‘Please be aware, I might hit you now’
The British police’s bizarre new ‘riot brochure’ gives the lie to the idea that they’re more Orwellian than ever.
‘If violence or disorder takes place, the officers may change their headwear to a helmet with a visor.’
This apparently is just one of the many soothing bits of information and advice that protesters in the UK can expect to receive from the Metropolitan police in a new four-page brochure to be handed out at demonstrations. Other signs of impeccable police politeness include this gentle warning: ‘Please be aware that when an officer is wearing a helmet… they may not hear you and they may shout.’ It seems the filth have spruced themselves up.
The ostensible source of this twenty-first-century demonstration etiquette is a new police-produced ‘communications and engagement’ strategy. This strategy, to be discussed this week at the UK parliament’s joint human rights committee, is meant to assuage those who claim the police’s tactics during the anti-capitalist G8 demonstrations in April 2009, and most recently during last autumn’s student-led demonstration, were on the manhandling side of rough.
There has certainly been no shortage of critics of the police’s tactics during demonstrations. Following the death of 47-year-old newspaper seller Ian Tomlinson at the G8 protests, after he had a heart attack subsequent to a cop pushing him to the ground, the liberal media went into outrage mode, likening the push on Tomlinson to the attack on Rodney King by several Los Angeles policemen in 1991. The student protests against tuition fees and public sector cuts more broadly have intensified the groundswell of mainstream anti-police sentiment, with a self-selecting group of mothers recently marching in protest against the police’s tactics – particularly the act of ‘kettling’, whereby the police cordon off a large area and contain protesters for an inordinate amount of time so that they get bored or pissed or both.
Given the volume of the police’s critics, particularly from sections of society that are hardly renowned for their opposition to the state, whether it’s middle-class mums or the Guardian, you could be forgiven for thinking that the police had recently become more brutal, that the state had become more openly authoritarian. In actuality, what the police’s Dos and Donts on Your Protest brochure indicates is precisely the opposite. This is not the cynical public relations exercise of a police force suddenly aware that people have wised up to their explicit authoritarianism. No, this is the act of a police force so lacking in the fundamental source of authoritarianism – authority – that it has to indulge in cheesy self-justification.
How disorientated, how lacking in a definite sense of purpose, do the police have to be to release a document that seeks to explain why they might don riot-gear? How fearful of how acts of policing might be perceived do her Her Majesty’s finest have to be to warn potential protesters that they might shout, but only because the helmets impede their hearing? If anything gives the lie to the idea, post-Tomlinson, that the police have rediscovered a new sense of authoritarian purpose, it’s a four-page brochure that explains to protesters why a policeman might exchange his helmet for a visor.
If the police’s play-safe guide to protesting dispels the Orwellian wet nightmares of some student activists, it also dispels some of their solidarity-of-victimhood fantasies, too. Chief among these has to be idea that there is a direct analogy to be drawn between the Arab uprisings and the sporadic, disparate anti-cuts protests in the UK, as if the armed bodies of men currently clinging on to power in Libya or Bahrain are somehow equivalent to the insipid actions of the Lib-Con government here when confronted by disgruntled students or mothers angry about the treatment of the disgruntled students. After all, you can be pretty sure that Gadaffi’s mercenaries or Sheikh Hamed’s secret police do not hand our brochures informing those they’re about to open fire on that ‘they may not hear you and they may shout’.
In the police’s naff brochure there is a snapshot of the British state. It is neither authoritarian nor dictatorial. It is fearful, weak and, seemingly, all too willing to invite people to take the piss out of it.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.