It’s been a bumper year for police brutality. We’ve seen women mauled by security forces in Egypt, journalists roughed up at the 15M demonstrations in Spain, and teargas canisters fired directly at protesters in Malaysia, to name but a few incidents.
‘There’s no question that it’s part of a global pattern,’ says Hannah Dee, spokesperson for Defend the Right to Protest. ‘Around the world we’re seeing growing movements of resistance and discontent against governments which are trying to impose unprecedented authoritarian measures and are resorting to force because they don’t have the consent of their populations.’
The Occupy Movement in the US has provided some particularly disturbing examples of police savagery, not least the image from Occupy Seattle of 84-year-old Dorli Rainey being steadied by fellow protesters, her face dripping with milk used to counteract the effects of the pepper spray that officers had directed at her moments earlier. And suddenly people are sitting up and taking notice because the protesters being sprayed, beaten and dragged around by their hair are white-skinned and middle-class.
‘The treatment of young white people at Occupy opened people’s eyes to something that many people with dark skin have known about all along,’ says Jill Nelson, co-editor of Police Brutality. ‘Suddenly it wasn’t just racial, you couldn’t just say “well, they’re black so they must have done something wrong”.’
But still a disproportionate number of people on the receiving end of police violence are from ethnic minorities. The cases of 13-year-old Jimmell Cannon, shot eight times in a case of mistaken identity; and Flint Farmer, who was shot and killed when his phone was thought to be a gun, are just two examples of excessive force used by police against black people in the US in the last year. In Britain, the suspicious death of Smiley Culture during a police raid – ironically on 15 March – and the shooting of Mark Duggan – which sparked the London riots in August – also caused widespread outrage.
Deaths in police custody continue to be an issue, with more than 330 occurring since 1998 in the UK alone and not one person being convicted as a result. Maybe this is because eight out of the nine senior investigators at the Independent Police Complaints Commission are ex-police officers themselves.
This lack of accountability is a familiar story worldwide and the fact police can act with impunity is having a significant impact on the ability to protest. ‘The level of police repression and murder of innocent civilians and so-called suspects has, intentionally so, had a chilling effect on activism and the power to express opposition,’ says Jill Nelson. ‘If you feel that standing up to the police could get you seriously injured or killed then you’ll be much more likely to avoid doing so.’