Independent : Sophie Heawood: Our police should behave better than we do7

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sophie Heawood: Our police should behave better than we do

April 19, 2009

Another week, another revelation about police brutality. A second postmortem has shown it was internal bleeding, not a heart attack, that killed Ian Tomlinson after he was attacked by police at the G20 demo in London, and now there's footage of Nicola Fisher being struck by police at a vigil for him.

Of course, attacks on police happen too, and theirs is not a job I envy. I don't imagine that people sign up to the force with the lofty ambition of being a thug. But I have been going on demos all my life and the unpalatable truth is that these assaults are commonplace. The police used to film demonstrators, to identify the trouble-makers later. Now that it is so easy to own a videocamera, the demonstrators are filming them – and for exactly the same reason.

I was five when my parents first took me on a CND rally. I had never seen so many people all together in one place – it blew my tiny mind. There was something wonderful about being part of a group of people like this, walking down a street filled not with beeping cars but with cheering, happy humans.

Later I would march about the miners, the poll tax, the criminal justice Act, the Liverpool dockers, the Iraq war – all causes I believed in, but also a wonderful excuse to go outdoors with other humans and celebrate being alive.

Alas, it always turns. Perhaps it starts with a stupid protester throwing a bottle at a police horse, or shouting in an officer's face that he's a filthy pig, or worse. The police move in on you, and the danse macabre begins, as they form a human pen so you're left in no doubt that it's you, the protesters, who are the pigs. You are squashed against each other, unable to leave, even if you're desperate for a pee or a drink of water. A policeman starts shoving you, you beg him to stop, ask him for his number. He tells you to fuck off.

You see somebody on the floor bleeding from the head and an officer still seems to be kicking him and you don't know what's going on and you're jostled and powerless to stop it.

Earlier this year, on a London march for Gaza, the police routed marchers on Piccadilly into the dark car tunnel underneath Hyde Park Corner. Surprised by what we saw happening ahead, my friends and I jumped over the railings into the park to avoid it. We were the lucky ones – most couldn't escape and were forced down into the darkness in their thousands. They were then held down there for some time – I will never forget hearing the screaming.

When they finally emerged at the other side, teenagers came running over to me, asking if I was a journalist, could I help them, the police had held them down there and then let rip with their truncheons, they said. It was chaos and I felt useless.

And so I didn't join the G20 demo where Ian Tomlinson died, even though it was on my doorstep and I wanted to protest about the banks. I was too frightened of what the police would do, and of feeling too vulnerable to intervene. Sadly, my fears were warranted. And if a journalist – who has a better chance than most of raising a dissenting voice – is scared of the police, then what hope has anybody else got?

It is a grave error to believe that for a police force to be successful, it must be terrifying. It is not good enough to say that after a day of provocation, those officers had had enough. They need to be beyond reproach. They need to be better than us.