confrontation, as this was – where the Police have a lawful duty to remove you, this is going to happen.

    If you want to sit-down in the public highway, or wrist-off about your rights to a Police Officer, doing their job removing you, who is tired and terrified in a line of dozens controlling a crowd of thousands, having heard news of injuries of fellow Officers nearby, it is quite likely some will snap and use force. They are human beings not automata.

    Individuals aside, the Police in general deserve our support in these situations, and under the cricumstances they did a great job.

  • Neil:
    “If you want to sit-down in the public highway, or wrist-off about your rights to a Police Officer, doing their job removing you, who is tired and terrified in a line of dozens controlling a crowd of thousands, having heard news of injuries of fellow Officers nearby, it is quite likely some will snap and use force. They are human beings not automatatic.”

    Interesting the way you phrase that, weere you actually there? How exactly did you glean your information that a few dozen ‘terrified’ police officers were holding back thousands of people.

    I would place a bet that you watched the nicely edited version of events safely from your TV screen and drew your conclusions accordingly.

    Its also worth mentioning that the police were fully informed as to when, where and how long the protest would be held. They were also fully aware it was peaceful (unless they were blind) so if you think creating fear and conflict is a ‘great job’ I do wonder what your priorities are.

  • Alix Mortimer 2nd Apr '09 - 2:55pm

    Neil, you should watch the video I’ve linked to. It shows very clearly how the climate camp protest was broken up by police. It’s not outrageous, but neither is it particularly edifying.

  • Andy: My priority is to letting working people who want to work, work without being prevented from doing so by an army of self-righteous prigs, peaceful or otherwise.

    The goal of the protest was to shut down parts of the City of London, that is not a peaceful protest, it is a assault by one group on the liberties of another. This protest in particular blocked a major road junction and access to places of work.

    The Police in that regard were right to contain the situation and right to move people on when they judged it was appropriate to do so.

    What would you have done to clear the street in their position?

  • More police incompetence. Have they never heard of the word planning?

  • “There are better ways for the police to deal with this kind of thing. If people are blocking the road, just chuffing well arrest them one by one, or tell them to bugger off.” That I’d certainly agree with.

  • Stuart White 2nd Apr '09 - 6:09pm

    Those interested in a rational discussion of this episode might like to look at my account, ‘Seige mentality’, at the Fabian website, Next Left. I write as a Labour party member, married to Green, who also visited the Climate Camp on April 1. What I saw corroborates Andrew May’s account.

    The issue here is the new police tactic of ‘kettling’ demonstrations: cordoning them off so that nobody can get in or out. Whatever one thinks of the rights and wrongs of launching a protest in a city street – and, given the urgency of the issue and the salience of the G20, I think it an entirely proportionate approach – this does not justify the particular way in which the police handled the protest.

    While I would not say that ‘kettling’ is always wrong, there are three good reasons why it should be the exception in police tactics and not the norm:

    (1) It is provocative. The atmosphere at the Climate Camp up until the kettling was peaceful and convivial. The police action created tension which was not there, making violence more likely.

    (2) When the police impose a ‘kettle’, they do not let anyone out. When I left the Camp just before the kettle was imposed (quite by chance – no one had any idea it was coming), it included people of all ages, including at least one family with a young toddler. I do not know if the police made any exception for such families. If they did/do not, then, if violence does break out, very vulnerable people are at risk with no means of escape – thanks to the police.

    (3) One has to appreciate the message this tactic sends out. In essence what the police are doing is temporarily imprisoning a group of people in a territory. So the message is: ‘We, the state, regard you as equivalent to criminals.’ When you regard yourself as simply pressing your democratic rights, this is degrading and demeaning. Do we want police tactics that treat protesters in degrading and demeaning ways? Is that how much we value the right to protest?

  • Liberal Neil 2nd Apr '09 - 10:38pm

    I’m interested to know what the legal basis for ‘kettling’ is?

  • Why doesn’t it constitute unlawful arrest?

  • Kettling is probably lesser of evils. Keeping everyone in one area is better than the potential risk of loing control of an area due to the actions of a few hundred violent protestors. If the Police do nothing and a riot ensues, they are blamed if they keep control they are heavy handed. Those who complain would carry more weight if they had experience of policing large demonstrations.

  • Charlie also has a point. If the objective of the protests is to shut down parts of a city, which is a crime, surely kettling is a reasonable policing response?

    I return to the point that the right to protest is not a right to limit the freedoms and rights of others. The climate camp protest largely was a big party held mostly at tax-payers expense, with an underlying criminal intent to shut down a large party of the City of London.

    Tom Brake is right to suggest there are civil liberties implications of preventing people leaving a protest if they want to, although on the videos of the protests at various points there are people walking in and out.

    But without kettling the result would be that even more resources would need to be put into following groups around as they exert their ‘rights’ to engage in criminal trespass and obstructing the public highway across the city.

    Why should Londoners put up with that?

    This is an instance where rights collide, and I’d hope the party were more interested in protecting the rights of Londoners to go to work and travel across their City than those of a minority seeking attention for their cause through petty vandalism, trespass, and obstruction.

  • “Tom Brake is right to suggest there are civil liberties implications of preventing people leaving a protest if they want to …”

    To say nothing of detaining people who are not part of the protest, such as Tom Brake himself!

  • “I return to the point that the right to protest is not a right to limit the freedoms and rights of others. The climate camp protest largely was a big party held mostly at tax-payers expense, with an underlying criminal intent to shut down a large party of the City of London.”

    Neil, you don’t seem to be aware of the reality on the ground. I am questioning the use of Kettling at this particular demo:

    #1: The street in question was about 100m long, both sides to the street where accessible and people had no problem in moving through the street earlier in the day aside from weaving through a few people.

    #2: There was no attempt from the climate camp to move outside their self imposed limits and therefore your point about following groups around was irrelevant in this scenario, it would need more thought at the bank of england demos where there was a troublesome element.

    #3 Actually the only people to shut down parts of the city were the companies themselves. Many firms told people not to go to work, offering advice to stay at home over an irrational fear that city workers would be attacked in the streets. A fear that appears unfounded since I saw not one report of this in the extensive coverage I’ve looked at in the last couple of days.

    #4 People walking in an out were probably those with press accreditation or police spotters, it was extremely difficult to get out of the kettle, I only got out by chance and a riot policeman who was much more rational than some of his colleagues and was turning a blind eye to some reasonable requests to be let out.

  • Stuart White 3rd Apr '09 - 4:21pm

    Comment to Neil Berry: it is a long-established part of the liberal political tradition that citizens may – and sometimes should – engage in proportionate civil disobedient activity to protest grevious moral wrongs.

    I think the very real risk of irreverisible and catastrophic climate change is a grievous wrong. And I do not think that closing down one street in London for one day represents a disproportionate form of civil disobedience as a way of protesting and raising awareness of this potential, grievous moral wrong.

    Come on, think about it. What will you say to your grandchildren? ‘I’m sorry we’ve left you a planet in chaos, but at least you have the satisfaction of knowing that when I was able to do something about it, I never broke the law.’

  • AH/SW: What I’d probably say is what a load of self-righteous piffle.

    Just so we’re clear what we’re talking about: http://climatecamp.org.uk/?q=node/468

    This was not just a general protest about climate change or even mainly so, it was a specific protest against “deeply flawed carbon trading mechanisms to tackle climate change”.

    Their preferred method of making this point was “closing a major road” and in turn the European Climate Exchange, other businesses involved directly in tackling climate change such as banks making green loans, and many businesses on that street that had nothing to do with carbon trading such as bars and shoe repair shops run by ordinary working people trying to make an honest living in a difficult downturn.

    Forgive me, but I’m not aware who elected this group as lead cheerleaders for the green movement, or who decided the main barrier to solving climate change was the EU Emissions Trading Scheme.

    Not only that, but that it was such a compelling barrier, so unameanable to reasonable change through democratic means that it required direct criminal action rather than a reasoned peaceful protest similar to that in Trafalgar Square, or other forms of legal campaigns.

    Their political argument is a dogmatic anti-market one, and their justification for direct action to support it could not be weaker. It was certainly not proportionate.

    But taking Stuart’s point let’s suppose this was mainly just about the general case that preventing dangerous climate change matters… who was their audience for this? The G20 already accept this and each of the nations involved has put large amounts of money into their fiscal stimulus programmes to back up their words with action. We have a Climate Change Act in this country, consensus between the three major parties, millions of individuals recycling, buying energy efficient lightbulbs, paying green tariffs, and dozens of campaign groups involved in keeping the message alive.

    I’m afraid if that’s your point about this group it’s rather like arguing for direct action for a women’s right to choose today, despite having a legal right to abortions.

    If that is your point I disagree with you, direct action and civil disobedience should be a last resort when the political process has failed.

    AndyM: We’re going to have to agree to differ on this. The Police clearly can’t assume a mass gathering involved in criminal direct action on the same day as others involving violent anarchist groups is going to be peaceful, or that those involved are just going to wonder off to do flower arranging. Nor can businesses who have a duty to protect their staff and property from the risk of harm.

    The Police have a duty to remove obstructions from the public highway. It’s not then clear to me what you thought they should have done differently, and when, short of arresting everyone involved immediately and penning them all in a football stadium to cool off instead of kettling them in the street.

    The status quo appears to be that the Police let major protests like this break the law for a while, but make it uncomfortable, then break it up at a time when it unlikely further trouble will follow. Is that such a bad way to handle a protest intent on illegal blockades?

  • “The Police have a duty to remove obstructions from the public highway.”

    But they didn’t remove the obstruction. They held it in place for 7 or 8 hours!

  • Stuart White 4th Apr '09 - 2:14pm

    Neil Berry: I suspect some of our disagreement here lies in the fact that you seem to think that the world leaders have grasped the degree of the problem of climate change and are taking effective action to address it. If I thought this was true, I would agree that events like the Climate Camp are unjustified. But, frankly, if you really think the governments of the world have squared up this challenge, you are much mistaken. Nicholas Stern was saying as much in The Guardian only this week, and he’s hardly a headbanging, anarchist street-protesting nutter.

  • Sam Weatherald 4th Apr '09 - 6:06pm

    “who decided the main barrier to solving climate change was the EU Emissions Trading Scheme.”

    The experts, actually. Its been made clear numerous times that the current cap and trade solutions have little chance of preventing runaway, catastrophic climate change:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jan/01/letter-to-barack-obama

    Given this context, how would you suggest citizens concerned about the fate of humanity take action?

    “I’m afraid if that’s your point about this group it’s rather like arguing for direct action for a women’s right to choose today, despite having a legal right to abortions. ”

    No, its actually equivilent to the direct action taken by, for example, the suffragettes, the civil rights movement, anti-imperialist movements etc…. All protests on the right side of history, as will, eventually, be the current environmentalist movement. Throughout history, when the ‘legitimate’ means of dissenting injustice and institutionalised ignorance fail, people have taken direct action to make their voices heard. This may involve being a public nuisance, but thats kind of the point isn’t it?

    The environmental challenge of climate change should have been TOP of the agenda at the G20, rather than short term solutions to shore up unsustainable economic growth. Unless this problem is taken seriously direct action will continue to be used, and justifiably so, in an effort make sure its even on the agenda at all. People majorly get their heads out of the sand, sort their priorities out, and stop cynically sneering at any positive attempt to address potentially the biggest global crisis humanity has ever faced.

  • Stuart: “he’s hardly a headbanging, anarchist street-protesting nutter” Correct and that’s why he gets taken seriously and the former lot do not.

    Mentioning Nick Stern also highlights the large number of people involved in campaigning for effective measures to prevent climate change through normal legal democratic channels like Parliament.

    My main point of disagreement in this thread appears to be the assumption from some that the direct action involved in the climate camp was justified… and so to

    Sam: “how would you suggest citizens concerned about the fate of humanity take action?”

    For starters by using the example you’ve given and writing letters to newspapers. But further you can organise a petition, lobby your elected representatives, stand to become an elected representative, join a campaign group, donate money to campaign groups, join social networking groups, join a political party, lobby within that party, change your own lifestyle to act as example, encourage your friends, work for a green business, study green technology sciences, offset your emissions, run a website, issue e-mail campaigns, put up a poster, comment on websites, run a text message campaign, work quietly behinds the scenes in the civil service on policy and research, educate children in schools, educate adults in further education colleges, make a little difference at work by introducing more sustainable methods… and so on…

    These are some of the many things you can do, that make a real difference both actually in terms of moving public opinion that don’t involve blockading the public highway dressed as the green goblin.

    “Unless this problem is taken seriously direct action will continue to be used, and justifiably so”

    I will agree to differ with you on this. I can see nothing in what you said that shows that regular peaceful democratic campaigning has failed to move public opinion and political leadership on tackling climate change.

    On your specific point about ‘experts’ that’s rather the point in a democracy, experts disagree and politicians have to decide who has the better case in respect of instituting policy. Carbon trading at the moment is the preferred mechanism for creating a carbon price and if that can be done globally it will gradually start to make renewables cheaper than carbon-alternatives, provide funds for green R&D, spread the cost and burden to mitigate against fuel poverty, and direct money to the most cost-effective locations and ideas first so that for example third world / emerging economy countries might become pioneers in green tech, thus helping tackle global inequality. That is the point of carbon trading.

  • This is hardly the idea of an itellectual genius. It seems a policy of violent oppression – I wonder what the comments of the government would be if these were protestors in Zimbabwe, Tibet or Iran. It is basically saying you are not allowed to peacefully demonstrate without being temporarily restrained, assaulted or murdered.

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