How Protestors Get the Blame for Police Violence

In 2008, police blamed climate activists for a series of violent attacks on protest camps. The only problem was, it wasn't true – and the way their story fell apart tells us a lot about how similar scandals unfold today.

After someone suffers an untimely death at the hands of a Metropolitan Police officer, a vigil is held in London. Footage goes viral of a woman being physically attacked by Met officers at the vigil, but senior figures insist it was just good public order policing. Around the same time, it’s revealed that police lied about officers being injured at a separate protest. Public trust in policing is battered, but somehow, politicians still think it’s a good idea to give them more powers.

No, this isn’t 2021. It’s 2008-’09. The dead man is Ian Tomlinson, a bystander at the G20 protests who was hit with a baton and pushed to the ground. The woman is Nicola Fisher. And those ‘injuries’? ‘Six insect bites and a toothache,’ as the Guardian put it – sustained at the Kingsnorth Camp for Climate Action. It’s been strange for me to see that story doing the rounds in recent weeks – because I was one of the people who uncovered it.

The summer before, I’d joined the Heathrow Climate Camp – which saw a step change in police repression of protest, including kettling, mass searching, surveillance, and physical attacks. Nervous, I was advised that volunteering as a legal observer might give me a degree of protection: ‘They seem to respect the hi-vis jacket.’ Instead, the opposite happened, with legal observers expressly targeted for intimidation. This tactic has now been stepped up further, with several reports of legal observers being arrested last week.

On my first shift, I was physically intimidated by a burly police officer twice my size. On a lonely road, his face inches from mine, he threatened—without a trace of irony—to arrest me for causing him ‘harassment, alarm, and distress’. This was the last straw: my partner and I packed up our tent and left, feeling like fugitives escaping from a prison camp.

It’s testament to my privileged life that this remains my most traumatic experience of male violence. Even writing about it now, 13 years later, my heart is pounding. It’s this that fuels my rage about what happened at the Sarah Everard vigil.

Undoubtedly, there were women at that vigil who had previously been attacked by men, and who overcame their fears in order to attend – only to end up being retraumatised. The police may think they showed restraint, but the degree of violence itself isn’t the point: what is terrifying in that situation is the knowledge that the person attacking you is the person you are expected to go to for protection.

There is nowhere to run. They could do anything to you, and, in that moment, there is nothing you can do about it. What strikes you is the sense of impunity.

Swallowing the Story

In the summer of 2008, the same tactics were used at Kingsnorth. Around the same time, fresh out of university, I found myself working for my local MP, David Howarth. When we raised questions about police abuse of power, the Minister for Policing responded that 70 officers had been injured at the protest. The implication was that the climate campers were a violent mob, and attacking them with batons was a proportionate response.

We knew that this was nonsense, so we put in a Freedom of Information request for the incident logs. They proved that not a single officer had been injured by a protester. Instead, bizarre entries like ‘stung on finger by possible wasp’ ensured that the story went viral, and the Minister was forced to apologise for misleading Parliament.

A strikingly similar playbook was used in Bristol last month, where police claimed to have suffered a punctured lung and broken bones. They later admitted these claims were baseless, but by then the damage was done: swathes of media reports had successfully implanted the idea that the protesters were violent, and anyone defending them was subjected to social media pile-ons.

Of course, this is precisely the point. Smearing protesters as violent is a consistent and deliberate strategy employed by the police to justify their own aggressive tactics and suppress criticism.

It very nearly worked for them in 2008. Before the Kingsnorth story was finally published by the Guardian, I spent weeks trying to get it past our media gatekeepers. They repeatedly insisted they ‘couldn’t see the story’, but the real source of their reservations was clear: they had swallowed the police line that we were defending a bunch of violent thugs.

They could see the story alright – they just didn’t want to be caught on the wrong side of it. At one point, a prominent MP protested that he’d heard police had seized knives from protesters. We patiently explained that yes, they probably did have knives, being as how they were running kitchens catering for several hundred people. He wasn’t sold.

A few months later, they tried the same trick again: when a man died at the G20 protests, the Met issued a statement saying that they had been attacked with ‘a number of missiles’ as they tried to revive him. The papers duly printed lurid headlines like ‘police pelted with bricks as they help dying man’.

If Paul Lewis at the Guardian hadn’t kept digging—uncovering video footage that showed it was a police officer who had attacked Tomlinson, and protesters who had tried to help him, not the other way around—the truth might never have come out.

We’ve seen this dynamic play out again and again. In the run-up to the G20, Met Commander Bob Broadhurst had talked up the prospect of violence, so the media and the public were primed to believe his version of events.

He did the same before the student protests of 2010, imploring parents to ‘talk to their children and make sure they’re aware of the potential dangers’, since there was ‘only so much police officers can do’ to protect them from violent yobs hijacking demonstrations: yobs, presumably, like the officer who hit Alfie Meadows over the head with a baton, and left him bleeding into his brain.

Police Impunity

The following year, over 100 UK Uncut protesters were lured out of Fortnum and Mason on false pretences and arrested for aggravated trespass. Labour tabled an urgent question in Parliament – not about the police’s blatant abuse of power, but about ‘disturbances’ on the streets of London.

Yvette Cooper gave the police her full-throated support in bringing ‘the full force of the law’ down on the ‘few hundred mindless idiots and thugs’ who had supposedly attacked people and property. In fact, less than a dozen people had been charged with violent offences. And all the Fortnum and Mason prosecutions were subsequently dropped.

This cyclical pattern creates a climate of impunity where the police are in a no-lose situation. If protests pass off peacefully, they are praised for handling them well. If they don’t, the violence is blamed on the people they are beating up. The very fact of protestors’ repression is treated as proof they were engaged in violence: the police ‘must have had a reason’.

I saw this victim-blaming play out in the days around the G20 protests. The Home Affairs Select Committee conducted an inquiry, but they gave Nicola Fisher a much harder time than Bob Broadhurst – insinuating that she’d ‘asked for it’ by instinctively pushing back when a police officer first shoved her, and asking how much she’d got for selling her story.

Even more flagrant was what happened a few streets and a few hours away from Ian Tomlinson’s death. The violence meted out was much worse, but because nobody actually died, it never became a national scandal.

Climate Camp occupied Bishopsgate that day, announcing at the outset that the occupation would last 24 hours. Having been down earlier in the day, when the atmosphere seemed calm, I’d gone home to Cambridge. Around 10pm, I started getting panicked phone calls from friends who were kettled there, pleading for our help. The police were advancing on them with dogs, batons and riot shields. People were being punched, dragged, and thrown for no reason.

Feeling helpless, I rang my boss, who eventually managed to speak to Bob Broadhurst’s deputy, Ian Thomas. He asked Thomas what the hell he thought he was doing, making clear that he thought the action was unlawful. The response was effectively: see you in court.

Bishopsgate was cleared in a final, extremely violent advance just after midnight. I later spoke to a woman who believes she had a miscarriage because of the attack.

The previous day, we had brokered talks between the Met and the Climate Camp legal team. The Met leaned heavily on the claim that Climate Camp was putting them in a difficult position by not having named organisers who could liaise with the police about their plans. They just didn’t know what to expect, so they had to assume the worst.

This claim was swallowed whole by MPs on the Home Affairs Select Committee. Their report recommended that ‘protest groups put ideological concerns to one side and instead do everything they can to aid communications’ with the police. Only several years later did it emerge that ‘communications’ were just fine: the police knew exactly what Climate Campers were going to do, because they had a mole in the movement—undercover cop Mark Kennedy—the whole time.

The New Bill

But this episode has a deeper relevance to what’s playing out right now. The legislation the police relied on to justify attacking Climate Campers was Section 14 of the Public Order Act – specifically, the part that allows them to curtail protests that may cause ‘serious disruption to the life of the community’.

As my boss pointed out, protest is also part of ‘the life of the community’, and the ‘disruption’ caused by beating up peaceful protesters clearly outweighs that caused by blocking a road in central London in the middle of the night.

Of course, the police didn’t care. In fact, despite their constant talk of violence, it was clear throughout that they didn’t really care if protests were peaceful or not. They only cared if they were ‘lawful’, which they defined as ‘in accordance with tidy tramlines agreed in advance by the police’.

The messy reality of spontaneous social movements would be—has always been—met with violent repression. Clearing Bishopsgate was a show of power: the protest would end when the police decided, and on their terms.

It’s precisely these principles that Priti Patel is now seeking to enshrine in law. Empowering police to stop protests that might annoy anyone, a ‘no-protest zone’ around Parliament, draconian punishments for straying from police-imposed conditions: this essentially codifies what the police wish the law already said.

Unfortunately, since MPs are among the people most often ‘annoyed’ by protests, they are too often complicit in efforts to stifle it. As the Home Affairs Select Committee conducted its G20 inquiry, Tamil protesters were occupying Parliament Square. The transcripts make clear that MPs were at least as preoccupied with the tiresomeness of this as the fact that a man had just died.

Incredibly, when senior officers appeared as witnesses, they took the opportunity to accuse them of being ‘too soft’ and to urge them ‘not [to] overreact to any criticism’. One even queried whether they needed more powers.

And yet multiple reviews and inquiries after the events of 2009 confirmed that the police had abused their existing powers and misinterpreted the law. Even HMIC made clear that in applying Section 14, the police must ‘recognise peaceful protest as a legitimate activity – as the everyday business of a democratic society’, rather than fixating on whether it was ‘lawful’.

But no heads rolled. Bob Broadhurst—who was ultimately responsible for the ‘policy, doctrine, and training’ that produced these outrages—stayed in charge of public order for many years, and is now touting his services to the Indian police and private clients. No laws were changed. Deckchairs were rearranged, but the balance of power did not fundamentally shift.

This left the door open for what we are now seeing. Patel’s response to policing that oversteps legal powers is simply to ratchet up the powers. They no longer need to worry about how much ‘disruption’ justifies violently dispersing a protest: now, the threshold will effectively be zero.

They no longer need to worry about proving aggravated trespass: now, all trespass will be criminal anyway. She is giving them the impunity they have always wanted.

This should worry us all. As this history shows, a right to protest that stops when the Met says so is no right at all.