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WTF, The Police? Mark Duggan, Deaths In Custody & Cops Off Campus
Josh Hall , January 9th, 2014 05:17

How did police violence become such a readily accepted part of daily life in the UK, asks Josh Hall

"The majority of people in this country know Mark was executed. We're going to fight until we have no breath left in our body, for justice for Mark, for his children, and for all of the deaths in custody. No justice, no peace!" - Carole Duggan

A group of police officers stand around outside a university building. There are maybe a dozen of them; it is early evening. They are smiling, chatting. Beside them is a pool of a student's blood.

It's a picture so chilling, so absurd, that it seems staged. And yet variations of the same image, each taken by different people, circulated around Twitter one Thursday evening in early December, seeming to mark a step change in the police's treatment of protest.

It's amazing how routine it has all become. On December 6th 2013, the Metropolitan Police deployed a helicopter and their Territorial Support Group to prevent a group of around 300 students walking across their own campus. The TSG, also known as CO20, is the Met's public order unit, a notorious outfit that is on the front line of the state's increasingly violent efforts to suppress the right to free assembly.

That day's demonstration was called in response to a new wave of police violence against students. Gathered under the hashtag #copsoffcampus, the protest was organised at short notice following two days of what the Evening Standard referred to as "unrest" at the University of London. Earlier in the week, students peacefully occupied management offices in University of London headquarters Senate House. Their ten demands included parity of pay and conditions for outsourced workers to bring them in line with in-house staff; the security of the under-threat University of London Union; that three halls are not outsourced and that there are no job losses there; that the "pay ratio between the lowest paid and the highest paid staff in the university should be reduced to a maximum of 10:1"; and that the University of London make a public statement opposing the privatisation of the student loan book. Students referred to their demands as the 10 Cosas, in reference to the 3 Cosas campaign in which contract workers at the University of London demanded sick pay, holiday, and pensions in line with the in-house workforce. Last month the 3 Cosas campaign, which operated entirely outside the ineffectual union machine, and which crowdsourced a strike fund that ran into thousands of pounds, had won key concessions from the University including the implementation of the London Living Wage.

On the Wednesday night the Senate House occupation was violently evicted by police, who also began attacking bystanders. Office worker Huw Lemmey was one of a group of eyewitnesses. "There was a small group of supporters," he says. "It didn't have the atmosphere of a demonstration at all, more just people coming to offer support. There were also a number of confused students who had left belongings in the library. Although the occupation was limited to management offices, the security staff were preventing access to any of the library.

"After about an hour, five cop vans suddenly pulled up in the car park. It had a touch of the drugs raid about it, with them jumping out en masse with the vans barely at a halt. Then maybe 30 cops burst through the foyer gates, trapping a guy behind them who they then swung punches at. They just sort of roughed everyone up, pushed them against walls, etc. It happened really quickly – we barely noticed them arriving, then the foyer was full of them."

Shortly afterwards, Lemmey says, the police rushed out of the Senate House foyer and began attacking bystanders. "The police were chasing people across the car park, seemingly at random, not in a line or anything, and tripping, punching people."

Lemmey says the police action "had the atmosphere of a pub brawl or a fight outside a match." Their behaviour, he says, was "odd. They had obviously been sat in their vans pumping themselves up for a while, and [their actions were] totally out of proportion to what was happening. What was peculiar was the total mismatch between the situation – 30 or so people just standing around with hands in pockets – and the response.

"They seemed to be enjoying it, so I don't know what happened in the vans but it kind of felt like they'd been told they had free rein."

The police made several arrests that night, some of which came during a solidarity demonstration outside a police station. There, a policeman was filmed apparently punching a man in the face three times. One protester told the Guardian that police were "punching people indiscriminately."

The following afternoon, students called the first #copsoffcampus demonstration in response to the police's actions. The event was initially unpoliced, but shortly after it began, the Met responded to the threat of students standing around their own campus by sending more than half a dozen riot vans. Despite students erecting barricades, police soon began pushing people back, and subsequently instituted kettles as far afield as Euston Square.

Some 41 arrests were made that night, including that of Oscar Webb, editor of the London Student, who was arrested despite clearly displaying his Press Card. In a tactic now employed by the Met, arrestees were held at police stations as far out of London as possible: Croydon, Bromley, and Sutton. Their bail conditions were also characteristically outrageous, ostensibly preventing them from gathering "in a group fo [sic] four or more persons, including yourself in any public place". According to Channel 4, only one arrestee was charged.

But the violence is not limited to university campuses. The past twelve months have seen some of the most egregious police behaviour in recent memory, and students are alive to this. Later in December several thousand marched against police brutality, joining the dots between campus violence and the death of Mark Duggan, who a jury yesterday decided was lawfully killed, despite eight of the ten jurors maintaining that he was unarmed at the time of his death. Having left the University of London Union, the march, the route of which was decided autonomously on the day, diverted towards the Royal Courts of Justice, where the Duggan inquest was held.

Students have been criticised for instrumentalising Duggan's death, with chants of "Who killed Mark Duggan? Police killed Mark Duggan" becoming widespread within the demonstrations. Last month, though, Duggan's aunt welcomed the chants, underscoring the importance of connecting related struggles. During the inquest proceedings police testimony was repeatedly rubbished, with officers' evidence contradicting that of eyewitnesses. Central to the inquest was the question of whether or not Duggan was holding a gun at the time he was shot. Officers have claimed that he had a pistol in a sock, through which they could make out the detail of the trigger. They have also insisted that Duggan was in the process of raising his arm as if to shoot. An independent eyewitness, however, maintains that Duggan was in fact holding a BlackBerry, and that his palms were open in a gesture of surrender. The taxi driver who was driving Duggan, meanwhile, told the inquest that the marksman who killed Duggan acted "like someone who had lost his senses." Duggan was shot in an area without CCTV coverage.

Crucially, police were unable to properly explain how the 'gun' that Duggan was supposedly holding was subsequently found some 20 feet away from his body, behind some railings. Despite maintaining that their eyes were fixed on the gun, none of the officers present could explain the gun's disappearance and subsequent reappearance. "You're focusing on [Duggan], you are looking at him all the time, you are not looking away or blinking," the assistant coroner asked the shooter during the inquest. "Suddenly the gun disappears." The officer, known only as V53, replied: "It did sir, yes."

It had been suggested that Duggan's shooting could have caused his arm to leap backwards, launching the gun over the railings. Professor Jonathan Clasper, however, a military surgeon who examined Duggan's body, told the inquest that "the bullet did not have enough energy to cause that to happen." He continued: "It would be very difficult to explain how the gun ended up where it ended up." In the event, the jury determined that Duggan threw the gun "as soon as the minicab came to a stop and prior to any officers being on the pavement" – despite a fingerprint expert who works for the Met earlier telling the inquest that "no fingerprints or DNA attributable to Mark Duggan were recovered from the gun or the sock."

Duggan's death, to many minds, represents the very worst of the Metropolitan Police's behaviour, and the inquest's conclusions suggest that this behaviour, even when it involves the killing of an unarmed man, will not be punished through the justice system.

But, while the murder of an unarmed man is clearly the most grievous of the police's actions, the Met continues to overstep the mark in more quotidian ways. In September, police arrested 286 people during a demonstration in opposition to the English Defence League's attempts to march on Tower Hamlets. Anti-fascists were kettled for several hours, again detained in far-flung stations, and subsequently bailed with conditions that prohibited them attending other anti-fascist demonstrations. All but two of the arrestees were later told that they would have no further action taken against them, and the remaining two are yet to be charged, leading many to suggest that this was little more than an exercise in intimidation. Even more worryingly, a Freedom of Information request subsequently ascertained that the buses used to transport the arrestees had been booked by the police on August 27, 11 days before the protest, apparently proving that this was a pre-planned mass arrest.

In November, meanwhile, the Guardian published footage of a police officer attempting to recruit a student as an informant. The officer wanted the student to report back on meetings in which "different issues in Cambridge" were discussed, asking him to target perfectly law-abiding groups including Unite Against Fascism and student unions. The footage harked back to 2012's 'spy cops' case, in which eight women brought High Court action against undercover police officers who had entered into relationships with them while gathering information.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, 2013 saw a total of 15 deaths in custody, and a further 12 following other contact with the police. These figures buck an otherwise downward trend over the course of the last decade. There have been more than 300 deaths in custody since 1998. To date, not a single police officer has been successfully prosecuted.

Students explicitly recognise that they are not the first to experience police violence, and nor do they suffer it most acutely. A statement from the Goldsmiths Solidarity Network, published in the wake of December's demonstrations, says: "The actions of the police last week in Bloomsbury have attracted more media attention than the far more brutal violence committed against people of colour daily. It would be nothing short of a disgrace if we fail to point out that police violence is structural and a constant feature of life for hundreds of thousands of Londoners. It would be shameful if we fail to act in solidarity with others facing police violence."

In 2014, as Parliament attempts to return the country to Edwardian levels of inequality, on the streets an increasingly paramilitary police force murders, beats, lies, and perjures on a daily basis, without repercussion. On January 22nd students will gather again to march on Senate House, but students' experience is merely the tip of the iceberg. Today, police violence is a daily fact of life. When the police can kill and beat with impunity, opposing their actions becomes a responsibility for us all.

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