As dusk fell on the City of London last Wednesday, an elderly woman remonstrated with a policewoman. “Why won’t you let us out?” she asked, slumped against the Bank of England between two puddles of urine.
The policewoman responded that she was only following orders. Even as the Metropolitan Police press office was telling newspapers that protesters were being released, it was clear that no one was being allowed to leave.
If, as yesterday’s footage seems to imply, just half an hour later a policeman struck Ian Tomlinson from behind, the police have an obvious response. The policeman involved was a bad apple who has let everybody down. It was an isolated incident. He was disobeying orders.
Last week, after spending seven hours as a journalist locked into an increasingly small cordon, after watching police officers charge with truncheons and shields and after watching peaceful protesters retreat bloodied, I wrote about my experience.
After the article was published, Sara McAlpine – who said that she had happened to pass a demonstration the following day to mark Mr Tomlinson’s death – sent me an e-mail. There is no way to corroborate her account, except that it tallies with so many others. “This is what I witnessed myself in 15 minutes standing near the Bank of England,” she said. “The police split the protest into two groups on two cornering streets, not letting anyone leave. Suddenly, a policeman threw a punch at the face of a male, who raised his right arm to try and block the punch (no retaliation, merely a block). Immediately, three officers threw him up against the scaffolding, knocked him to the ground and beat him with their batons. They then carried him horizontally away.
“A photographer on the spectator side of the cordon tried to capture it. An officer ran over and grabbed him, trying to force him into the cordon. He escaped but the officer came after him and squared up to him (who was right next to me at this point) shouting, ‘Do you want a piece of this, huh, do you want to come and get some?’ He was then called back by another officer.
“A few minutes later, a girl no more than 10 metres away from me, who was on the front line of the cordon, was suddenly shoved up against a wall and kicked repeatedly by a policeman. He left her as she stayed cowering.”
“At that point, five police surrounded us (as quite a crowd had amassed in horror by now) and told us that we would be arrested if we didn’t move along. One guy said he had a right to stand there and watch and the policeman threatened him in no uncertain terms that he would either be arrested or thrown in the cordon if he didn’t move. He did. I left.”
Hers was not the only e-mail. Steven McManus, who says he is a barrister and a former special constable, was in Threadneedle Street on Wednesday. “At around 6pm I was outside the Royal Exchange chatting with some officers. I was between the officers and the protesers. The atmosphere was calm and non-confrontational. I shared a few jokes with one officer and was just generally chatting.
“A short while later the line began to move forward. The officers began to shout that we should all move back. I turned towards the crowd and began to move off in that direction. As I was walking away I was struck from behind by a baton and pushed forward towards the steps of Bank Underground.
“I was more than a little shocked at having been hit. The officer who had struck me was one I had been chatting to moments earlier, who knew about my City Police connection, and to whom I had my back turned. I remonstrated with the officer as to why he had hit me – his reply being: “F*** off, move back”. He said he could not help but be reminded of the manner of the attack on Tomlinson.
Elsewhere in the city, other groups were reporting similar incidents. Richard Howlett was at Climate Camp, a separate demonstration in Bishopsgate that – after 12 hours of non-violent protest – was cleared by riot police in the early hours of Thursday, April 2. “They moved in and blocked us in from both ends. Utterly unprovoked, the police then pushed forward in full riot gear using their truncheons and shields to beat people indiscriminately. Friends of mine were beaten and there were several injuries,” he said.
“Climate Camp responded in a totally peaceful manner. We sat down and chanted, ‘This is a peaceful protest, this is not a riot’. It was incredibly saddening to see the police resort to totally disproportionate tactics in dealing with totally peaceful protesters.”
Any inquiry into policing at the G20 protests must look beyond the circumstances surrounding Mr Tomlinson’s death. Because if the rest of the operation – both the tactics employed and the officers deployed – is ignored, then there is a good chance an individual tragedy will have been compounded by a wider travesty.