The policing of this summer’s UK Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests was institutionally racist, according to a report released today by the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol).
Informed by over 100 witness testimonies, the research found that police officers disproportionately used excessive force and kettling at BLM protests, mostly against Black protestors — many of whom were under 18 — and, on some occasions, Black independent legal observers. Excessive force including horse charges — one of which rendered a woman unconscious — baton charges, pepper spray and violent arrest was “commonly reported and well-evidenced”, the research found.
The report also concluded that the police reneged on its duty of care towards sick or injured BLM protestors, selectively enforced Covid-19 regulations and failed to keep the public safe from far-right and racist harassment and violence.
‘I began to chant “I can’t breathe.”’
Netpol’s report is the latest example in a long history of institutional racism by the British police — a history that has been magnified by the racist enforcement of Covid-19 regulations, and an increased use of Section 60 ‘stop and search’ powers during lockdown.
Kevin Blowe, coordinator of Netpol, said of the report’s findings: “There were numerous stories of disproportionate use of force and the targeting of black protesters, as well as a failure of the police to fulfil their legal responsibilities to protect protesters from far-right organised counter-demonstrators. Our conclusion is that this was driven, as so often in the past, by institutional racism.”
This summer’s BLM protests were the largest anti-racist protests in British history. Rallies occurred in over 260 towns and cities across Britain in response to the police murder of George Floyd in the United States. More than 210,000 people have joined BLM protests in the UK — including over 50,000 on a 6 June protest in London, and around 15,000 on the same day in Manchester.
BLM organisers generally shared information about protests in advance, emphasising peaceful action and including pandemic-related safety advice. Whilst some protests — especially at earlier times on a given day — were met with appropriately light-touch policing, the report found that, by late afternoon, the approach to policing generally changed — especially in Newcastle and London, where police presence was much heavier and saw the employment of “tactics which provoked and harmed protestors”.
One protester quoted in the report describes how such tactics were used against them: “As I was leaving the area I was repeatedly pushed and bullied by the police, my arm was eventually twisted behind my back until I was lifted by five police officers and slammed into the pavement and then knelt on, it was only when I began to chant ‘I can’t breathe’ did they started to relax.”
Another recounts how an officer “grabbed my banner and threw it. As this happened everyone started pushing. An officer from behind the first line literally jumped out of formation and punched me on the left side of my face…”. This wasn’t the only violence the protester was victim to. They also recall how seven officers “pounced on [their sister] and pushed her head on the floor.” Attempting to help their sibling – who has asthma and heart problems — the protester was kicked in the stomach, thrown on the ground and arrested.
‘The police are not fit for purpose.’
In addition to using excessive force, the report also found that the police was “ineffective and discriminatory” in its failure to care for unwell or injured protestors — especially those who were Black or another racialised minority. Meanwhile, social distancing and other pandemic regulations were found to have been enforced in an “uneven and discriminatory manner”.
The report detailed how police used Covid-19 as justification to disperse protests, whilst also routinely kettling large groups in confined spaces for long periods of time, with officers not wearing any PPE themselves. “Covid-19 powers were not being used to…keep protesters safe,” the report suggested, “but in fact used for unnecessary and discriminatory control and force over protesters”.
Finally, the report concluded that the police was “largely ineffective” in keeping people safe from far-right and racist harassment and violence, often under-policing fascist groups. In one case, a group of far-right protestors beat and stabbed a 16-year-old Black boy in the face with a glass bottle. Upon seeking help from the police, the boy was refused assistance or medical treatment and was instead searched and told to leave.
“Not only does this indicate that the police had an utter disregard for the safety of protestors,” says Adam Elliott-Cooper, an academic and the author of the Netpol report “it also indicates to us that the police are not fit for purpose when it comes to protecting members of the public, particularly Black and racialised minorities, from the violence of the far right”.
Elliott-Cooper says the report’s findings are “particularly concerning following the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry in 1999, in which the police were found to be institutionally racist and failing in their duty of care when it came to protecting black communities from far right violence”.
“In 2020, we see that little has changed in relation to how police ignore and fail Black communities when they face the violence of the far right and racism,” he goes on. “The failure of the police to facilitate the safety of protestors and the freedom of expression and assembly indicates that, in future protests, we will be far better to see non-police organisations facilitate the safety of protestors.”
Sophie Hemery is a freelance journalist. In addition to Novara Media she writes for the Guardian, VICE, Open Democracy, CNN, Al Jazeera and Buzzfeed.