Tom Brake saw the treatment of G20 protesters as a parliamentary
observer and says police tactics must change
At the beginning of my day with the G20 protesters, I had every
hope that my presence there as an independent observer on behalf of parliament
would be redundant.
Sadly, as I reflect on a day that turned ugly in places, my concerns about how
the event was policed have grown.
From the media reports trailing the protests, it almost seemed inevitable that
some level of conflict would occur. There is often a minority attending some
protests who do not mind causing trouble, and a smaller number who will actively
seek it, stealing the headlines away from issues like climate change, third
world debt, employment or the world economy.
Anyone who has been to a protest, music festival or a football match understands
that crowd control is a thankless task – little praise when things pass off
peacefully; dominating headlines when tragic and appalling incidents like the
death of Ian Tomlinson occur.
The words engraved on the Queen’s Police Medal, ‘Guard my People’, have perhaps
never been so poignant in light of the number of stories of violence and
intimidation that have emerged. The Home Affairs Select Committee and I have
heard evidence from the Independent Police Complaints Commission that more than
50 complaints were being looked into. There are lessons to be learnt from the
policing of the G20 protests, and learnt they must be.
On the day, many of most violent protestors were arrested by police and swiftly
removed from the City. But we judge our police force not only by how they handle
a relatively small number of very difficult individuals, but also how they
manage a much larger body of peaceful protestors.
I was rooted in one of what has been dubbed the police ‘kettles’ for five hours.
I witnessed first-hand the professionalism of many police officers, as well as
the final failure of the police strategy. ‘Kettling’, far from tackling the
situation efficiently, fanned the flames. Many of the problems the police
encountered I believe ultimately stem from the tactic.
In short, ‘kettling’ should come under review. Kettling involves the police
building a wall of riot shields and batons around a mass of protesters, the
peaceful alongside the problematic – and slowly squeezing them into a tighter
space. People are allowed in, but absolutely no-one is allowed to leave.
Slowly the number of those ‘arrested’ (not my choice of word but that of a very
senior police officer) within the kettle increases. No access to food. No water.
Young trapped with the old. Journalists trapped with anarchists. People, like an
elderly couple I spoke to, who simply didn’t want to be there at all.
It is not surprising that, under such conditions, an otherwise overwhelmingly
relaxed and peaceful crowd can become agitated, and then angry, and finally
alienated from the police. The tactic proved misguided and counter-productive.
My team escorted one protester with a suspected broken arm to a police cordon.
Not even his friend was allowed to accompany the injured man as he left the
Journalistic freedom was curtailed too – I filmed a journalist, flanked by
police, prevented from leaving despite legitimate credentials and contact
information for the police to use. For me, this raises serious civil liberties
issues and that’s what prompted me to release the footage to news networks and
make a formal complaint to the IPCC.
Journalists have the right to carry out their lawful business, and report the
way in which the police handle demonstrations, without state interference. They
need to be confident that they can carry out their role.
The public in turn have the right to impart and receive information: the media
are the eyes and ears of the public, helping to ensure that the police are
accountable to the people they serve. Effective training of front line police
officers on the role of journalists in protests is vital.
Police forces must consider how to ensure their officers follow the agreed media
guidelines, and take steps to deal with officers who do not follow them.
They must also consider how police officers are disciplined when they are found
to have either covered up or removed their identification numbers. I support the
very strong comments made by chief inspector of constabulary Denis O’Connor that
there are no circumstances in which it is acceptable for police officers not to
display their ID.
Five hours inside the ‘kettle’, as pressure built, gave me ample time to think
about how things could have been handled differently and to question when our
hard fought liberties were lost – when containment became not about containing
the mood of the crowd, but about physically penning them in and ‘arresting’ them
simply for being, in the eyes of the law, in the wrong place at the wrong time.
There is now a different public mood to contain – one that wants to know why a
man died, why thousands were detained against their will and why dozens were
The public won’t be silenced this time by backing them into a corner.
Tom Brake is Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton and Wallington
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