19 April 2009

Tip of the iceberg?

The G20 police brutality story is really growing in coverage now... the Guardian is normally my first stop on civil liberties issues (notably Henry Porter's column), but the Telegraph also has good coverage. It now emerges from the Independent Police Complaints Commission (same acronym as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, oddly enough) that more than 185 complaints have been received relating to G20, of which 90 were from alleged victims of - or witnesses to - excessive police force.

Contrary to the initial (very spun) reports from G20, which suggested a moderate police approach, it is now becoming clear that many police officers saw the protest as an excuse to go out and give the protestors a damn good thrashing without fear of recrimination - or so they thought.

Fortunately, videobloggers and the more sympathetic elements of the TV camera crews caught them at it. We live in a surveillance society - but fortunately it's now a two-way surveillance society, at least at a public event like the G20 demo.

This is turning out to be an extraordinary 12 months of mythbusting in British politics. It's already seen the overturning of one myth (that unrestricted capitalism was the saviour of the UK economy - we now see that if anything, it's the gravedigger) - and we may now be seeing a second myth laid to rest - namely, that the police are servants of the public, rather than a force for the oppression of the public.

The nice thing is that the anti-capitalist, anti-authority voices which used to be pushed to the margins of UK politics are now in the mainstream. Which can only be a good thing in terms of overturning a lot of the b.s. that's been laid down over the last 30 years.

Which brings me to my only beef with Henry Porter's otherwise excellent Observer article on the G20 police intimidation. Henry says "this is the end-product of the disastrous legislative assault on Britain's rights and liberties inaugurated by Tony Blair." But it goes back way before that. Anyone who remembers the miners' strike, Greenham Common or Wapping will remember the way the police were used as a political tool in the eighties by the Thatcher government, who thought any protesters were a Communist front preceding a Soviet invasion force. Indeed, it was happening even before Thatcher - in 1974 the police brutally assaulted hippies at the Windsor Festival.

The basic problem with institutions like the police and the army - and this is an obvious point but it bears repetition - is that they are one of the few walks of life where you get to apply violence to other people as part of your job. This inevitably means there is a danger that the job will attract people who are deeply into the idea of causing harm to others for fun. Particularly if the victims are people who have traditionally tended to attract least sympathy from wider society - poor people, drug users, ethnic minorities, travellers, and political protestors. Certainly, the police assures us that they do all they can to stop these people being admitted to the police, and hopefully they succeed most of the time. But even if a few misanthropes get through, you've basically got "Magnum Force" for real. At the end of the day the police officers who are carrying out these despicable attacks - and the higher-ranking officers who are directing them to behave in this way - are like playground bullies - but with considerably more ammunition than your average bully. And no-one will be able to have any confidence in the police force until we have got rid of the nutters - not least the high proportion of decent and caring police officers who are undermined by this criminal activity.

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