Friday, 21 September 2012

Stay of execution for LondonMet?

Good news for up to 2600 foreign students at London Metropolitan University after the UK Border agency (UKBA) revoked its licence to recruit and teach non EU students this August. They've been told they can now stay while LondonMet has been given the chance to challenge the decision through judicial review. LondonMet is not out of danger yet, as their request for the ban to be overturned completely was rejected, so they still cannot recruit new non EU students, and there is no guarantee they will win this judicial review. However, it does bring some comfort to the exisiting students at LMU who were facing possible deportation when the decision was first announced. See my previous blog entry for more background information about the situation, and below is an extract from a letter of thanks by Mark Campbell (chair of LMU University & Colleges Union) for all the public support from the students and staff;

Dear colleagues,

Thank you all so much for the wonderful solidarity you have given us over the last few very difficult weeks.

We believe it is such support for our vigorous campaign for an amnesty for our international students that has resulted in today's High Court judgement.

However, this is just the first step in our battle to save London Met as a public university. To that end, we are not suggesting our campaign now finishes. Indeed, if anything, we believe now is the time to increase pressure on the Government not only to reverse its decision to revoke our licence, but also to remove international students completely from emigration targets - no longer forcing universities to operate as outposts of the immigration service. We also believe our fight must continue against the marketisation of higher education and the encroachment of for-profit private providers - the other part of the current crisis not just at London Met, but within our sector as a whole.
Mark Campbell

Monday, 17 September 2012

PC Harwood sacked for gross misconduct

PC Simon Harwood was today dismissed from the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) for gross misconduct for pushing over Ian Tomlinson shortly before he died at the G20 protests in London 2009. However, Ian's family walked out of the hearing, calling it a whitewash, as there was no examination of any of the wider issues involved, such as whether PC Harwood's actions caused Ian's death, and if the MPS should share responsibility as well.

A previous post that I wrote in July 2012 (after PC Harwood was acquitted of Ian's manslaughter) looked at how the use of indiscriminate public order tactics such as 'kettling' could contribute to a generally confrontational atmosphere at large protests. I worry that the very brief nature of today's hearing (PC Harwood admitted the charge of gross misconduct, so it went straight to a judgement) meant that such wider issues could not be investigated, and by scapegoating individual 'rogue' officers, there is a danger that the MPS could be seen as trying to avoid scrutiny of its public order tactics in general.  There were many different allegations of  inappropriate Police behaviour that day, and the footage of PC Harwood pushing Ian to the ground only came to light after a city worker recorded the incident on his phone and gave it to the Guardian newspaper. The MPS had initially tried to deny any involvement in the events leading up to for Ian's death, but this quickly became untenable once the video footage emerged. This short clip shows the fateful push, but also shows the reactions of other officers, who did nothing to reprimand Harwood, or intervene to help Ian as he lay on the floor, leaving it up to other protestors to pick him up. I think this illustrates how in public order situations, the use of indiscriminate public order tactics can result in all those in the immediate vicinity being treated the same by the Police (including uninvolved bystanders), which had tragic consequences for Ian Tomlinson.

I certainly believe that Simon Harwood should be held accountable for his actions, but he was operating  in a wider organisational and social context that needs to be explored as well, and making examples of individuals detracts from the need for a wider discussion of the public order policing strategies that I believe allowed this tragedy to happen.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Hillsborough papers released

There has finally been an official admission by the UK Prime Minister that Liverpool fans were not to blame for the Hillsborough football disaster, something the survivors and their families have known for years. David Cameron's apology for the 'double injustice' of the disaster itself and subsequent cover up is reported in detail here. The Hillsborough Independent Panel report published its findings today, and they totally vindicate the families' claims that their loved ones were not responsible for the tragedy, which happened on April 15th 1989. They also make pretty uncomfortable reading for the agencies involved in the planning for the FA Cup semi final match at the Hillsborough stadium, and their subsequent response to the disaster.

Sheffield Wednesday Football Club was criticised for not taking safety seriously at Hillsborough (which is their stadium), and reports of how previous FA semi-final matches there were (mis)managed could lead one to conclude that it was a miracle that such a disaster had not happened before. South Yorkshire Ambulance Service were also accused of not responding adequately enough to the disaster, as it seems that 41 of the 96 victims may have had a chance of being resuscitated, had they responded more quickly and efficiently. However, most shockingly, there is clear evidence that South Yorkshire Police (SYP) operated an orchestrated cover-up to try and shift culpability for the disaster onto the fans. This resulted in totally unfounded allegations about fans' behaviour on the day being passed on to journalists, who then reported such lies as facts, resulting in the notorious cover story by the Sun newspaper, claiming that fans had pickpocketed dead vicitms and urinated on Police officers trying to help. Those involved in producing such smears have offerred their apologies, but I suspect it will be too little too late for survivors and the bereaved.

Numerous other examples of how SYP engaged in a comprehensive cover-up have also come to light, and also that other agencies (such as the media, and the Conservative government at the time) accepted this shameful re-writing of history, which I think reflects a deep distrust of football fans and more widely of crowds in general. The report summary explicitly states that 'the management of the crowd was viewed exclusively through a lens of potential crowd disorder', and concludes that 'the collective policing mindset prioritised crowd control over crowd safety.' p.4. I think this emphasis on crowd control is illustrated in TV footage of the tragedy that shows a line of Police at the centre of the pitch (presumably to stop the Liverpool fans from reaching the Nottingham Forest fans at the other end), even when dead and dying fans were being pulled from the crush. This shows that even at this stage, the Police were still operating as if they were dealing with a public order situation rather than a mass disaster. The
Taylor Report noted the bitter irony that before Hillsborough not a single person had died during a pitch invasion at a UK football match, but on that fateful day, 96 fans died preventing one.

This catalogue of incompetence and cover-ups, driven by what I believe to be a fundamental distrust of football fans by the authorities, has led to an enduring feeling of injustice amongst survivors and their families. It was certainly something I noticed when interviewing Hillsborough survivors as part of the research into mass emergencies I did while at the University of Sussex with John Drury (Drury et al, 2009). The ones I spoke to often talked of their frustration at the general misperception that they were in some way to blame for the tragedy. To try and redress this balance, I recently wrote a paper that looks at how survivors of Hillsborough described their experiences and often rejected the way in which they were represented in popular discourse after the disaster (Cocking & Drury, in submission) On a wider level, I think that the lies that were disseminated about the fans' behaviour were all too readily accepted by politicians and the media, something that may have been influenced by a pervasive (but largely false) view in society that crowds are not to be trusted. Therefore, we all need to take responsibility for ensuring that we adopt a less pathological view towards crowds, and try to develop crowd safety strategies at large events that prevent such disasters from ever happening again

The report issued today will not bring back those who died, but I do hope that it will bring some sense of closure to the survivors and bereaved who are now fully vindicated in their view that their loved ones were not responsible for this terrible tragedy, and hopefully those who were responsible can now be called to account. To paraphrase the Liverpool MP Steve Rotheram on Channel 4 News (who survived Hillsborough); truth may have been done today, but justice is yet to be done.


For more info, see John Drury's blog, the The Hillsborough Justice campaign, and the Hillsborough Families Support group, my previous blog entry on Hillsborough, and the following references.

Cocking, C. & Drury, J. (in Submission) Talking about a tragedy: ‘Panic’ as discourse in survivors’ accounts of the Hillsborough disaster.

Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009). Every one for themselves? An interview study of crowd solidarity among emergency survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology 48: 487–506.

Scraton, P., Jemphrey, A. & Coleman, C. (1995). No last rites: The denial of justice and the promotion of myth in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool City Council

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Ongoing controversy over use of Police Liaison Officers

There is a very interesting film put out by the Guardian newspaper about the use of Police Liaison Officers (PLOs) by Sussex police. The stated intention of using such a tactic is for Police officers to enter into a dialogue with protestors with a view to encouraging mutual trust between the 2 sides and reducing conflict and disorder.

However, it's clear from the interviews with activists in this film that they have a deep-seated mistrust of the use of such tactics, and they see the PLOs as little more than an extension of the Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT) that were set up by various Police forces in the UK to gather intelligence on known political activists. In a previous blog entry I talked about the possible historical reasons behind such mistrust in Brighton.

The film also shows PLOs from Sussex Police visiting an activist at her family home in Brighton, which has drawn accusations of harassment from her. One of the same officers is also filmed at a demonstration in Brighton shortly afterwards drawing his baton on protestors. Not having any inside knowledge on the motivations of Sussex Police, I am in no position to comment on how genuine they are in wishing to build up a meaningful dialogue between themselves and protestors, but their actions in this short film don't seem to be convincing the very same activists they're supposed to be building a dialogue with!

A response to the film by Cliff Stott (the crowd psychology expert who liased with Sussex police to set up the PLOs, and is interviewed in it) can be found on his Facebook site here. A more detailed report is in preparation, but in his post, he rejects some of the inferences made in the film as being too selective, and he criticises the emphasis in the film on a PLO drawing his baton on protestors. Time will tell whether political activists like the ones featured in the film begin to trust these PLOs, and see them as different from the FIT officers used previously. However, I think this debate shows how it is crucial to consider the historical and social context in which this change in policing has happened, and this will also help understanding of how it could develop. At the very least, Sussex Police should have considered how it might be perceived by protestors, when some of the officers that had been previously used to gather intelligence on them were now seemingly performing a new role by trying to enter into a dialogue with them. 

Just seen a Press Release issued by Sussex Police on 4th Sept formally introducing the Protest Liaison Teams.