Para-military 101

Strange and eldritch [1] things happen on the Dark Continent. This has been well known for centuries. I experienced one in 1992 when I was at a boarding school in Africa. One of my teachers, who we’ll call Mr. Albert, was a remarkable, quiet, careful and thoughtful man in his late 30s. He’d been a career policeman in the north of England. He eventually left the force, in part because of rampant Masonry [2].

That summer, a young man who’d recently left university came to join the staff at the school for some months. He was a Scouser, a burly, laughing lad and a hell of a footballer: let’s call him Robert. They were the only two young single men teaching at the school so they were allocated a flat together within the staff housing system.

I came upon Robert sitting under a tree crying. I was young enough that it hit me very hard; adults don’t usually do that without a good reason, but he wouldn’t talk to me and asked me to leave him be, so I did. I went to find his room-mate, to ask what was wrong. He was crying too. They had just had the conversation where they realised that Robert had lost a toe and two friends at Hillsborough and Albert had been part of the thin blue line.

Neither man could heal ’til they’d talked to someone who could explain what it was like on the other side. Neither could move on or accept the hideous reality until both could forgive the people who were in that awful cauldron for mistakes that were made, mostly, by the people standing behind them. It took hearing Mr. Al’s memories and seeing how harrowed he was before Robert could forgive the police, and start separating in his mind the policy-makers (who deserved blame) and the uniformed men who did not. It took hearing what it was like for the many trapped with the vicious few before Albert could let go of a consuming anger he felt for those who would ruin the beautiful game with violence.

I am by no means unique in seeing a convenient parallel between bad policing at Hillsborough and bad policing at Climate Camp. Even Alan Hansen [3] can see it. But I believe most of the commentaries have missed one crucial thing: in 1989 no-one on either side knew any better. The police were still under Thatcher’s direction; the attitude of the country was “fuck ’em up and hit ’em hard, they’re only young poor men and no-one cares”. The actual football supporters, the people who want to watch a good game and then go home, hadn’t seen what happens when you fail to self-police; the spread of violence beyond the red-vs-blue into the football-thugs-vs-the-world atmosphere of the 90s.

Right wing pundits keep saying that what happened in London should not be called police brutality. They say things are worse in Russia, or in China, or in Medellin. I say: surely we can aspire to a higher standard for British policing than simply “better than China”? Yes; the British police are overwhelmingly better than the entrenched state in China or the Mafioso in Russia. No; that does not excuse stampeding riot police across a sitting line of peaceful party-goers. No, it does not excuse the attitude that “holding a camera whilst bating [sic] the Police” should result in a woman being slapped in the face and then struck with a baton (thank you, Chavscum). No, it does not excuse senior officers trained and selected by Sir Paul “Ghengiz” Condon [4] using ‘containment’ tactics whose only purpose is to rile up both their own men and their enemies.

When America invaded Iraq, most Iraqis didn’t really have an enemy, but they did have someone they disliked intensely in their own Glorious Leader. Now, most Iraqis have an enemy; the West. And other Iraqis. And the Kurds. And so on. When the Climate Campers switched on the stereo they didn’t have an enemy. They had a target: mindshare among the world leaders and politicians who can actually affect our future. They had a clear vision and a clear political goal. Now, the Metropolitan Police have given those people an enemy: the police.

That’s not good for anyone. When you apply organised, government-ordained violence to peaceful people, you create paramilitaries: everyone watching the War on Terror knows that. For every Climate Camp invasion the government creates more unstable elements, who feel that only with violence can they force the state to listen. That’s bad for the government, it’s bad for the people, and it’s really bad for the beat coppers caught between the two.

[1] By which I do not mean ‘oblong’, though oblong things also happen in Africa.

[2] He was eventually told straight out by a Superintendent that he would never make it above Sergeant rank unless he joined up, so he quit the South Blankshire Police forthwith.

[3] He drew the comparison on Match of the Day: he, of course, was on the pitch when it happened and was therefore one of the few ‘neutral’ eye-witnesses.

[4] In 1994, I debated as a school-boy against Paul Condon (before he was promoted to Commissioner) and he tried to recruit me into the Met with a scholarship for Uni. Fortunately I turned him down; Operation Eagle-Eye is a large part of how Thatcherite policing survived into the Labour era.

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