Lee Jasper reports on last week’s United Families and Friends Campaign march in London, which was subject to extremely heavy-handed policing with elderly mothers, grandmothers and children being physically dragged or forced across the street.
Hostile and threatening policing at the march (Picture by Dee Constantine-Simms)
For 13 years the families of those who have tragically suffered the death of a loved one in custody have gathered together to make their annual sojourn from Trafalgar square to 10 Downing Street. Dressed in black they make their march silently with no placards or chanting as they hand in their letter on behalf of the families requesting that the Prime minister hear their cries for justice. They have done so without incident or arrest during that time.
At this year’s event the families represented all communities, races and faiths. From deportee Jimmy Mubenga’s wife to student Alfie Meadows mum, who marched along with the families of Ian Tomlinson, Mark Duggan, Roger Sylvester, Sean Rigg and Smiley Culture to name but a few.
I was the head steward for the march and at around 1pm 500 of us set off from the square in good order. It was a dignified affair in line with the families’ wishes. All were dressed in black. It was a wonderful sight to see with many family campaigns proudly carrying their colourful banners emblazed with the names of loved ones and demands for justice. We made our way slowly and silently the short distance from Trafalgar square to Downing Street where we then held a rally on the closed north bound section of Whitehall.
After a round of poignant and heart rending speeches from family members, a delegation of families went to symbolically deliver a letter to the Prime Minister David Cameron. The families simply wanted to pin a letter to the gates of Downing Street as they had done every year previously.
The policing then changed dramatically with helicopters flying overhead and senior officer going into what I can only describe as panic mode. They demanded the families withdrew from Downing Street and that the entire road was cleared. Despite repeated attempts by me to talk sense to the officers concerned about the sensitivities of the situation and the need for restraint on their part, as soon as the families approached Downing Street the police deployed lines of additional officers. Those who were not part of the delegation and who had remained on the opposite side of the road surged forward as police began lining up in front of the families.
This was a serious tactical error on the part of the police. I had repeatedly warned them that if they deployed police to prevent the families delivering the letter to the PM then it would be seen as a deeply proactive act. They simply brushed that advice aside.
They then started to try and arrest demonstrators and move us physically off the road by forcibly confronting the demonstrators many of whom had now sat down in the road demanding that our right to protest peacefully and deliver our letter was respected. It seemed to me that the police were intent on causing a confrontation.
As the police cleared Whitehall, families were subject to extremely heavy-handed policing with elderly mothers, grandmothers and children being physically dragged or forced across the street.
Neville, a black man famous for his You Tube condemnation of Boris Johnson post riot broom in hand walkabout in Clapham was clearly targeted by the police and arrested. I believe Neville was recognised and targeted by the police for arrest. Family members were arrested and then unarrested under urgent protest.
Officers then waded straight through the remaining seated members of the demonstrators and attempted to begin their kettling tactics by seeking to surround the demonstration.
It was at that point we decided that the police were clearly intent on provoking serious violence and with the bereaved families becoming increasingly distressed we decided to withdraw under extreme duress.
I have been Head Steward for lots of marches over many years. I took 5000 people and a huge sound system to New Scotland Yard in March of this year to protest about the death of Smiley Culture. The policing was text-book and the demonstration passed without arrest or incident.
This year as we approached 10 Downing Street there was a deeply hostile and threatening tone to the policing of the United Friends and Family demonstration.
The point that immediately struck me was that the police were now treating us not as a traffic management problem but as a serious public order problem. I got the distinct impression that the best practice policing of the past had been abandoned for a new and much more muscular aggressive policing style.
Senior officers on the ground were themselves complaining to me that they did not want to deploy extra officers at Downing Street but were being overridden by orders from New Scotland Yard to clear Whitehall.
Many family campaigns were represented (Picture by Dee Constantine-Simms)
What was the New Scotland Yard Commissioner Hogan Howe thinking to allow that kind of “zero tolerance” public order policing on a march made up of distraught families of the bereaved? Men women and children were on the march. It was solemn silent and dignified .I believe what we witnessed yesterday should be seen in the light of the August riots and the Occupation at St Pauls and represents a regressive and dangerous style of policing for London.
Such a fundamental and radical change in policing style must have been agreed by the new Commissioner Hogan Howe, Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority Kit Malthouse and Mayor Boris Johnson.
That a march such as this could be treated like a crowd of football hooligans is a clear and unambiguous signal that the democratic right to protest will be neatly contained where possible, aggressively challenged where not and violently confronted whenever and wherever the police think they can get away with it. I believe that the policing of the Families march is the canary in the coalmine, signalling a much more offensive, aggressive and potentially unlawful policing style.
There was simply no need for the kind of policing approach we saw yesterday. That the families of those who have died in custody can be treated in this way is an outrage both the Mayor and the Commissioner have given a green light to: a very different style of bully boy aggressive, zero tolerance in your face policing that was totally disproportionate given the tone and tenor of our march.
As news of the appalling treatment of these families at this demonstration becomes more widely known so will the level of public furore and anger at their terrible treatment increase. In one fell swoop Commissioner Hogan Howe has attacked all of the families of those who have died in police custody. With police black community relations in London and parts of the UK already at historic new lows this will make an already bad situation much worse. Commissioner Hogan Howe has made a serious if not critical error. He has already been given his nickname after yesterday’s aggressive debacle: Commissioner Hulk Hogan Howe.
The police attack on family members and peaceful demonstrators was simply unforgiveable. Both the Commissioner Hogan Howe and the Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority and the Mayor of London should apologise to the families of those who have died in police custody for the disgraceful behaviour of the police yesterday. If they are politically astute they will do so quickly and without delay.
One thing is for sure the United Friends and Family Campaign will be pressing the case for both a full public apology and for all charges to be dropped against those who were arrested for nothing more than seeking to demonstrate peacefully in the name of justice.
No Justice No Peace! (Picture by Dee Constantine-Simms)