Opinion: The G20 protests – two months on, what lessons have been learned?

Two months have passed since the G20 and the brutal police operation against protesters in the City of London. Yesterday the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) met for the second time since the operation to question Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson.

At the first meeting the Met showed no signs of having taken on board the serious and widespread criticism of their actions and at times actively mis-represented what had taken place in an attempt to spin themselves out of trouble. So it was with a fair deal of scepticism that myself and Anna Bragga of Defend Peaceful Protest went down to City Hall to put our questions to the Met once again. This time we asked:

1. Why did the police forcibly advance at the south end of the Climate Camp at around 7pm without warning if it was simply a matter of needing a containment to “prevent disorderly protestors from the Bank of England from joining” – and, in particular, why did a line of officers use force to advance on the right hand side when there was access from Great Helens?

2. Given the evidence of Police ID concealment or accidental obscurement at the G20 and subsequent demonstrations, will the Police Uniform review look into placing numbers on the back and front of uniforms and protective gear rather than the shoulder so that Police ID on future demonstrations is more clearly identifiable and less easily removed?

3. Given the evidence submitted to MPA members prior to this meeting about inconsistencies in police statements, how are we as members of the public, and the MPA members, to feel confident in the facts as presented in Metropolitan Police Briefings thus far?

4. Defend Peaceful Protest are aware of five separate bodies investigating aspects of the G20 protests: The Home Affairs Select Committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the IPCC, Her Majesties Inspectorate of Constabulary and the Metropolitan Police Authority itself. What effort is being made to ensure that all bodies are working together to collect evidence from protestors in order to make an effective inquiry into protesting policing at the G20 possible?

These questions raise serious ethical and constitutional concerns and require straightforward answers from the police without spin if the lessons of the G20 are to be learnt and public faith in protest policing repaired. Unfortunately, it seems both the MPA chief executive and the Met have no interest in answering inconvenient questions until Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary reports back on its inquiry next month

the answer to question four suggests there has been no attempt to co-ordinate the FIVE separate bodies investigating aspects of the G20 – hardly joined up government! A multitude of investigations with overlapping remits which are not sharing evidence is hardly conducive to the thorough and systematic investigation we need to ensure the mistakes committed on April 1st aren’t repeated.

One small victory following the first meeting was the formation of a new civil liberties panel for the MPA. This will look specifically at aspects of policing which might infringe upon the rights of Londoners and those that protest within the city.

Although the setting up of this panel is good news – since up until now no body has existed to look at the civil liberties impact of policing in London – Defend Peaceful Protest still have significant concerns as to what strength the panel will have in actually effecting change. This concern was echoed by Labour Assembly Member Joanne McCartney, Lib Dem Dee Doocey and Jenny Jones of the Greens, who also questioned whether the panel would be adequately resourced to take on a proper investigation into the G20 policing which would be a huge job.

So it looks very likely the enquiry by the MPA is not going to provide proper answers for many protesters. We’ll wait and see for the report back from HMIC at the next meeting, but in all probability this will gloss over protesters’ concerns and conclude that police tactics, including the practice of aggressively kettling peaceful protesters, were justified.

If this is the way government holds the police to account it might explain the reason a number of protest groups and activists who were present at the G20 have not even engaged with the MPA or other enquiries: they’ve simply given up on what is a laborious and often fruitless process. It’s time we saw an end to the impunity that has built up amongst the police which permits them to get away with serious and persistent violations of civil liberties that damage the health of our democracy.

In the meantime we’ll do our best to try and ensure these investigations at the very least hear the concerns protesters have with the current state of policing.

* Andrew May works for a major human rights organisation. He is a former Lib Dem election agent and MP’s staff, and founding member of ‘Defend Peaceful Protest’.

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