Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

From Orgreave to the City

Police brutality during public disturbances is nothing new. Neither is the tendency of the mainstream media to repeat police claims of provocation by demonstrators uncritically. Rhian Jones sketches the recent history, highlighting what is distinctive about the situation today

June 12, 2009
4 min read

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the 1984-85 miners’ strike, an event which saw an extraordinary and now largely forgotten level of government-sanctioned violence by police against a large section of the populace. The use of truncheons, riot gear, police horses and dogs against strikers became commonplace. Miners travelling to solidarity pickets were stopped en route and arrested. Nor were they safe if they stayed at home: mining villages sometimes resembled areas under foreign police occupation, with homes raided and residents intimidated and assaulted. It was a common police boast that the overtime they worked during the strike enabled them to pay off their mortgages or carry out extensive home improvements.

In June 1984, a mass picket of the Orgreave coking plant saw, for the first time in Britain, the deployment of police units carrying not the normal full length protective shield used to guard against missiles, but short shields that could be used aggressively in conjunction with batons. These units acted as ‘snatch squads’, beating or arresting individuals following charges of the crowd by mounted police – a tactic developed for use in riots by colonial police forces in Hong Kong.

Coverage of such clashes on press and television was almost uniformly hostile to the strikers. When broadcasting footage of Orgreave, the BBC, incredibly, transposed the sequence of events, making it appear that police cavalry charges had been a defensive response to antagonism by stone-throwing pickets rather than an act of aggression. Only in 1991 did the BBC issue an apology for this, claiming that its action footage had been ‘inadvertently reversed’.

The tactics used during the miners’ strike were still in evidence during the mass protests against the imposition of the poll tax in 1990. On 31 March that year, a march and rally involving up to 200,000 people ended with some of the worst rioting seen in central London as a result of police ineptitude and overreaction. Following the rally, riot police attempted to clear Whitehall of marchers, despite all exits being blocked by further lines of police.

As scuffles broke out and members of the public became caught up with demonstrators, mounted police charged and riot vans were driven into the crowd. Nearly 5,000 people, mostly civilians, were injured. News transmissions ignored the extent of police aggression and instead followed police and government leads in blaming the violence on anarchist elements – a claim disproved the following year by a police inquiry. In the subsequent trials of arrested demonstrators, police video itself was influential in acquitting many defendants, suggesting that police had fabricated or inflated charges and confirming doubts about policing styles developed during the 1980s.

Following the failure of the police operation in 1990, the policing of protest evolved towards a policy of containment and suppression. The ‘kettling’ technique used outside the Bank of England at the G20 protest was in evidence at anti-capitalist events in London as early as 1999. At May Day protests in 2001, police corralled 3,000 people, including uninvolved bystanders, for eight hours in Oxford Circus. Those inside the cordon were denied access to food, water and toilet facilities and had their details and images recorded before being released. This tactic has been used at several subsequent demonstrations to control, subdue and gain personal information about protesters despite police having only the limited power simply to stop and search in anticipation of violence.

The significance of the G20 protest, then, lies not in the policing of the demonstration itself, but in the channels available for its reporting and consequent public awareness. G20 was notable for the number of press and amateur reporters participating in and observing the protests, as well as interested civilians armed with cameras and mobile phones. One of the latter, a New York businessman, provided the video of the police assault of Ian Tomlinson subsequently shown on the Guardian’s website.

It is this broadened and democratised arena of reporting that has made the greatest difference to coverage of the police role at protests. The initial press opprobium directed at alleged bottle-throwing anarchists altered swiftly and dramatically under the weight of contradictory evidence, producing an extraordinary consensus of opinion on the Tomlinson case from across the political spectrum. The sheer number and variety of observers, as well as their access to media outlets such as YouTube, has enabled the public presentation of an ‘insider’ view of police actions, increasing the power of protesters to expose previously unknown or disputed police practices and to challenge subsequent press denials or misrepresentation. Despite the tragedy of Ian Tomlinson’s death, what happened at the G20 may yet provide an opportunity to unite public opinion in favour of greater police accountability and media transparency. n

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya


5