Last year, Ian Tomlinson was violently attacked by a policeman after quietly walking past a political protest which he wasn’t any part of. He died shortly afterwards, and (contrary to statements made by the police to the media) was not helped by officers upon collapse, although he received support from protesters. The Guardian notes that:
“Tomlinson died at the G20 demonstrations after being bitten by a police dog, hit with a baton and then pushed so strongly in the back by a police officer that he fell heavily to the floor.”
To say this news is deeply disturbing is an understatement. I don’t see a great amount of surprise amongst all the rage, however. The position of many is that it’s obvious that those in authority look after their own.
I really can’t say anything about the death of Ian Tomlinson that hasn’t already been said. The internet is full of anger, and messages of solidarity with his family. I, like any other human being with a sense of decency, feel that his death was utterly unnecessary and the whitewash that has followed is completely unjustifiable. I feel for those who were close to Ian, and wish them all the best in their difficult fight for justice.
Last week, an American friend of mine was pulled over by the police, who suspected her of Driving Whilst Trans. Despite being asked some threatening questions about the fact that she apparently didn’t look right, she managed to make it home safely, if shaken.
Her experience wasn’t unique. Trans people worldwide – like individuals from other minority groups – are often at risk of harassment from figures of authority, particularly if they’re perceived as looking different. The most tenuous evidence may be used to accuse (or even convict) trans people of crimes: for instance, if someone who they decide is a “man” dresses like a “woman”, then maybe they are attempting to solicit prostitution (this accusation was levelled at my friend). Woe betide the victim should they happen to have a condom on their person
Obviously these incidences vary from country to country, from region to region (and in the USA, from state to state). There are places with laws that offer trans people particular protections, and with police forces who actively engage with minority groups. In my own area, the police force has an outreach programme to the trans community, and is attempting to record transphobic hate crime and incidences (as separate from homophobic hate crime and incidences). There are a lot of good people working within this force, and as an institution they’re heading in the right direction.
However, it only takes just one police officer to screw up for the system to be shown up as utterly rotten. I have friends with Indian ancestry who were regularly harassed by police in my supposedly liberal, prosperous hometown, and they knew they could do nothing about it. I know people who have been beaten with truncheons at peaceful rallies, and they’re perfectly aware that they’ll never get an admission out of the police, let alone an apology or (God forbid) charges being levelled against those responsible. In the face of police harassment or violence, we are usually utterly powerless.
Within most states, the police represent legitimised violence. If we’re going to have state violence, then it should at least be regulated and directed in such a manner that it is always focused upon protecting the individuals who happen to live within a state, rather than the apparatus of the state itself. This shouldn’t be a wildly idealistic idea: it should be the philosophy behind the organisation of police forces.
The police claim they’re on our side, and progressive police forces make a special effort to ensure that minority groups in particular know this. As long as innocent people can be killed without consequence though, we are all at risk of police harassment and police brutality, and those who look different are always going to be more at risk.