Yesterday, Met PC Simon Harwood was found not guilty of the manslaughter of Ian Tomlinson at the 2009 G20 protests in London. The news prompted mixed reactions. Some wept openly. Others did that kind of dry-sobbing thing that people do sometimes when they don't want to cry in public, like after a family argument at a pizza restaurant. Others dry-heaved. What everyone had in common were their senses of disbelief and righteous outrage.
People die while in the care of or after contact wtih police more often than you might think (1,433 since 1990, according to this data). What made the case of Ian Tomlinson’s death different is that, after an initial police cover-up, video evidence emerged of him being thwacked with a baton and shoved to the ground by PC Harwood, not long before he collapsed in the street and kicked the bucket with three litres of blood in his stomach.
Also, Tomlinson wasn’t even a protester, let alone one gone berserk with a petrol bomb in his hand. He was just ambling home drunk in the opposite direction to the bully Harwood and his baton. Bang to rights, surely? Well, an inquest in May 2011 certainly thought so, finding Harwood guilty of “unlawful killing”. Unfortunately, the inquest had very little power other than the power to make today’s decision seem even more staggeringly unjust.
The Tomlinson family
released a statement, saying: “The NOT guilty verdict really hurts,” and vowed to take the case to the civil courts.
We headed to Scotland Yard to pick the brains of the 40 or so people who'd decided to hold a protest.
We arrived to find a line of police officers. They seemed to have two jobs: 1) defend Scotland Yard’s rotating triangle, and 2) Absorb opprobrium on behalf of the entire police force – like some kind of next-level defensive PR wing.
The time-honoured chant “No justice, no peace, fuck the police!” went up. This guy took exception and stepped up to address the crowd. He said that he agreed with “every sentiment about Ian Tomlinson”, but thought that “When you come here publicly and throw abuse at a number of officers who probably had nothing to do with it, you allow yourselves to be portrayed as a lunatic fringe.” He said the language being used was “crude” – which I guess it was, but to complain about people swearing seemed a bit petty given the context.
This didn’t go down particularly well. It’s pretty ballsy to tell a number of people who have gathered for the sole purpose of hurling invective at the cops to cut out the potty mouth. But I guess you would feel entitled to your opinion if, like Alastair Morgan here, your brother was hacked to death with an axe in a pub car park 25 years ago and you’ve been trying to get justice ever since. “He was going to blow the whistle on police corruption. It was a contract killing arranged with the help of a serving police officer,” he said.
When Alastair had given his two cents, we asked some of the protesters what they thought.
Jas, 22, works for a production company.
VICE: What do you make of today’s verdict?
Jas: I'm absolutely horrified, as I think everybody else here is. It’s obviously really disgusting that somebody could be killed and the police still get away with it. It shows how institutionally corrupt the system is.
Does it change your perception of the police at all?
To be honest, no. This has happened so many times. It’s obvious that this is not the first person to die at the hands of the police and nobody be charged for it. They’re racist, they’re corrupt, they’re murderers. This certainly reinforces that opinion.
Do you feel safe knowing they're the guys who are charged with looking after your safety?
No, definitely not. Not with the Olympics going on and army officers everywhere, missiles on our roofs and the police being able to stop and search everyone at will.
Patrick, 26, studying for a PhD in human trafficking.
Patrick: I guess the longer it went on, the longer I thought it would be that decision. It’s a travesty. It’s just another person killed by the police. Like Smiley Culture, who tends not to get talked about as much. I guess it’s just because they had this guy on camera – otherwise it would be spoken about as much.
Has this changed your perception of the justice system at all?
The problem is that it’s a jury decision, so the man or woman on the street has said what Simon Harwood did was acceptable – that it was a difficult job in difficult circumstances. It’s not like an IPCC cover-up, with the police saying “what we do is fine”. It’s Joe Bloggs who has said, “you push someone over, they die, you’re not responsible”. It doesn’t give you much hope for your fellow citizen. We’ve got Wenlock, the cuddly police Olympic toy. You’re supposed to be able to ask an officer for directions, but they’re more likely to push you over, they’ll walk off, you’ll die and that’ll be the end of it.
Hmmm, I think you might be exaggerating a tad there, but I take your point. Does this change your attitude towards the police?
I was CS sprayed at a demonstration last year, so I don’t trust them anyway.
Ellie Wilkinson, 24, web developer [not pictured, didn’t want her photo taken].
Ellie: I think it’s fucking disgusting and sickeningly unsurprising. If some guy had pushed a police officer over and the officer had died, he’d be going down today. There’s no justice.
Has this changed your opinion of the police? It sounds like you had quite a low estimation of them already.
I’ve seen their behaviour. I was at the G20 myself. I’ve been beaten up by the police several times. I’m unsurprised by their actions and the verdict but it’s still outrageous. It feels ridiculous to say it but it feels like we’re inching closer towards a fascist police state. The Ian Tomlinson verdict is not only a warning to everybody not to protest, but that anyone who might be near a protest is in the firing line.
With the increasing militarisation of the police following last year’s riots, and now a court apparently deciding it’s NBD if a cop hits a man and throws him to the ground minutes before he dies, Britain’s protests are looking like a scary place to be right now. What would the police have to do before one of them got sent down? Kill someone?! On camera!?! Oh wait, that’s pretty much what they just got away with. Lame.