Turning Ian Tomlinson into the Princess Diana of protest

The campaign over the death of a bystander on the G20 protest has little to do with seriously challenging the police or defending liberty.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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A seemingly accidental death cynically transformed into a momentous event? Check. Public mourning? Check. A makeshift shrine with ersatz notes attached? Check. Talk of dark, powerful forces of conservatism out of tune with the times? Check. Whispers about ‘people power’? Check. The media transformation of a tragic individual into a political icon? Check.

The more it goes on, the more the Ian Tomlinson affair looks like a radical anti-capitalist equivalent of the hysteria surrounding the death of Princess Diana. Tomlinson was a sadly hapless 47-year-old newspaper seller who died of a heart attack at the G20 protests in London on 1 April 2009. It is reported that he was not actually a protester but was simply trying to get home. Shortly before he died, he had been manhandled by the police: hit on his legs with a baton, and forcibly pushed to the ground by a tooled-up riot officer. It is not known if these assaults led to or caused his heart attack.

Yet now, Tomlinson is widely described by radical protesters and sections of the liberal media as a ‘murder victim’ of the Metropolitan Police, whose death reveals a greater truth about contemporary Britain: about the rise of new forms of police brutality; about the emergence of a justice-oriented ‘citizens’ media’; about the dangers we all allegedly face in what one protester describes as ‘the fascist pig state’ (1).

The death of Tomlinson, an innocent man walking through London, is a tragedy for his friends and family. But there is nothing remotely radical in his transformation into a modern-day political martyr. Rather, it is built on paranoia, fear and a narcissistic feeling of anti-capitalist victimhood that echoes the events that followed the death of Diana more than it does any traditional campaign for justice or progressive challenge to police brutality. The beatification of Tomlinson shines a light on the disorientation of the left in Britain, and its capitulation to the politics of victim worship and conspiracy theory.

The widespread handwringing over the death of Tomlinson is built on historical naivety and political opportunism. spiked bows to no one in our opposition to police intervention in our lives – whether they’re whacking protesters or passers-by like Tomlinson, over-policing ‘racist’ white communities in the aftermath of terror attacks, or removing children from their parents on flimsy evidence – but it is historical illiteracy, if not historical insanity, to describe the death of Tomlinson as the Met’s ‘Rodney King moment’, as one serious journalist did (2).

King was a black American who was savagely beaten by members of the LAPD in 1991. When, a year later, the officers were acquitted of assault, there exploded the Los Angeles Riots of 1992 – also known as the Rodney King Uprising – which lasted for six days and resulted in 53 deaths (3). Tomlinson was roughly pushed to the ground, later died of a heart attack, and there has since been a very loud clamour from respectable quarters – including from the UK home secretary Jacqui Smith – for an independent inquiry and if necessary a criminal trial of the officers involved. The Tomlinson incident was followed, not by a week-long uprising, but by a funeral march on Saturday 11 April in which around 300 black-clad protesters traipsed to a shrine at the Bank of England to listen to speeches about the ‘evil regime’ we live under (see photographs below).

Even madder still, some have talked about the policing that led to the Tomlinson incident in the same breath as the ‘policing’ of the miners’ strike in 1984-85 (4). Yet there’s little comparison between the state’s declaration of all-out war against a section of the working classes and the chaotic situation in which a man with a drinking problem had a heart attack in London on 1 April. Others have said the ‘killing of Tomlinson’ is ‘just like Jean Charles de Menezes’, the Brazilian electrician shot to death by police in the aftermath of the failed 21/7 bombings in 2005 (5). But aside from both incidents being followed by initially misleading police press statements, there is no crossover between the rough pushing of Tomlinson and the shooting of seven bullets into de Menezes’ head.

Both the police themselves and their new band of critics seem to have lost absolutely all sense of historical perspective: prior to the G20 demo the police recklessly claimed the protests would be ‘unprecedented’ in their scope and violence (they weren’t), and now commentators claim the death of Tomlinson foretells future police violence that might be similar to that in ‘the era of Grosvenor Square, Grunwick and the miners’ strike’ (it doesn’t) (6).

Alongside historical naivety, there is the questionable choosiness involved in flagging up this particular instance of police heavy-handedness. Why weren’t there similar media-led, home secretary-backed campaigns when paramilitary police were beating and shooting protesters in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s to the 1990s? Or when the police frequently attacked, and even killed, black Britons in the 1970s and 80s? Or when extremely tooled-up police drew the blood of pro-foxhunting protesters outside parliament in 2004? The Guardian, which is leading the media campaign on Tomlinson, described those protesters as a ‘baying’ and ‘treasonous’ mob who were indulging in a ‘preposterous waste of political energy’ and deserved everything they got (7).

The London Evening Standard is also demanding ‘justice for Tomlinson’. Yet in 2001, when a film about police brutality was being chased out of London cinemas by solicitors for the Met, the Standard said barely a word; it certainly didn’t kickstart a campaign. Injustice detailed police killings of black people over a six-year period, including Shiji Lapite, who died from ‘asphyxia from compression of the neck’ after being stopped by police in December 1994; Brian Douglas, who died in May 1995 after being hit across the head by a new American-style baton; Ibrahima Sey, who died in March 1996 after being sprayed repeatedly with CS gas; and Joy Gardner, who died in 1993 after police used tape to restrain her. All of these incidents – far more brutal than anything done to Tomlinson, yet never campaigned on by the mainstream media – show that police brutality is only something new and shocking to the head-in-the-sand brigade. (spiked reported on the police’s attempted censoring of Injustice eight years ago, here.)

The fact that, all of a sudden, a relatively minor instance of police brutality can become the focus of a massive media and political campaign suggests that this is not part of a longstanding, stalwart stance against police antics or a radical attack on truncheon-wielding authoritarianism. Rather, the promotion of the Tomlinson incident springs from a powerful feeling of institutional disarray, from a sense amongst middle-class commentators and some officials that the police are no longer effective or trustworthy and thus need to get their house in order. In other words, it is driven by concern for the ebbing of police authority rather than representing a challenge to the police’s authority in the first place: to use violence, to restrict people’s freedom of movement, to enforce the will of the state, and generally to interfere in our lives.

That is why the Tomlinson incident has become intimately bound up with handwringing over the resignation of Bob Quick, Britain’s top anti-terror copper, after he stupidly displayed top-secret facts about a planned police raid, and with concern over ‘political turmoil’ in the Met. One of the Guardian’s demands in relation to Tomlinson is for ‘a royal commission on the police and policing’ in order that the police might become better focused on their real job: effectively controlling society and stemming disorder (8).

Both the Guardian and the Standard have presented their Tomlinson campaigns as springing from ‘citizen media’ footage of what happened, as if ‘ordinary people’ armed with mobile phones forced the question of the police on to the public agenda. In truth, this so-called ‘citizens’ coverage’ is entirely controlled by editors; the Guardian, for example, has ignored that ‘citizens’ coverage’ which shows that Tomlinson was on the G20 demo for up to an hour-and-a-half before he died, and was quite clearly inebriated, because it doesn’t fit with its morality tale about a pathetic victim killed by police who must now change (9). What is presented as a ‘citizens’ campaign’ is in fact an elite demand for more layers of regulation of the police so that their authority might be shored up and renewed in a time of uncertainty, ‘as unemployment rises and… extreme-right politics start to prosper’ (10). It is the exaggeration and exploitation of an instance of police brutality as a means of restoring police authority.

For their part, the radical protesters who have adopted Tomlinson as their pet victim of the ‘fascist pig state’ have effectively created an anti-capitalist Diana figure. Echoing the campaigns that sprung from the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, too, they express fear, paranoia and a powerful sense of victimology rather than anything positively anti-authoritarian. Some of the notes pinned to the Tomlinson shrine at the Bank of England speak of the ‘dangers’ we all face from the ‘jackboot police’. The fact that the G20 protesters so quickly invested all of their campaigning energies into the Tomlinson incident – the seemingly accidental and random death of a clearly unwell man – reveals the utter absence of political coherence, agency or direction in their protests of 1 April. With no vision, no plan, no ideology, they opportunistically leapt upon a single strange occurrence at their demonstration, and sought to turn Tomlinson into a ventriloquist’s dummy for their own feelings of narcissistic fear and alienation.

The truth is that the police have changed – dramatically – in recent years. The policing of the G20 demo sprung, not from a coherent state ideology or a top-down determination to ‘smash the enemy’, but from internal incoherence and a profound crisis of authority. The treatment of protesters as an ‘unprecedented’ threat to London who had to be pinned into a square for hours on end in order to ‘protect the capital’ spoke to a heightened and unfounded sense of threat amongst the authorities, and to new forms of hands-off authoritarianism: having convinced themselves that the protesters were a moral threat, the police treated them as a virus that could not be allowed to leak out of Threadneedle Street, and pretty much left them to their own devices rather than ‘engaging’ or ‘defeating’ them (11). This is new. And there is much about the new authoritarianism, less confrontational but frequently more insidious than much of what happened in the past, that ought to be challenged. But we can only do that with some honest analysis and meaningful opposition to police authority rather than by turning an unfortunate dead man into a beyond-the-grave representative of our own weaknesses and fears.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

The funeral march for Ian Tomlinson in London, 11 April 2009: photographs by Nathalie Rothschild.

A caricature of a riot, by Frank Furedi

What the G20 should really be debating, by Rob Killick

Your guide to the ‘belly of the beast’, by Rothschild & O’Neill

Put Politics First, by Alex Hochuli

Read more at spiked issue: Anti-capitalism.

(1) Note attached to Ian Tomlinson shrine, London

(2) The police should take note: little brother’s watching you, John Naughton, Observer, 12 April 2009

(3) Screening the Los Angeles ‘Riots’, Darnell M Hunt, Cambridge University Press, 1996

(4) Policing needs urgent reform. But not by partial politicians, Martin Kettle, Guardian, 10 April 2009

(5) See Welcome to the Police Academy state, by Tim Black

(6) Policing needs urgent reform. But not by partial politicians, Martin Kettle, Guardian, 10 April 2009

(7) Not civil war but treason, Guardian, 17 September 2004

(8) Policing needs urgent reform. But not by partial politicians, Martin Kettle, Guardian, 10 April 2009

(9) Put enough cameras on the police and even the seriously deferential wake up, Marina Hyde, Guardian, 11 April 2009

(10) Policing needs urgent reform. But not by partial politicians, Martin Kettle, Guardian, 10 April 2009

(11) See Your guide to the ‘belly of the beast’, by Brendan O’Neill and Nathalie Rothschild

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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