Correcting the media narrative of the G20 protests on April 1, 2009

The media coverage of the G20 protests has been systematically biased, writes Musab Younis - ignoring the violent policing, the tactic of open-air imprisonment of demonstrators, and the real chronology of events. "It has taken remarkable obedience by the press," writes Musab, "to refuse to ask these questions."

Features - Posted on Tuesday, April 7, 2009 21:21 - 24 Comments

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Musab Younis
April 6, 2009

Riot

“Anti-capitalist protesters embarked upon a wrecking spree within a City branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland today,” shrieked The Times on April 1, “and engaged in running battles with police as G20 demonstrations turned violent. Police were forced to use dogs, horses and truncheons to control a crowd of up to 5,000 people who marched on the Bank of England, in Threadneedle Street, on the eve of the London summit.”

This narrative of events is entirely typical. Under the headline “Police clash with G20 protestors”, the BBC reported that “protesters stormed a London office of the Royal Bank of Scotland”, adding: “officers later used ‘containment’ then ‘controlled dispersal'” (BBC, April 1). The Guardian reported: “The G20 protests in central London turned violent today ahead of tomorrow’s summit, with a band of demonstrators close to the Bank of England storming a Royal Bank of Scotland branch … [S]ome bloody skirmishes broke out as police tried to keep thousands of people in containment pens” (The Guardian, April 1).

What is interesting about this narrative is that it precisely reverses the events of the day.

Eyewitness accounts of the day agree that the police began the now-infamous tactic of ‘kettling’ protestors – refusing to allow anyone in or out of a confined space held by police lines – as soon as the four marches had converged on the Bank of England, at around midday. An article in The Times a day earlier by a former Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Andy Hayman, suggested that the police had planned to use this tactic well in advance: “Tactics to herd the crowd into a pen, known as ‘the kettle’, have been criticised heavily before, yet the police will not want groups splintering away from the main crowd. This would stretch their resources” (The Times, March 31).

Note that the “violent outburst” (Telegraph) of window-breaking took place hours after the police had decided to “herd the crowd” of at least 5,000 people “into a pen” without access to food, water or toilet facilities – and without allowing them to leave.

The press was surely aware of this. The Guardian‘s live blog from the day noted at 11.57 a.m. that “the barriers designed to fence in the protesters are not big enough”, an hour later it confirms that there is “a ‘kettle’ at the Bank of England”: half an hour later they report “clashes” and finally, at 1.30 p.m., “a window has been smashed.” An objective observer of the sequence of events here might ask whether the police ‘kettle’ had in fact been responsible for the “clashes”, “violence” and smashed window.

But this idea – that the kettle might have provoked the “clashes”, and that the police might therefore be responsible for the “violence” – is remarkably absent from virtually all of the reams of press coverage of the protests. We do, of course, have a spectrum of opinion: whereas the right-wing Daily Mail sees the protestors as “a fearsome group of thugs”, a “bizarre group of misfits” fuelled by “Dutch courage” and a “willingness to use violence” (April 1), for the left-wing Guardian only “a minority of demonstrators seemed determined to cause damage” whilst “much of the protesting” was “peaceful” (April 1).

Again, the notion that there was not a “violent” core of demonstrators at all, but that people were provoked into “clashes” with the police due to police tactics, is absent. Even the article which is by far most critical of the police actions – a piece by Duncan Campbell in The Guardian titled ‘Did police containment cause more trouble than it prevented?’ – only goes as far as to say: “As for the violent clashes that led to cracked heads and limbs, how much was inevitable and how much avoidable?”

Campbell concedes that “some demonstrators were bent on aggro” but adds: “so were some of the officers.” He also criticises the conditions inside the kettle and suggests that it will make people think twice before embarking on a demonstration in future. Thus Campbell suggests the “clashes” were avoidable, but does not indicate that the kettles actually led to the “clashes” – though, to give credit where it is due, his is the only piece in the press which dares to suggest that the police were themselves violent.

Climate Camp

“The challenge of policing”

Well before the protests, the press had been reporting with glee the “violence” predicted as “London went into lockdown” and “protestors issued a call to arms” with “police fears” of protestors “intent on violence” (The London Paper, 31 March).

The BBC posted a sympathetic article titled ‘The challenge of policing the G20′ (30 March) which pointed out that: “police officers spend their professional lives trying to play down the public order implications of demonstrations – it’s in their interests to keep things calm.”

“The security strategy of the day,” they reported breathlessly, “resembles a three-dimensional ever-changing puzzle” where “the unknowable factor is the demonstrator bent on violence”. The article ended with a quote from Commander O’Brien: “If anyone wants to come to London to engage in crime or disorder, they will be met with a swift and efficient policing response.”

This flurry of media coverage predicting “violence” from “anarchists” was clearly initiated by the police, who released a barrage of press statements before the protests which served to pre-emptively quell criticism of their actions on the day – actions which had, of course, been planned well in advance. The G20 policing was to be “one of the largest, one of the most challenging, and one of the most complicated operations” ever “delivered” by the Metropolitan Police, according to Commander Simon O’Brien, who hit the press circuit with gusto in the days preceding the G20 (CNN, March 27).

The press obediently played their part by reporting police “fears” word for word, with complete sympathy, and with no question of asking those who planned to protest whether they thought the police reaction might be overly violent. After all, “the police have had to prepare for every possibility” on April 1, noted the Times: “from terrorism to riots” (The Times, March 31).

With ample opportunity to question an unusually talkative police force, barely a single sentence in the press asked whether the police preparation for the protests might be heavy-handed or that a violent reaction by the police to the protests might lead to serious injury or death. The protestors, of course, were to be “violent” “mobs” (based on police “intelligence” gleaned from “social networking sites”), but the police were to be calm, measured and undertake only necessary measures.

The effect of this press coverage was to justify in advance all police actions whilst de-legitimising any actions by protestors. Endless predictions of “violent protestors” meant that all the day’s “clashes” were sure to be blamed on the “minority” of those “intent on violence” – even if evidence suggested that “clashes” were actually instigated by police, and that violence was in the main inflicted by the police on protestors. Within the press narrative, the police are merely reactive; forced to respond to a “violent” situation and “keep things calm”; the notion that they could have actively encouraged and provoked “clashes” seems patently absurd.

Police

So what’s missing?

There are a number of important questions which simply didn’t appear in the press.

a) Did the police intend to ‘kettle’ demonstrators in a confined space regardless of whether there was any violence or not?

All the evidence, including past cases of the police using this tactic, suggests this was the case. (At the Climate Camp protest at Bishopsgate on the same day, the police beat protestors back into a kettle despite them holding up their hands and chanting ‘this is not a riot’, as can clearly be seen on the Indymedia video ‘Riot police attack peaceful protestors at G20 climate camp’).
Is there a possibility that the police were not in fact “forced to use dogs, hoses and truncheons” due to “violent” protestors, but that they inflicted violence on peaceful protestors?

b) Was there really “violence” from the protestors?

The Metropolitan Police state that “small groups of protestors intent on violence, mixed with the crowds of lawful demonstrators” (Met Police, 2 April) and The Guardian quotes Commander Simon O’Brien as claiming there were “small pockets of criminals” within the crowd who attended a memorial for Ian Tomlinson on April 2. Again, eyewitness accounts of both days state that virtually all of the violence came from police. Despite hours of kettling and media reports of “missiles” being thrown at police (translation: plastic bottles), the only tangible evidence of protestor violence at either of the two main protest sites seems to have been some smashed windows, which of course is damage to property and not “violence”.

The Guardian reports that a small group of demonstrators were “seeking confrontation as they surged towards police lines.” Of course you’re expected to sit quietly when you are being held against your will behind police lines and periodically beaten with batons. But is it conceivable that those who “charged” police lines simply wanted to leave? And why is it confrontational to “charge police lines” without using any weapons, but not confrontational to hold thousands of people in an area, keeping them there with kicks and batons? That the protestors could have actually showed remarkable restraint when being provoked in an unbearable situation is laughable according to all the press. Yet this is what eyewitness accounts point to.

Only the Letters page in the Guardian gives any credence to this: one person writes that “the few scuffles we did witness were caused precisely at the frustration of people not being allowed to come and go as they pleased”; another states that: “an ugly mood developed after those who had come to exercise their democratic right to protest were detained against their will” (Guardian, April 3).

c) Were the police tactics responsible for the “violence” of the day?

Because the press has been admirably obedient in reversing the course of events, this is an impossible question – according to the media first there was “violence” from “anarchist” protestors, then the kettle began. Yet once we establish a more accurate chronology, and take into account police prior planning, it seems that it had always been intended to shut thousands of people into an enclosed space without being able to leave.

d) Was the ‘kettling’ tactic intended to make people think twice about demonstrating in future?

The most critical piece in the press, by Duncan Campbell in the Guardian, states that those “people thinking about embarking on demonstrations in the future may have to decide whether they want to be effectively locked up for eight hours without food or water and, when leaving, to be photographed and identified.”

Yet it does not suggest that this may have been the initial intention of the police in adopting this tactic, even though it is absurd to suggest the police might have planned to use this tactic without imagining it would lead to anger and frustration on the part of those trapped in the kettle. In conjunction with the extensive restrictions to freedom of protest under the New Labour government, amply documented elsewhere, it might be reasonable to suggest that the police tactics were in part, at least, designed to deter protestors.


e) Were the police violent and should any officers face charges?

Remarkably, this question is absent from virtually all the press coverage – despite hundreds of injuries to protestors, the death of someone apparently trapped in a kettle, and video footage showing baton charges directed towards crowds of people with their hands in the air, the use of riot shields as an offensive weapon, and the beating with batons of protestors sat on the ground (see, for example, ‘Riot police attack peaceful protestors at G20 climate camp’ on Indymedia). The ample groundwork laid by the police suggesting there would be protestors “intent on violence” happily accounts for all the violence of the day and makes easy to ignore eyewitness accounts that state that peaceful protestors were being kettled, charged, beaten and provoked by the police.

To take just one of countless eyewitness accounts, see for example a typical report that “a girl … who was on the front line of the cordon, was suddenly shoved up against a wall and kicked repeatedly by a policeman. He left her as she stayed cowering … The general atmosphere was fear at who the police would pick on next.” (Indymedia, April 6).

Given the number of witnesses and video evidence, it has taken remarkable obedience by the press to refuse to ask this question – and for a media so obsessed with violence, it seems strange that the overwhelming violence of the day – that inflicted by the police on protestors – barely merits a mention.

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24 Comments

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Hussein
Apr 7, 2009 21:45

Sick article!

andy
Apr 7, 2009 23:54

Excellent article. Just to point out that footage has been obtained by the Guardian of the man who died on his way home during the protests being assaulted from behind by police just prior to his death. It is available here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/blog/2009/apr/07/g20-protest-death-police-assault?commentpage=1.

Most mainstream media sources initially swallowed the police story that the police had not had any contact with the man (Ian Tomlinson) before he died. An optimist might think that this footage will prompt a significant change in how mainstream media treats the press releases of the Met and other police forces, and perhaps conduct some actual journalism for a change. This seems rather unlikely to me however.

Musab
Apr 8, 2009 0:10

Now that there is video footage of a police assault directed at a man who soon died, the rigid obedience of the press has shifted slightly, and some more questions about police actions during the G20 have become permissible.

As Andy correctly points out – the huge majority of the press “swallowed the police story” regarding Ian Tomlinson’s death, despite:

a) Numerous eyewitness accounts to the contrary
b) A clear and demonstrable history of the Metropolitan Police lying to cover up deaths at their hands (cf. de Menezes for an absolutely uncontroversial case).

One wonders whether the same benefit of the doubt would have been given to protestors had a police officer died at their hands.

Mazin
Apr 8, 2009 2:09

A brilliant article that truly describes this new sick tactic of the police, the writer has carefully followed the events throughout that day whilst keeping his analytical mind working continuously.. such a joy reading all the way through.. keep up the good work!

Iraqi Rabit
Apr 8, 2009 2:15

Excellent article..
Keep up the good work..

Shrapnel
Apr 8, 2009 5:55

What does all of this mean? Is it now impossible to protest the policies of the UK government without risking your life? And this is a labour government. What hope is there?

Mike D
Apr 8, 2009 7:23

Excellent article – thank you.
Sad that it takes video of a death to get media to question thrie assumptions.

a different Andy
Apr 8, 2009 10:41

Have a look also at coverage outside the UK. al-Jazeera has a great video which does put the blame where it belongs, with the police.
http://english.aljazeera.net/news/europe/2009/04/20094205112197368.html
This is the best report I’ve seen outside of the activist media.

Telesur have good stuff too, concentrating on protesters’ auses and saying that authorities “suppressed” the protests.
http://translate.google.co.uk/translate?prev=hp&hl=en&js=n&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.telesurtv.net%2Fnoticias%2Fsecciones%2Fnota%2F46404-NN%2Fautoridades-reprimen-protestas-contra-g-20-en-londres%2F&sl=es&tl=en

Some other snippets I picked up:

* Police staged a very violent attack on the “fluffy” Climate Camp on the evening of Saturday, attacking people with batons etc in a confined space, despite only facing civil disobedience in response.

* On Sunday police raided two convergence centres and rounded up 80 people – by far the bulk of the 120 arrests. Pretext raids based on abusing a law allowing entry to premises holding fugitives, these were carried out very violently, with protesters held outside with hands tied together like at Guantanamo, and at least one taser fired inside the building. Police initially claimed they were looking for suspects from the day before and anyone else would be released promptly. In fact it seems everyone is now listed as “arrested”.

* Academic Chris Knight has been suspended from his job for supporting the protests. This is a big attack on academic freedom as the university is basically suggesting that academics should not support “illegal” direct action even in their spare time and by word alone. Hundreds of radical academics have views on record similar to Knight’s. UEL also shut down their entire campus in an attempt to stop the Alternative G20 summit on the Saturday – an attempt which failed (protesters occupied the venue).

* Several protests on Sunday, notably a vigil for Ian Tomlinson, were also corralled and treated very violently by the police.

* There are numerous reports of bogus arrests, for instance of a comedy group in a fake APC who were parodying riot police, arrested for impersonating police. The outfits were obviously not police, and in fact look less like police outfits than university security’s do. There had already been about 20 of these kinds of arrests before anything happened at Bank. This means that of the 120 arrests reported in the media, only about 20 were anything to do with the protests at their peak – the rest were from the two squat raids and earlier bogus arrests.

* Police sent requests to rail staff to send them information on suspected protesters getting on or off trains. This was leaked to Indymedia.

* Five people were arrested under “terrorism” laws for possessing homemade fireworks and “imitation firearms” (probably water pistols) in connection with the protests, in Plymouth. Two of these people have not been released yet. Police admitted from day one that the items were not able to cause death or injury and were probably for “disruption”, but proceeded to detain protesters under special terrorism powers for at least a week now.

* News in yesterday is that police again used “kettles” and violent charges on the crowd against spontaneous Tamil demonstrations. Police also took Tamil flags on the grounds that they are considered “terrorist” items (the Tamil national flag is identical to the flag used by the banned LTTE).

murray
Apr 8, 2009 10:54

The ‘kettling’ tactic is a really disgusting perversion of the democratic process. Even our timid government has now ‘expressed concern’ about Isreali tactics in Gaza, the most obviously abhorrent (and illegal under international law) being the collective punishment of the population. I completely fail to see how kettling can be anything except collective punishment. It is in practice the defacto detention of protestors, regardless of whether they themselves commit illegal acts. In effect we have a media that is supporting the security of big business’ plate glass windows (or rather our plate glass windows in the case of the bank in question) over the democratic rights of citizens.

Is this the balance of security and freedom the government talks about?

Adam E-C
Apr 8, 2009 17:57

An interesting article. Unfortunately, those in positions of authority, particularly the police force, are rarely brought to justice for the abuse of such power, particularly when they are in crowds, with armour and their faces covered, with hundreds of other officers looking exactly the same, as the video demonstrates

Alf
Apr 9, 2009 5:50

Excellent work, Musab! Apart from the issues raised directly in the piece, the article also implicitly raises issues related to how the media is creating a discourse about protest and policing that feeds into the general strategy of dividing people and communities up by creating a moral and social panic – cf. the notion of “anti-social behaviour”, the intense campaigning to get people to snitch on so-called “benefit thieves”, the whole discourse of “feral youth” in “broken Britain” and so on … all in an attempt to justify the policing of the crisis of legitimacy of transnational neoliberal institutions

Anyways, liked this piece a lot – sticking it on my blog!

Lianne
Apr 9, 2009 9:55

I’m overwhelmingly glad that others too feel the same disquiet at how the protest was reported in the media. Somehow we managed to slip out early, genuinely scared at our detainment in the kettle at Bank for several hours. En route, we passed an Evening Standard stall, bearing the headline “Riots in the City”, or something of that ilk. I didn’t know whether to be outraged or unsurprised. Great article – ‘alternative’ accounts need to disseminated to counter the mainstream sensationalist fabrications.

Correcting the media narrative of the G20 protests on April 1, 2009 « Striated Space
Apr 9, 2009 13:05

[…] the media narrative of the G20 protests on April 1, 2009 By striatedspace By Musab Younis, Ceasefire magazine, April 6, […]

Kieran
Apr 9, 2009 15:33

Could someone who was there please register a complaint with the Press Complaints Commission regarding this misleading coverage and keep us posted?

They may be a paper tiger but it’s an avenue worth exploring.

Alice
Apr 9, 2009 22:43

Great article, and good comments too, thanks.

The one thing I don’t think is being said enough at the moment is that the tactics and behaviour of the police last week were entirely routine. Just about every major protest I’ve ever been on, as well as many smaller ones, has been policed in more or less this way.

You can always spot a first-time protestor because they are the only people still expressing astonishment at what they see police officers do. Kettling, crap (i.e. obviously arbitrary) arrests, provoking violence, hitting people on the ground with batons, shoving very hard with shields, intimidation etc happens at almost every protest. Lots of us simply expect it now.

I hope the investigation doesn’t allow everyone to narrow the focus of discussion to just this one fatal incident. It’s high time the very nature of the role of policing protest is called into question and drastically changed.

Kieran – I might just do that… Will report back here if I do.

Don Gillingham
Apr 10, 2009 14:07

Did anyone else see the bit about Peter Powel, the guy whos company was at the center of the ‘game’ they were playing on the 7/7.
He said that they were going to use the 1/2 April as an opportunity to play another game,…this time a game were a pandemic flu virus had hit Britain….SO…no great surprise the police and their ‘specially disguised thugs’ kettled legal protester, it was part of the game!
What happened on the 1/2nd was a ‘light touch’ rehearsal for their next false flag op’ ,…coming soon to a town near us all.

Fred
Apr 10, 2009 17:32

An excellent article… it’s difficult to add to. Also, as has been noted, interesting comments too. To everyone, but Alice in particular, I recommend reading up on the concept of blitzkrieg – an all-too-familiar word but very unsettling when you understand that the “kesselschlacht” (kettle- or cauldron-battle) is the final stage of the strategy. The aim of kesselschlacht is essentially to surround the enemy and forbid him escape: thereafter, one’s own forces slowly close in, capitalising on the lack of supplies, poor communications, broken morale and general disarray of the enemy, until the point is reached where one can disarm, kill, or capture any enemy troops left alive within the kettle.
These police tactics derive from military thinking – the police view the people whom they are supposed to “protect and serve” as an enemy to be strategically destroyed. “Operation Glencoe” – is this a war? It’s not a civil Barbarossa yet, but the prospects for liberty in this country don’t look too bright.

Polly
Apr 13, 2009 16:01

It should not be called a kettle.

Adam
Apr 15, 2009 13:43

The CPGB’s Weekly Worker is reporting that police agent provocatuers were seen by the paper’s own staff inciting violence http://www.cpgb.org.uk/worker/764/kettling.html . You might think that the police were actively looking for trouble.

The death of Mr Tomlinson, and the footage now available of a policeman striking a woman first with his hand then with his baton have led to officers being suspended. I might just be an old cynic but I doubt that any of these officers will face charges let alone be convicted.

Now we have the police arresting possible protestors, some of whom might have been thinking about engaging in a bit of direct action possibly at a power station ahead of any actual, you know, crime being committed. The situation now is bad, far worse than in the 1980s. Indeed it is so bad, in my view, that we live in real danger that a fundamental element of democracy is at threat. What the powerful want is an anaesthetised society that votes from time to time between elites who more or less agree with one another anyway. Visible protest is being hindered or prevented at every opportunity. It is the duty of us all to make sure that a vibrant democracy survives the present authoritarian turn.

Liberal Conspiracy » Can the Met police change its stripes?
Aug 22, 2009 14:17

[…] events of the G20 were a turning point in public opinion. The press has largely abandoned its original campaign of misinformation, and the Evening Standard, which published some of the worst of the pro-police propaganda, has […]

Can the Met police change its stripes? 
Aug 22, 2009 22:08

[…] events of the G20 were a turning point in public opinion. The press has largely abandoned its original campaign of misinformation, and the Evening Standard, which published some of the worst of the pro-police propaganda, has […]

Ceasefire Magazine – Counterspin: Should we trust the newspaper?
Sep 5, 2010 19:47

[…] a personal involvement in the case would have corrected for this. The same, incidentally, goes for every single mainstream press article that I have been able to find on the G20 protests, until the video of the attack on Ian Tomlinson […]

yet another blog | Just in case you missed it
Mar 9, 2011 13:08

[…] That we have the mainstream Guardian to thank for most of these revelations sticks in my craw a little bit. But hey, if one of the mainstream platforms hadn’t picked it up in truth its unlikely to have received the widespread attention it so rightly deserves. Or that “attention” would have painted a wholly different picture. […]

Dewitt
Jan 4, 2013 17:59

Hi. I was contemplating adding a backlink back to your
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using your website address: http://ceasefiremagazine.
co.uk/correcting-the-media-narrative-of-the-g20-protests-on-april-1-2009/ or blog title: Correcting the media narrative of the G20 protests
on April 1, 2009 | Ceasefire Magazine. Please make sure to let me
know at your earliest convenience. Thanks!

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