Monday, April 20, 2009

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Who exactly are the police serving?

Whilst listening to Any Questions on Radio 4 yesterday, I heard an astonishing thing. The audience applauded when a questioner asked whether "the riot police were running riot".

There is an almost knee jerk popular support for anything which the police do in this country which is why I was so stunned by the Any Questions audience reaction. And, when the Tory spokesman made his expected intervention singing the police's praises as "simply doing their job", someone interjected that "hitting innocent people over the head with lumps of wood is not doing their job", and again, the audience loudly signaled their approval.

This is some indication of how much the British public have been appalled by recent police behaviour at the G20 protests and of how out of touch the Tory party are with the way the public feels about recent police actions.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has an article on this subject in today's Independent newspaper in which she recalls attending protests against the National Front in Southall in 1979 and of the way which the police brutalised the protesters:

I was at that highly charged march in Southall in 1979 to protest against the National Front, which was meeting in Ealing Town Hall to discuss how they would repatriate "niggers and Pakis" and "bulldoze Southall to the ground and replace it with an English hamlet". It was well known that racists were active in the borough, my borough, and in 1976 had killed a young Asian man, Gurdeep Singh Chagger.

We the residents were both afraid and enraged, but as witnesses attested, the demo was peaceful until the state sent in helicopters, and armed, masked and shielded men who charged at us. Clarence Baker, a black Briton thus attacked after being racially abused, ended up in intensive care. They tried to corral us – "kettling", before the word was invented. I saw officers kicking women and savaging teenagers near me so I ran into a side street and begged for refuge in a house belonging to a Sikh family.

And, as she rightly points out, the only thing which gave the recent death of Ian Tomlinson any validity in questioning the police's version of events is the advent of the mobile phone as a video recorder. Otherwise the word of the police would have been, as always, unquestionable.

Police got even more aggressive in Thatcher's Britain when various "enemies within" were proscribed and punished – black Britons, strikers in Wapping (where, incidentally, the first police force was set up in 1798) and miners, among others. What started as punitive policing for "coloureds" was all too soon extended to cover other bothersome citizens. Deaths in police custody – some in the back of vans during demonstrations – occurred not infrequently.

We didn't then have the modern technology that enables ordinary folk to witness and record irrefutable evidence of malpractice. It was their word versus ours and we had no chance – especially as the right-wing press was always on the side of lawless law enforcers. Pathologist Freddy Patel initially claimed that Tomlinson died of pre-existing health problems. A second doctor disagreed and said there was evidence of internal bleeding.

And, make no mistake, should the Tories be re-elected - and there's no way that I can see that being avoided - then we will almost instantly return to a state of play where questioning the police's tactics is in some way akin to announcing one's membership of the Communist party.

In 1987, a report on unlawful policing by the Institute of Race Relations pointed out that "the measure of a society's freedom is, in the final analysis, the measure of the accountability of its police force to the public it serves. The more the seat of such accountability is shifted from the public to the government, the more also is the public removed from government. And where that shift to authoritarianism first manifests itself is in the distinction the police makes between its publics, as to whom it shall serve by consent and whom control by force." Thus are certain members of the public "de-citizenised", as the IRR put it.

But for that strategy to work, the majority must agree to it. That agreement after the past three weeks is no longer forthcoming. Millions of Britons are repelled by the bullying they have seen and the violation of rights of those the state is "de-citizenising". However, there still is no guarantee that the victims of police violence will be justly served. We do not learn from bad history and are condemned to repeat it. And so the ghosts of Blair Peach, Jean Charles de Menezes, Ian Tomlinson and scores of others will not rest easy.

At the moment, when it comes to the issue of police tactics and brutality, the Tories are way out of line with public opinion. But the very fact that their views are so at odds with the rest of the country on this issue is some indication of the kind of country which they are promising should they be elected.

We would do well to remember the horrendous police brutality which occurred during Thatcher's administration when she identified "enemies within" and harnessed the police as an arm of the government rather than as a force of which we - the people - were the masters.

Every single noise emanating from the present Tory party says that their mindset on this subject has not changed a single iota.

Click title for source.

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