Sunday, 29 May 2011

Unacceptable Force

Remarkable as it may seem to anyone but the people delivering the judgement officers of the Metropolitan Police have been declared justified in forcibly removing tuition fees protestor Jody McIntyre from his wheelchair during last December’s protests in London. Mr McIntyre was also ‘inadvertently’ struck with a baton and this too has been judged acceptable.

In a statement reported by the BBC the Met’s Directorate of Professional Standards said the actions of officers were ‘justifiable and lawful given the volatile and dangerous situation’ on the streets of the capital during the protests and that the forcible removal of Mr McIntyre from his wheelchair was ‘justifiable given the officer’s perceived risk to Jody McIntyre.’

In response Mr McIntyre, also reported by the BBC, asked ‘Does that make sense to you, that the police attacked a man in a wheelchair and then they investigate themselves?’ To which the only answer is no it does not; not least because it is a recipe for exactly the sort of whitewash that has been delivered.

He went on to say, with good reason, that the version of events put forward by the officers involved has been accepted unquestioningly by the authorities, something that if true should make even the most bureaucratic of minds boggle. Surely the idea that the best way to safeguard a man in a wheelchair exercising his legitimate right to protest is to throw him to the ground and hit him with a lump of wood belongs to the same school of logic that sees the best way of protecting a village from being occupied by the enemy is to burn it to the ground.

Whatever might have been going on in the heads of the officers involved or their superiors Mr McIntyre was left to conclude, he said, that their view was that ‘the fact someone has a disability renders them incapable of determining their own best interest or to act with autonomy.’ If you are the sort of person who thinks the Daily Mail is right and the police have become too soft and politically correct consider the experience of Jody McIntyre and shudder; prejudice is alive and well amongst the forces of law and order and that shames us all be we liberals or reactionaries.

Following the investigation the Met plans to draw up ‘internal guidelines’ to prevent such an incident from happening again, if you believe that is going to make any difference you might need a stiff drink when you find out what bears really get up to in the woods.

All week the fuss over super-injunctions and the wicked, wicked celebrities who take them out has been the only news story in town, I’m afraid it is something about which I can’t work up much in the way of righteous indignation. If you add wealth to a sense of entitlement and then subtract self restraint bad behaviour of the sort the people involved are willing to pay to keep quiet will always be the result, that we are all going to be allowed to read about it in the press thanks to ancient parliamentary privilege and the whiz bang world to Twitter is less of a victory for liberty than it at first seems.

It pales into insignificance certainly when compared to the continuing erosion of civil liberties and the steady politicisation of the police.

I am on record as being critical of the way the tuition fees protests and those against the government’s spending cuts have been organised, too much stone throwing and not enough reasoned argument. What I have always supported and always will is the inalienable right of people to take to the streets in protest.

This is a right that is in danger of being severely compromised by the ‘kettling’ tactics employed by the police and, as in the cases of Jody McIntyre and newspaper vendor Stewart Tomlinson, by the behaviour and attitudes of individual officers. The latter case ended in an unnecessary death for which the punishment of the officer responsible hardly compensates.

One of the things that set Britain apart from much of Europe and the wider world was always the fact that even though they wore uniforms and had the power of arrest the police were still ordinary citizens; not hired muscle in the pay of the government used to biff the citizenry over the head for getting ideas above their station. The brutal and stupid handling of the protests over tuition fees, spending cuts and against the G8 meeting in London a couple of years ago has highlighted how rapidly that sensible dispensation is falling apart.

To work effectively the sort of policing by consent we have always enjoyed in the UK depends on the police maintaining the trust and respect of the public. You don’t do either of those things by preventing people from exercising their right to protest or by allowing individual officers to escape unpunished for exhibiting thuggish and disrespectful behaviour towards the public.

Home Secretary Theresa May claims to be intent on reforming the police, if she doesn’t realise quickly that that means not just trimming the budget but making sure that no protester, whatever their cause; whether that are disabled or able bodied, is treated in the way Jody McIntyre was without the people responsible being held to account the streets could be more dangerous for all of us in future.

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