'Those who enforce the law aren’t being policed sufficiently themselves.' Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Today I woke up to the news that Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, commissioner of the Metropolitan police, has apologised for one of his officers unlawfully spraying CS gas at a group of protesters, which included me, in January 2011. As part of UK Uncut, we had staged a protest against Boots’ alleged tax avoidance. When PC James Kiddie attempted to arrest a woman for pushing a leaflet under a door and protesters objected, the officer took out a canister of CS gas and sprayed it at such close range that he was hit by it as well. Since then, six of the protesters – not including me – have taken legal action against the police.
As the incident occurred a long time ago, only fragments of that day remain in my memory. I remember winter sunlight through grey clouds, the swell of protesters on the street, and then how we were all suddenly dispersed: screams, ambulances, snot, tears, spit, acidic burning, windpipes closing.
The initial panic seemed to happen in slow-motion but it was also over in seconds. The aftermath was more listless and dejected. I remember one exasperated officer trying to tell distressed protesters how to make a complaint. The chief inspector refused to speak to any of us and waved us away when we attempted to approach him. There was no attempt to manage the situation. I spent a long time sitting on the floor with my friend who had been sprayed in the eyes. He was pale and shaking. The staff at Boots took more interest in his wellbeing than the police did.
Earlier that day, a documentary crew who had been following the protest were so alarmed at Kiddie’s aggressive handling of protesters that they pledged to hand the footage in to the police. In February of this year he was convicted of assault after punching a woman in the head three times, after she was accused of shoplifting, although he is said to be appealing.
I can’t speak for all the protesters there that day, but from my point of view the use of CS gas didn’t appear to be a calculated decision by the force as a whole. Kiddie seemed to go off-piste, and as a result the chief inspector spent most of the afternoon with a mobile phone glued to his ear and a look of weary frustration.
And therein lies the problem: for the Met, this was a clean-up exercise. There was no concern over the fact that Kiddie didn’t seem to be able to properly use the weapon he’d been given, or the fact that he seemed to lack even the most basic understanding of his role as a public servant. The concern lay purely with the fact that, in allowing ourselves to be gassed, protesters had created a mighty big mess for the police, which now needed to be covered up or swept away. That’s what they’ve been trying to do ever since – and now, as with most admissions of guilt from the police, they’ve waited until everyone has moved on before they’ve offered any kind of atonement.
A year after the protest, I interviewed Raj Chada, whose practice Hodge Jones & Allen has represented numerous protesters. He told me: “The police are completely unaccountable. None of the methods used to hold them to account work. They’re the last totally unreformed public service.” The fact that the IPPC’s entire resources are smaller than a single department of the Metropolitan police suggests that those who enforce the law aren’t being policed sufficiently themselves.
The protesters who won the legal action against the police deserved their victory. Many were injured and traumatised as a result of the day. But the police need to go further than compensation and belated apologies. There needs to be real change. But I suspect it’ll be a long time coming.
Копия Международные политические новости - theguardian.com