Revolution #277, August 12, 2012

From A World to Win News Service

Britain's "Rodney King" verdict—The police killing of Ian Tomlinson

The verdict in the case of PC Simon Harwood, charged with manslaughter in the case of the killing of the newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson during the protests against the G8 (the Group of the leading 8 imperialist countries) in April 2009 was announced for last Thursday July 19. [Harwood was acquitted.] However much you worried that the system would do what it usually does, that justice would not see the light of day, still, even hardened skeptics of British justice harbored some hope that this time their concerns would prove unfounded—after all, the video clip was unambiguous. Millions had witnessed the 47-year-old Tomlinson, his hands stuffed in his pockets, his head down, eyes on the ground, shuffling home from work in a way that could not be less threatening, when suddenly PC Harwood steps out of a rank of half a dozen police in balaclavas and full riot gear and, drawing his baton back to full head height, strikes Tomlinson from the rear, sending him tumbling to the ground. Witnesses reported hearing a noise as his head hit the pavement. A few minutes later Tomlinson was dead.

And millions in the UK also know the story of what happened after Tomlinson's death, before the video emerged: the slew of lies and distortions that emanated from Scotland Yard and the Independent Police Complaints Commission, that no policemen had touched Tomlinson, that he had collapsed on his own, perhaps upset by "violent anarchist protesters," that the police had tried to rescue him but were stopped by the protesters' attacks, and then the coroner ruled death by natural causes. The IPCC concluded that the police had nothing to answer. Tomlinson's death was all set to disappear from view, forever.

But then came the twist in the tale: unbeknown to the police, a New York businessman had filmed the scene of the attack—he had held back the footage for a week, hoping that he wouldn't have to get involved, that the police would own up to their deeds and the truth would come out on its own. When he evidently concluded this wasn't going to happen, he sent the footage to the Guardian newspaper, and then the web of State lies began to fall apart like a house of cards. (see the video at

Faced with the video evidence, bit by bit another picture emerged. The first postmortem examination by the coroner, Dr. Patel, had immediately upheld the police version of events, ruling that Tomlinson had died of natural causes after suffering a heart attack. But it turned out that Patel had an unblemished record of upholding the police version in every case ever brought before him, including the case of Roger Sylvester, who had been killed by the police in the north London area of Tottenham. Unfortunately for Patel his list of cover-ups included a case in which his rulings had contributed to allowing a serial rapist and killer to go undetected. In Tomlinson's case, this police stooge had thrown into the sink liters of "a rosy-colored fluid" drained from the dead man as irrelevant—the only other sample was later "mislaid"—and ignored bruises to Tomlinson's body that the subsequent coroner's examination concluded were from Harwood's baton. The next coroner's verdict then came in: "unlawful killing."

And what about the police claims that they were the ones who tried to save Tomlinson's life? The video showed for all to see how after Tomlinson fell under Harwood's blows, not a single policeman lifted a finger to help him, and it was instead a young protester who came to his aid. After Tomlinson was helped to his feet and walked around the corner and collapsed again, it was the same story. Young protesters again came to his assistance, including a news photographer and then a young woman who started first aid. The first thing the police did when they arrived was pull her away, despite her protests and even though she identified herself as a medical student.

At the trial, Harwood took the stand, and his testimony spoke clearly to the culture of the police, and particularly of his elite Territorial Support Group, the riot squad of London's Metropolitan police force. The TSG is the successor to the infamous Special Patrol, which was reorganized in the wake of the widespread revulsion it aroused when it killed the schoolteacher Blair Peach in 1979. Before the G8 protests, Met chiefs had gone on TV to warn that they were "up to it and up for it."

When asked at the trial what methods were at his disposal to move someone along in a public order situation, Harwood responded, "You could use a baton strike to the arm or leg," he began, going on to list, in order, a push, a kick or punch, CS spray, or handcuffs. He finally listed a vocal order. As the Guardian reported, "'You have gone straight to violence, force,' noted a visibly surprised Denis [the prosecutor]. 'No, I have gone for reasonable force,' Harwood responded. Seemingly oblivious to the reaction in the courtroom, the policeman went on to cite other possible tactics—a firearm, a shove from a riot shield, or a 'life-threatening strike'." Some of Tomlinson's children fled the courtroom in horror at the brutality of the man who'd struck down their father.

Immediately after the trial, it came to light that Harwood in fact had a long history of alleged police misconduct. He had been charged with attacking a civilian during a road rage incident, and when the civilian pursued the case, and it was clear that the PC was facing a difficult hearing, he resigned only a few days beforehand for "health reasons" he claimed were related to a motorcycle accident three years earlier. Harwood was then later re-hired as a civilian consultant, but because he was no longer formally on the force, the disciplinary hearing wasn't held. Over the next few years Harwood was involved in other charges of misconduct leading to disciplinary proceedings, but all had been dropped. Was this a case of a "rogue" policeman who slipped through the Metropolitan Police's normal vetting procedures? Or was this in fact just the type of person who was sought for the TSG, the "heavies" brought in as the front-line enforcers of British law and order?

What does this verdict say about Britain? Perhaps more than anything it shows the power of the British state to protect those who it has granted a monopoly of legitimate violence to uphold the existing order. At every step in this story, since Tomlinson hit the ground under the blows of Harwood's baton, extraordinary resources have been brought to bear to protect one of their own: from the coroner's report, to the reports of the IPCC, to the protests of London Mayor Boris Johnson and other politicians against "an orgy of cop-bashing," to the workings of the judicial process itself. On top of all this is the current climate of intense concern for security during the Olympics that start next week, with a constant barrage of headlines about possible terrorist attacks and endless harping about the vital role of the police and army as "front-line defenders of the nation."

The verdict also came down just before the anniversary of the riots that shook the country last August. Given all this, there was surely high-level attention to what kind of reaction there would be to this verdict. Some commentators had called it "Britain's Rodney King moment," after the Black man who had suffered a prolonged beating at the hands of several Los Angeles policemen, which had been captured on video. The cops' subsequent acquittal had then led to the famous rebellion there in 1992.

But there must have been expectations that surely Tomlinson's case would be different, that it would not provoke the same sort of furious reaction as had the beating of King or last year's killing of Mark Duggan—after all, Tomlinson wasn't a young Black man, like King or Duggan, and so the verdict might not tap into the deep vein of bitterness and resentment at police racism. He was instead a middle aged white man who often slept rough [was homeless], a known alcoholic, a cast-off of society... who would care?

The group Inquest investigated the 300 deaths in police custody that occurred over a period of slightly more than a decade, from the 1990s—and showed that not a single policeman had been convicted in even one of these cases. Likewise, an article in the Independent states that "1,433 people have died after contact with the police since 1990. Not a single officer has been convicted of manslaughter." (July 23, 2012) The callous disregard for all these lives, and the disdain in particular for the life of Ian Tomlinson that is reflected in this verdict, have delivered a pointed message to the people: the poor and marginalized live at the sufferance of the capitalist state, which can snuff out their lives at a moment's notice. And no one will pay, even when the evidence is staring the world in the face.

A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.

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