Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Ian Tomlinson video shows surveillance can work both ways

Posted in by Illuminated One | Edit
Ian Tomlinson video shows surveillance can work both ways

The Guardian's publication today of amateur footage showing Ian Tomlinson, the bystander who died during last week's G20 protests, apparently being pushed over by a Met policeman makes depressing viewing. What a pointless waste of an innocent life.

But the incident serves to ease our current gloom in one respect. We worry a great deal about surveillance technology and the Big Brother era. But in a relatively open society where a newspaper can publish the facts as they emerge, it's a reminder that surveillance can work both ways, as inverse surveillance: the hunters hunted.

Who now remembers Rodney King? We'll come back to him, but are you aware (as I was not) that the French have a two-dollar word for this: "sousveillance" – "sous" as in from beneath and distinct from "sur" as in from above.

As Duncan Campbell set out in a typically measured article last night, we've been through demo deaths before – Kevin Gately (1974) and Blair Peach (1979) – as well as the 2005 killing of the Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes during the London bombing alert (though I always feel obliged to point out that the Brazilian police routinely do this sort of thing with impunity).

"Impunity" is the key word. The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) is already on the case of Tomlinson's death and the footage – filmed by an American fund manager on a business trip from New York – will obviously take it much further. The case will end up with the CPS.

As Duncan says, the initial police explanation no longer stands up. Nor did it after the shooting of De Menezes. This time there were cameras all over the place: police camcorders, CCTV, and those of the protesters, passing fund managers and news snappers. Surely the police must have their own access to footage of the incident? We will now find out.

Perhaps it is inevitable that, fired up with testosterone like the young people they were confronting in the City on 1 April, some young coppers will forget that they are being filmed too.

That was the lesson the Los Angeles police department learned in 1991 when they beat up Rodney King with their batons after a high-speed chase along the freeway system. King was not an upright citizen; he had been drinking and was in violation of his parole for a robbery conviction. He also resisted arrest.

But the police used excessive force – including taser stun guns and a 90-second kicking when he was finally subdued. No one would have believed King's account if George Holliday, another of those bystanders, hadn't filmed it.

Yes, I realise that the trial of four officers was transferred to the white suburbs and they were acquitted. It triggered the 1992 downtown LA riots, a few blocks from where my wife's cousin lives. It cost 53 lives and $1bn. A federal court later jailed two of the four officers and King got $3m in compensation.