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London Protests – Media Misrepresentation Helps No-one

Providing accurate coverage of any protest event, especially an event where there is violence, is difficult at the best of times; the media often misunderstand or misrepresent what actually happened. However, it is rare that the media coverage of an event is as inaccurate or misleading as some of the reports I have seen concerning the violence at the student protest in London yesterday. Much of what has been written and broadcast about yesterday’s incidents does not stand up to the facts. Without naming and shaming individual media groups, the most glaring errors have been:

“There was widespread rioting throughout London” – Whilst there was intense violence at times, almost all of it occurred within a small area of Parliament Square. Although there were up to 30,000 students at the protest, only approximately 500 were directly involved in the violence. The location of the violence within the square moved as this group moved to different locations.

Outside of Parliament Square, there were only three minor incidents: an attempt to set fire to a Christmas tree; windows in a shop were smashed in Oxford Street; and Prince Charles’ car was hit with sticks and had a Christmas decoration filled with paint thrown at it. Although these incidents were probably very unpleasant for those in the immediate area, they hardly amount to “widespread rioting.”

“Police lost control of the protest” – The violent element of the protest was clearly determined to break through the Houses of Parliament. None of the protestors succeeded in doing this. Attempts to break into the Treasury and the Supreme Court were all prevented by police.

“Police prevented peaceful protest” – The police were able to facilitate those who peacefully protested throughout the day, even when they broke the agreement that had been made between student leaders and police before the event. The vast majority of the estimated 30,000 students were able to make their point and then leave the protest without police interference; those who were contained after the violence was only approximately 1,000 individuals. The protestors who remained on the agreed route and moved to Victoria Embankment for the rally as planned would have left Parliament Square over two hours before the containment took effect.

“The police provoked the violence through charging the crowd/using horses/containing the protest in Parliament Square” – There have been many attempts to pin the blame for the violence on the police, but this does not stand up to scrutiny. Anarchist and extreme left wing protestors were clearly intent on violence and arrived at the protest carrying improvised shields, flares, billiard balls and “paint bombs,” which are Christmas decorations or other breakable containers filled with paint; the aim is to cover police officers’ visors in paint so they cannot see.

The first significant violence occurred in an area in front of the Parliament building where police stood behind a four-foot deep barrier and could not even make contact with crowd. In that location, protestors threw missiles at the police, attempted to break through the barrier and used barriers intended to prevent people walking on the grass to both strike officers and to attempt to build a bridge over the police barrier.

The violent element of the crowd then attempted to break through a nearby line of police who were not behind barriers to get to the Parliament buildings via another route. It was when a small number of protestors broke through at this location that horses were deployed against the crowd for the first time, well over an hour after the violence began. Violence continued in this location for almost another hour, with police asking all the protestors to return to the agreed route throughout, before the containment was put in place. Even at this stage, it was not an absolute containment, and protestors were advised they could leave along certain routes if they were not suspected of having been involved in the violence and vandalism.

“Police were heavy handed” – Pictures of police officers striking people with batons, shields and even their fists and using horses to move people are never pretty viewing. However, a study of the available footage indicates that in the vast majority of occasions where this type of force was being used, the crowd was actively charging at police lines while the police were static. On those occasions where police were advancing into the crowd, it occurred during incidents where rioters were attacking the police with barriers, poles and thrown missiles including bricks, flares and paint bombs.

The UK model of public order policing involves officers being very close to the crowd and hands on where necessary. The aim is that force is only used against those who are being directly violent. The alternative is the use of less lethal weapons to maintain separation between officers and the crowd, which is the methodology used predominantly here in the United States. However, CS Gas affects everyone in the area, both violent and non-violent, as seen at many U.S. demonstrations in recent years, the indiscriminate pepper spraying of the crowd (violent and non-violent) as seen recently in Phoenix, or the use of direct impact weapons, which have caused the deaths of 14 rioters in Northern Ireland between 1970 and 1981 and more recently, Victoria Snelgrove in Boston in 2004. Is this really a more proportionate, transparent or accountable level of force?

In many countries, the level of violence used against officers in London yesterday would have resulted in police using lethal force against the crowd. One comparison that could be made is that an officer separated from his unit during a student protest in San Francisco recently and immediately drew his pistol, but when a Metropolitan police officer became separated last night, his colleagues struck a number of those attacking him with their batons and pulled him back into the unit.

Undoubtedly, there will have been instances where individual officers over-reacted or used a baton against a peaceful protestor who was being pushed into police lines by violent individuals. Police officers are only human and in a fast moving situation coupled with the fear and adrenaline of being in a situation where you are being violently attacked does affect your decision-making skills. However, these instances are far outnumbered by the instances of officers showing incredible restraint in the face of both violent attack and those who sought to goad them into over reacting.

Was yesterday’s operation perfect? No, however, there is no doubt that the Metropolitan Police are today identifying where they made mistakes and seeking ways of rectifying those problems in the future, as any mature organization would.

Was it as bad as it looked to outsiders? No, and the facts that the peaceful protest was facilitated, only 12 officers were injured and only 2 of those seriously, that there was never any real threat to Parliament and that almost all violence was contained in a small area all indicate that the police were more than capable of dealing with anything that the violent element amongst those protesting could throw at them.

Was it anything like the descriptions being used by most media organizations? No, and that is perhaps the biggest problem the police in London face. Policing crowds must be transparent, proactive and there must be accountability on all sides; criminal acts must be punished effectively while those seeking to execute their rights facilitated, as happened in London yesterday. It would be a lot easier for the police to achieve that accountability if the media understood and portrayed what actually happened.

Sam Rosenfeld blogs on protestor management, security sector reform, and the intersection of security and financial issues. Chairman of The Densus Group, Rosenfeld is a former British Army infantry officer who served for eleven years in many of the world’s more contentious environments. He holds an MBA from Wharton Business School, a MSc in Risk, Crisis and Disaster Management, and a BA(Hons) in International Relations and Strategic Studies. Read More