Fighting fire with fire

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that police acted in self-defence in Genoa but the family of killed protestor Carlo Giuliani have been awarded damages because of the Italian state’s failure to hold a proper inquiry into the planning and management of the police operation at the summit, the BBC reports today.

It is a curious decision, to say the least.  Most of the law of self defence hinges on what can be considered reasonable and proportionate in the circumstances. The BBC repeats the police line that Mr Giuliani was attempting to throw a fire extinguisher at the vehicle when he was shot in the face by armed police.  If you were to shoot a burglar in the face as he attempted to throw something at you, you might find the law less understanding than it was in this case.  Activists present in Genoa published their own record of the incident which they say casts doubt on this interpretation of events (warning: sensitive viewers may not wish to view all of the photographs on this site).  Depending on your perspective, you might argue that he was holding the extinguisher to cover his face rather than to throw it.  Perhaps the police officer had a foam allergy.

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What is clear is that on both sides, the atmosphere was highly charged in Genoa.  Writer Paul Kingsnorth, interviewed about the demonstrations said,

I’ve never before seen the level of police violence I saw in Genoa, and I’ve seen quite a lot

Police agents infiltrated the ranks of demonstrators, other ‘so-called activists’ were seen trashing, burning and looting property.  He also noted,

there was an enormous level of violence on both sides

and what this lead to was an incredibly disproportionate response:

Genoa became a one day police state. The state took draconian actions to protect itself. It suspended the Schengen agreement (on open borders in Europe). It built massive fences around the central ‘red zone’. It had armed anti-terrorist groups everywhere.

Consider what this actually meant. Here are the leaders of the world, the eight supposed leading democracies having to resort to military measures to protect themselves against half a million of their own people. You can see that something is wrong here, and it’s not enough to talk about violent activists. It is clear that there is a great gap between the leaders and the led, and that’s something that radicalised a lot of people – including me.

This same attitude was in evidence at the London G20 protests earlier this year, in which another man was killed.  In the days before, both sides were feeling the tension, with reports circulating of explosives being seized and the police responding with a breezy ‘we’re up for it!’  It was akin to watching gangs of football hooligans, also now back in the news again.  No longer content to allow a fracas to occur naturally, today they prefer to arrange these things on the internet or by text message: ‘CU on Threadneedle ST, there’s gonna b bloodshed.’  And lo and behold, there was.

So there should be little surprise that half of the people interviewed by YouGov for Christian Aid believe that the police are too heavy handed, or that just under a fifth of respondents have been put off protesting by police tactics.  No one should be surprised, but there should be a sense of disquiet.  Lawful protest about issues that matter to us is a cornerstone of the democracy we are trying to export around the world but one that is increasingly being stifled at home.

Climate change, illegal wars, banker bonuses, global poverty and other significant issues tend to be obscured at the ballot box but brought into sharp relief when a huge groups of people get together to shout about it.  Yet from Wat Tyler to Peterloo to more recent times, the powers that be have reacted to us flexing our democratic muscles with violence.

It is perhaps understandable that the forces of law and order reserve their harshest ire for protests by anarchists, missing the original translation from the Greek and focussing on the perceived chaos and disorder instead.  Or perhaps understandable: as one correct translation is ‘without government’, government forces are unlikely to stand by while you try to will them out of existence.

The roots of the word ‘anarchy’ are an archos, no leaders, which is not really about the kind of chaos that most people imagine when anarchy is mentioned.  I think anarchy is about taking personal responsibility for yourself.  I believe that fascism is about abandoning your personal responsibility to the group or to society.

You say, ‘In unity there is strength,’ which inevitably will become, ‘in uniformity there is strength.’  It’s better if all those sticks are the same size and length, because then they’ll make a tidier bundle, which consequently leads to the kind of fascism we had in the ‘30s and ‘40s.

-Alan Moore (Watchmen, V For Vendetta, From Hell)

So the police today are nervous because another protest is to take place and they have not been advised of the location.  The protestors are nervous because they are not up for intimidation tactics like having their details taken illegally and kettling.  This writer is hoping that both sides can calm the frayed nerves and take responsibility for their actions so that no other names are added to that litany that includes Carlo Giuliani and Ian Tomlinson.


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