Sunday, 19 April 2009

Police State-Lite?

'If you want to know the time, ask a policeman...'

I didn't go on any of the demonstrations in London around the time of the G20 Summit a few weeks back. I had half a mind to go on the march on the Saturday before the summit, but I did not get bed until the early hours on Saturday morning and did not get up until Midday...! On the whole demonstrations alway seem to consist of a slow walk (and I'm not a slow walker!) followed by listening to (a fairly predictable) speakers who shout through a megaphone with a pretty poor PA system something you knew already. That does not inspire me. If we had a genuinely democratic political system where people knew that voting or signing petitions would have an important, or even decisive, say on the policies of the state, there would be little need for people to go on demonstrations. Perhaps I am being a naive democrat saying that, but being labelled a 'naive democrat' is one cross I can easily bear. However, people are increasingly losing faith in the political system so I expect the numbers of people wanting to air their grievances in public will increase. One thing that did annoy me in media coverage was those people writing/phoning/texting/e-mailing in complaining about the cost to 'the taxpayer' of policing all the demonstrations. I'm not sure how much it all cost, but it was pretty small beer compared to the cost to 'the taxpayer' of bailing the banks out, wasn't it? People who think there should be no demonstrations or marches should go and live in North Korea (along with people who say living in Britain is 'just like living under communism.' Five years in a North Korean labour camp would help them regain their sense of perspective).

Furthermore, I am not an enthusiastic demonstrator as I have no wish to be hit by a police truncheon and no wish to be 'kettled'. Being stuck for hours in a confined space by lines of police does not appeal to me at all. It seems demonstrators need to revise their tactics. Reading the linked article above, it is clear that the police have no desire to lose control of events in central London as they did during the Poll Tax riots on March 31st 1990. They have moved on in operational terms, just as they did in terms of tactics from the miners' strikes of 1972 and 1974 to the one in 1984-5. 25 years ago, Arthur Scargill thought NUM 'flying pickets' just had to turn up at power stations, coke plants etc and they would close. They did not expect the police to turn up en masse in riot gear a la the French CRS. This is how ruling classes stay ruling classes; when they come under serious threat they change tack and tactics (ditto with the recent jettisoning of 'free market' ideology with barely defrosted pseudo-'Keynesianism' straight from the outside freezer).

However, ruling classes and their institutions can screw things up too. After the death of Ian Tomlinson and various other film and photographic evidence of police 'excesses' (I'm using English understatement here) towards demonstrators, public distrust of the police and moves towards 'police state-lite' must increase. Hopefully coverage of recent events in London may even jolt the cosy assumptions of those who say 'If you've done nothing wrong, you've got nothing to hide.' (which sounds like an IngSoc slogan from the pages of Nineteen Eighty-Four). Or at least they may see that, now that it is a criminal offence to photograph police officers, their complacent phrase should also apply to the police.

However, enough of my witterings. Two articles I saw recently caught my eye...

Put enough cameras on the police and even the serially deferential wake up: The flowering inverse surveillance society can end the myth of faultless policing that survived 1,000 deaths in custody
Marina Hyde, The Guardian, Saturday 11 April 2009

Who watches the watchmen? Or, to translate Juvenal another way: who polices the police? The answer this week was a New York fund manager, of all unlikely superheroes, who provided the Guardian with key footage of the minutes leading up to the death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests in London. The man came forward because "it was clear the family were not getting any answers".

If there is anything to feel optimistic about today, perhaps it is the hope that we are witnessing the flowering of an effective inverse surveillance society. Inverse surveillance is a branch of sousveillance, the term coined by University of Toronto professor Steve Mann, and it emphasises "watchful vigilance from underneath", by citizens, of those who survey and control them.

Not that turning our cameras on those who train theirs on us is without risk. Indeed, one might judge it fairly miraculous that the man was not forcibly disarmed of his camera phone, given that it is now illegal to photograph police who may be engaged in activity connected to counterterrorism. And as we know, everything from escorting Beyoncé to parking on a double yellow while you nip in to Greggs for an iced bun can now be justified with that blight of a modern excuse - "security reasons".

Yet it will by now have dawned on even the most dimwitted Met officer that it is increasingly impossible for them to control the flow of information about their activities - to kettle it, if you will - no matter how big their army of press officers putting out misleading information in the immediate aftermath of any event may be.

Did the Met genuinely think they could prevent the emergence of a far more joined-up picture of Tomlinson's passage through the City of London that afternoon, much as they thought they could suppress the details about Jean Charles de Menezes's tragic final journey? If so, their naivety is staggering.

Yet it's odd how often it has been the little ways in which the state attempts to keep tabs on our behaviour - tracking devices on wheelie bins and the like - that have most alienated those who previously bowed to authority. Also captured on film and published yesterday was an amusingly British act of defiance - a pyjama-clad householder blocking dustmen into his road by standing in their path, after they had declined to empty his neighbour's bin of five pebbles.

As Tomlinson's death shows, though, it's not all Victor Meldrew-meets-Passport-to-Pimlico larks. Indeed it is something of a shame that certain elements of society have only recently woken up to the possibility that the police might not be the faultless, justice-dispensing force of establishment myth, and only because - in the cases of De Menezes and Tomlinson - they have seen it with their own eyes, or at least enough of it to provoke a suspicion that was hitherto absent.

The serially deferential dismissed the Blair Peach outcry as lefty agitating. They did not make a point of seeing Injustice, the brilliant and desperately depressing 2001 documentary about deaths in police custody, of which at the time there had been 1,000 in the previous 30 years, without a single conviction.

But they are undeniably more cynical and inquisitive now, and it is interesting that for many previously deferential Brits, the Countryside Alliance march a year later, in 2002, was such a watershed. Here, peaceful marchers who considered themselves fine, upstanding members of law-abiding communities, were genuinely shocked and appalled at the manner in which they felt police treated them during the demonstration.

It is hard to say whether this sea change in the amount of trust people are willing to put in their alleged protectors will be reflected in the judgments of those with the power to call those protectors to account. The De Menezes jury chose notably to believe the civilian witnesses who countered the police line and said that officers had not shouted "armed police" before they shot.

Then again, the Independent Police Complaints Commission had apparently failed to interview the police officer who attacked Tomlinson 48 hours after he had come forward, with anonymous Met sources briefing that the man had not known it was him till he saw the footage, and collapsed upon realising it was. It is up to you how you interpret that memory hole. Maybe the attack was merely a forgettable instant in a trying afternoon. Maybe he had seen so many lone men walking with their hands in their pockets truncheoned that day that his own crack of the baton didn't stick in the mind.

Either way, perhaps the IPCC should interview the officer no matter what sort of funk he is in. After all, from what little we know of him, he would surely agree that there are no excuses for dawdling.

But we have no means of chivvying the IPCC along, alas - of giving them a metaphorical shove in the back, or a notional truncheoning. So in the meantime, let's note that a day which started out protesting about a very different them-and-us situation has reminded us that there is more than one attritional show in town. And sometimes, New York fund managers are on our side.

The police should take note: little brother's watching you
John Naughton, The Observer, Sunday 12 April 2009

The attack on Ian Tomlinson was the Metropolitan Police's "Rodney King moment". King, you may recall, is a black American who, in March 1991, was savagely beaten by Los Angeles Police Department officers after being stopped for a speeding offence. A resident videotaped the proceedings from his apartment. The Los Angeles District Attorney charged four officers with use of excessive force. A jury acquitted three of them and failed to agree about a verdict on the fourth. Six days of rioting followed, in which more than 50 people died and $1bn of property was destroyed.

The assault on Tomlinson will not spark off a riot, but nobody should underestimate the outrage it has generated. And from the instant the video footage - shot by an American bystander using his digital still camera - appeared on the Guardian website, it was clear that we had reached a pivotal moment. Consumer technology had given citizens a serious tool for recording how policemen behave.

It also brought to mind the case of Blair Peach, the young New Zealand teacher who, on a demonstration 30 years ago, was clubbed by a police officer and died the day after of his injuries. Nobody was ever tried for the assault and the coroner recorded a verdict of "death by misadventure".

There was no "citizen journalism" at the time of the Peach case. Nobody had a cameraphone or a digital camcorder, because they hadn't been invented. And the incident wasn't recorded by any press photographer or film crew. So the cop who attacked the young teacher escaped scot-free.

In a normal democracy we would expect that the technology which revealed what really happened to Tomlinson would stimulate a reassessment by the police about how they conduct themselves. Accidents will happen, terrible things are sometimes done in the heat of the moment, and political demonstrations attract their share of violent and disturbed people, but from now on the police will have to reckon with the possibility that anything they do will be recorded and globally published. At one time, they - and the authorities they serve - were the only ones with CCTV and face-recognition technology, the ones with the sole prerogative to videotape and photograph demonstrators. Now this technology is in the hands of consumers.

The police have two choices. Accept that digital technology will make them accountable for their actions or try to control the technology. In any normal society there would be no decision to be made. But since 9/11 the threat of global terrorism has given the state - and its security apparatus - carte blanche to take whatever measures it deems necessary. And it has imbued in every uniformed operative, from "Community Support" officers and the bobby on the beat to the bored guy in the airport checking your toothpaste, the kind of arrogance we once associated only with authoritarian regimes.

You think I jest? Talk to any keen amateur photographer. As a group, photographers have been subjected to increasingly outrageous harassment by police and security operatives. (For a partial list of incidents see Try photographing a bridge, public building or a police car parked on a double-yellow line and you will have a goon demanding your camera, image card or film.

Better still, ask John Randall, a Tory MP who recently told the Commons how one of his Uxbridge constituents, a Mr Wusche, photographed properties he thought were in bad repair to pass on to the council. In front of one building was a police car containing police community support officers who had parked on a double yellow line as they popped into a sandwich bar.

Randall told MPs that "one of the PCSOs went over to Mr Wusche" - who fled fascist Italy in his youth - "and told him that he must immediately delete the photographs. When Mr Wusche asked why, he was handed a notice and pretty much cautioned. That upset him a great deal".

It upsets me too. And I expect that when the fuss over Ian Tomlinson's tragic death has died down, we will find that the Nokia N82 and the Canon Digital Ixus have joined flick-knives, knuckledusters and coshes on the list of "offensive weapons". Welcome to New Labour's National Surveillance State.

Finally, if you think tourists may be put off from visiting London by the current image of the police, you may want to peruse Madam Miaow's thoughts on the matter...

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