Ian Tomlinson: David to the Goliath of the Met
News that the officer accused of the manslaughter of Ian Tomlinson will face criminal proceedings is welcome news to me. As someone who has actively participated in peaceful protests for years, from tuition fees, to the war in Iraq to government cuts and ecological issues, I have always considered the right to protest an essential tool in my political repertoire. Despite what I consider a healthy scepticism when it comes to the formal political process and an individual citizen’s ability to affect change, I am diligent in writing to my MP, fervent in my commitment to voting and evangelical about the importance of protesting. But in recent years, I and others around me, had noticed a shift in the police treatment of protestors, from a conspicuous but largely background presence, fluorescent jackets were increasingly replaced with the intimidating dark riot gear, cheerful banter gave way to increasingly sarcastic comments and even at times threats from officers barricaded behind a wall of plastic shields.
Concomitantly, the atmosphere had also changed, from light and optimistic, despite the often heady issues we were mobilised for, to stressful, tense and sometimes confrontational. A feeling the police were there to protect us and help keep the march on track, both physically and metaphorically, was replaced by an increasing animosity and the feeling some officers were deliberately antagonistic. I often attend marches with my family and having young children around makes one particularly sensitive to shifts in atmosphere, acutely aware through some sort of maternal sixth sense, of impending danger and of late, I’ve become reticent to bring my children along. During recent protests, I’d been told by an officer to “go home”, “your kids shouldn’t be here”, despite my countering that inculcating a civic responsibility is actually to me of central importance in their education. When we’d been kettled, at times for seemingly obscure reasons, I would ask officers for a way out, so my children wouldn’t risk being knocked over or trampled, only to be ignored or rebuffed. Ian Tomlison’s story echoes with some of my own experiences, only in his case, he wasn’t even a protestor. He was in essence, an innocent bystander caught up in events beyond his control. Walking home from work, he had merely been trying to find a way out of the protests he had not even been attending. And it is that very reason, that he had no involvement in the activities that day, which make his treatment at the hands of the police so profoundly shocking. It is also for that very same reason that it testifies to the extent of police brutality.
At one protest, an image has remained engraved in my mind, that of riot police getting ready to charge a seemingly peaceful crowd which included families and parents with prams. The rabidity of police behaviour at protests had prompted me to start making formal complaints about the behaviour of individual officers, but I would often be told they were under no obligation to share either their name or their badge number and so my efforts were thwarted by my inability to identify the officers in question. Incidentally, PC Simon Harwood, accused of manslaughter in Tomlison’s case, had covered both his badge and his face making him difficult to identify and this, just before he struck Ian Tomlison with his baton, shoving him to the ground.
I don’t wish to conflate all officers involved in managing protests, many of them are decent and professional and live up to the standards one would expect from our police force, but the few who don’t, have made exercising one’s democratic right to protest both daunting and confusing. The feeling of being criminalised, in other words, treated with contempt and varying degrees of violence, does little to reassure fledging protesters that this is a valid and valuable means of expressing one’s political or social angst. It also undermines the often significant turn out at such events, by portraying them through the prism of violence and radicalism, tainting the vast majority of those present due to the actions of a few.
One is left wondering why it took a man to die, for the police to realise that their tactics have in recent years got out of hand, that police brutality now extends to innocents clearly not involved in criminal activity.
Ian Tomlinson is described by his family as an unassuming man, who’d suffered his share of struggles and who “didn’t like to impose himself in a situation and liked to show that he was no bother.” Tragically, the extent of police violence had not been addressed in time to save him, but I certainly hope that in the prosecution of Simon Harwood will be a broader lesson for officers managing protests. There is no doubt the task is a tough one and a police officer friend pointed out to me how terrified many of the officers themselves are when they are often outnumbered and feeling vulnerable, but the death of Ian Tomlison is in effect, just the tip of the iceberg. The tragedy speaks for the need to reflect on the use of force at protests and shines the light on the increasingly repressive tactics used in crowd control. Equally crucially, it poses uncomfortable questions about the degree of institutional complicity in the cover up of such events. While it is clear that in the case of Ian Tomlison the police offered a diverging account of the event, they had initially opted for no official investigation, and gone further by seeking to hush findings by diligent journalists, requesting the Guardian newspaper take down video footage which ‘allegedly’ shows PC Harwood’s mea culpa. Despite this, alternative testimonials came to light suggesting police actions may have played a part in Tomlinson’s demise.
In effect, the unassuming man who walked with his hands in his pockets has become the David to the Goliath of the Met. The shy Millwall FC supporter has become a symbol of the struggle for greater accountability and transparency in police investigations and his death strikes at the impunity with which some of the officers had become accustomed to operating. Referring to the case, his family stated they wanted to show that the police are “not above the law”, an invaluable lesson it appears the Met needed to be reminded of…and a legal precedent which might pave the way for a return to a freer society in which coercion tactics are no longer used against peaceful protestors.