On Sunday, the Met police claimed that violent clashes at Saturday’s Black Lives Matter protests had left 27 officers hurt, branding the protesters’ behaviour “shocking and completely unacceptable.” By Monday, a right-wing social media backlash had cowed the BBC into removing the phrase “largely peaceful” from the story on its website about this. The number of protesters who were injured is not reported.
This might seem like a minor subplot in our tumultuous times, and in some ways it is. But it is worth paying attention to. Through such subtle and insidious interventions, the police and the media gradually chip away at protesters’ legitimacy. People like Sadiq Khan start to come out and condemn the “tiny minority” of violent protesters who “let down” everyone else. Seeds of doubt are planted in the minds of people who might otherwise have been sympathetic: surely if 27 police were injured, the protesters must have been violent and scary?
This is a familiar playbook. I should say up-front that I wasn’t at the protests on Saturday, I don’t live in London, and I’m not in a position to pronounce on what did or didn’t happen: I leave that to those who were there. As a white person, I’m hesitant to even write about these issues at a time I think we should be centring black voices. But I can’t stay silent in the face of this deliberate character assassination, because I’ve seen it before.
In 2008, I was working in parliament. MPs were starting to ask questions about the aggressive police tactics used against climate camp protesters at Kingsnorth power station over the summer. In response, the policing minister defended their actions on the basis that “70 police officers were also hurt” at the protests. A staffer who had been there shook his head in disbelief. “We should FOI that,” he said. “Because there’s no way that’s true.” So we did.
After a protracted war of attrition with Kent Police, we finally got access to the incident logs. They proved that zero injuries had been sustained by police in direct contact with protesters. Instead, we held in our hands a litany of comedy pratfalls: insect bites, toothaches, and, most bizarrely, “officer injured sitting in car”. Kent Police had deliberately misled parliament in an effort to paint completely peaceful protesters as violent thugs. The Guardian ran the story on the front page, and the Minister was forced to apologise.
Later that summer, we brokered a meeting in parliament between the climate camp legal team and senior Met officers ahead of the planned occupation of Bishopsgate in central London. Silver Commander Bob Broadhurst insisted that the police had to act as if the protesters might engage in violent disorder, because the climate campers refused to share their plans. Years later, another Guardian investigation revealed that this was another brazen lie: in fact, the police had a deep mole planted in this movement the whole time.
Bob Broadhurst’s name cropped up again the following year, when he was put in charge of policing the student protests against tuition fees. Ahead of the protests, he did the media rounds trying to scare young people off from attending, warning “genuine protesters” that the demos were likely to be hijacked by groups that “turned up purely with the aim of using the event as a venue for violence and to attack police.” He urged parents to consider that “young people are more vulnerable and likely to be injured if violence breaks out.”
He was right about that, at least: Alfie Meadows suffered a brain injury after being hit with a truncheon, though no officer was ever brought to justice for this. Once again, the police tried to paint an unarmed young person as the aggressor, rather than the heavily armed police officer who hit him over the head. They charged Alfie with violent disorder, a charge he was later cleared of.
All of this is to say: nobody should be surprised by the Met’s claims about last weekend’s protests. The police hate and mistrust protesters. They routinely respond to peaceful protests with disproportionate aggression, often triggering violent clashes which leave many protesters hurt. Pretending to be on the side of “genuine protesters” while pointing to the actions of a “violent minority” is a tried and tested strategy for them. Heavily briefing the media on such matters serves three purposes. First, it puts people off attending future protests by making them nervous about getting caught up in violence. Second, it discredits the protesters in the eyes of the public. Third, it justifies virtually any police tactics used to suppress protests, however violent or aggressive, reducing the likelihood of difficult questions being asked.
But of course, this is different from previous times in some crucial respects. Because these protests are (at least in part) literally about racist police brutality. Not just the murder of George Floyd, but the hundreds of suspicious deaths in custody of people of colour at the hands of the UK police. If these protests succeed, if they get the backing of large swathes of the public, then the police will be under the spotlight. The Met absolutely has a dog in this fight. That anyone would treat its accusations against protesters as the unbiased voice of peace is genuinely baffling to me.
Not only that, but its instinctive hatred of protesters in general is layered on top of a deep institutionalised racism: its own and society’s. This cannot help but shape the way it polices the protests – for instance, the use of aggressive and intimidating riot tactics such as police horses – which must surely increase the likelihood of violent clashes breaking out even at protests which are indeed “largely peaceful”.
It also shapes the context in which claims about violent protesters are heard, making them even more insidious. Many white people – in fact, probably most of us, even if we consider ourselves anti-racist and are not consciously aware of it – have been primed all our lives to consider young black men a threat. This internalised racism creates fertile ground for police narratives which put the blame for violence onto protesters. The police are literally fuelling the very problem the Black Lives Matter protests are highlighting, in order to discredit them and deflect attention from the case they have to answer.
And this is really the point. A lifetime’s experience has made me instinctively extremely sceptical of any police claims about “violent protesters”. We should be doubly sceptical of police claims about black violent protesters. But even leaving aside the rights and wrongs of the situation – even if the claims were entirely accurate – they are a massive exercise in distraction. Black people are out on the streets because they are angry about centuries of oppression. Hundreds have been literally killed at the hands of the UK police. And yet we are being asked to believe that the real crime, the one we should be condemning, is a handful of people throwing bottles at the heavily armed officers sent to keep them in line. Just like we’re being asked to believe that toppling a statue of a slave trader is worse than keeping one up in the first place. Seriously?
Ultimately, it comes down to this. Institutionalised police racism was the spark that ignited these protests. White people might like to think that this problem is less severe in the UK than the US, but they would be wrong: it is merely less openly acknowledged. If we can’t bring ourselves to take police claims about the protests with a hefty pinch of salt, then we are not on black people’s side. It’s as simple as that.