Ah! What a beautiful day for having a cup of tea in your garden, watching the birds scatter in fear at the approach of a convoy of US military aircraft.Fran Isherwood, after the late Ken Dodd.
I’m not sure who is going to be reading this, as I have totally neglected The London Column this year. My lack of attentiveness is down to a combination of factors, but can be roughly summarised as: 70% personal crises; 20% working on a different version of this material; and 10% depression at the state of the subject under discussion.
It is Friday 13th and Donald Trump is in town. This morning’s news headlines make for a bleach-in-the-eyes experience and one struggles to think of historical parallels. How about Suez ? That’s a humiliating episode of Britain’s history that isn’t part of the national myth (a bit of a downer between winning the war and the Beatles) and showed the extent to which we were constrained by American power; but at least Suez showed a U.S. president acting sensibly by reining in Anthony Eden’s anachronistic imperial folly.
No, the current mess has a toxic dynamic all its own. A fragile PM attempting to carry out a pitiful act of national self-harm (trying to limit the damage whilst maintaining the preposterous rhetoric to appease the loons in her own cabinet) is hosting a gleefully destructive, authoritarian president who openly despises her weakness.
Clearly, Trump despises lots of things – including the mayor of London and the multi-culturalism that the city represents. But, proving that a decent joke – or even a puerile one – can reach the parts that sober analysis cannot reach, a giant Trump baby blimp has taken to London’s skies this morning. The fact that people have been worried about how this inflatable cartoon will impact Caesar’s mood is a black joke in itself.
Anyway, there’s a real summer festival mood this weekend, what with the Wimbledon and World Cup finals, the continuing heatwave (due to end soon), The Latitude Festival in Suffolk (where a good friend is performing Brexit – the Game Show) and a host of anti-Trump protests to choose from up and down the country. So let’s enjoy the summer whilst we can; a joyous pleasure cruise to the edge of the abyss. DS.
Last night I felt some level of fear for the first time with these attacks, simply because I knew a lot of people within the direct vicinity of where an attack was apparently occurring at the time. It was a weird feeling, and I resent that I was made to feel it, but I think while it’s normal for people to feel fear in these situations (well-founded or not), the important thing is the interpretation of, and reaction to, said fear.
There are a myriad of threats far greater than terrorism, including mundane things like the fact that around 40 people die every year from TVs falling on them. However, the nature of these events and the subsequent media frenzy sends people into a state of panic. I’ve already seen enough people online calling for all muslims to be deported, or sent to Guantanamo Bay, or to close our borders. These people are terrified – they fear for their lives, and they are letting that fear drive them to these statements about urgent action and retaliation. This is the manifestation of the “terror” caused by terrorism. It means it was a success, when by all measures it really shouldn’t be. These people are fragile little flowers, quivering in the hot winds of the tabloid.
The way to deal with this shit is to carry on with your life as normal. Disregard the absurd actions of a handful of fucking nutters as exactly that. Don’t be a fucking pussy. Go buy a grilled cheese sandwich in Borough Market. Take a walk along London Bridge, hold your head high and realise there’s nothing to be afraid of, since the simple act of walking down the street is literally more dangerous than terrorists. You’re a fucking daredevil.
I’ve been fascinated by photographs for as long as I can remember. The school darkroom was a welcome teacher-free refuge. In my teens my first published photo was of an arrest outside Parliament. I got paid three guineas! About £100 in today’s money, rather more than they’d pay today. But then I got distracted by truck and van driving and a bit of education until I started taking photographs in earnest in 1976.
I’ve only been photographing social change and protest for 38 years, but even in my time I’ve seen massive changes in the way that protest has been policed.
It seems to me that police lost their sense of direction in policing protest after the wave of anti-Thatcher riots that swept across the country in 1981. Rather than understanding and adapting to social change, the police responded by opposing it and trying to prevent it. Since then, attempts to control and contain protest have led to growing antagonism on both sides, and an escalation of conflict between activists & police.
This has created a vicious circle with suppression of protests leading to angrier, more determined protests. That in turn has been seized upon to legitimise a more military style of policing with shields, body armour and Tasers now standard items in the police kitbag.
The police have tremendous power to assist or to stifle protest. It is their actions that determine whether a protest is peaceful or violent. With that power comes an obligation to be open to scrutiny and to be visible and accountable. But what we have seen is very different. The police have formed multiple secret undercover units, they have stepped up surveillance on responsible citizens working for a better society, they have built a network of secret databases and have done all that they can to undermine movements for social change.
As the police have become more involved in shaping protest, so it becomes even more important that their actions and behaviour are openly reported.
I’ve seen countless brutal and unjustifiable assaults on passive protesters, but my role at protests is as a photographer, documenting the events – not intervening directly. The more dispassionate I can be, the stronger and more useful I think my pictures become.
Photographers trying to record the process of social change are under pressure from both sides. Attacks on protesters are bad enough – but attacks on working journalists are attacks on democracy and on society’s ability to make informed decisions. Showing these processes in action is all too often seen by police as criticism and an attempt to constrain their activities. In response the police have targeted photographers, who have found themselves stopped, harassed, assaulted and surveilled, with their activities logged on secret databases by special units. At the same time protesters increasingly see photographers as ‘spies’ for the police or as reactionary propagandists working for an unloved and untrusted press.
In the ’70s ,aggressively racist policing in Notting Hill continued to raise the tensions that had been building there for decades. This, combined with discrimination in jobs and housing, turned hopeful young citizens into an angry subculture of black youth. This was then targeted by police, creating a feedback loop with young people reacting violently each year to the confrontational, high-profile policing at Carnival and the police in turn reacting by stepping up their own violence. So we have this kind of policing – look at the sleeve of the PC with his arm round the young man’s neck. There’s a truncheon up his sleeve, nobody sees as it rams into the kid’s jaw. It is hardly surprising when that leads to this:
A couple of years on, 1983, still 25 years before the banking crisis and the credit crunch but the anarchists of the ‘80s were well ahead of the game with the first Stop the City demo – a protest against globalisation, big business and the banks.
The police sergeant here is strangling a protester who had photographed him strangling another protester. Then he dropped this guy and thought he’d strangle me. It was just that sort of day. Behind that picture lies a revealing story about just how far some cops will go for no reason but the enjoyment of their power.
I’d been around from about 7 o’clock, sharp as a rubber razor and so bleary as to be near invisible. I was hanging around by the Bank of England when Kieran – he’s the one getting his neck squeezed – saw this sergeant doing his thing on the neck of yet another chap. So Kieran takes a photograph. The sergeant spots him. A moment later the sergeant has dropped the first guy and is moving in on photographer Kieran. The long fingers of the law wrap around his neck.
Of course I’d not noticed any of this. But I did notice a group of three cops making off with their prey in my direction. I continued to gaze vacantly into space until they reached me. I raised the camera and fired off three quick frames. Then I ran away, jumped a cab and got the film away double quick. Meanwhile the sergeant and his mates had dumped a half unconscious Kieran in the gutter and set off looking for me; but I was well away so, disappointed, the cops plod their way back to the gutter, re-nab the still dazed Kieran and off to the nick with him. Job well done. Well, not quite. Kieran was charged – assault on a policeman’s fingers with his throat or something. In court the sergeant said “I never touched him” and claimed that my photograph was a fake. The prosecution called in an expert from Scotland Yard who took just seconds to confirm that the image was genuine and unaltered. Keiran was acquitted. He sued the police, got £4,000 and formed a punk band.
1990 saw the Poll Tax protests, a series of demos which got more and more angry with Thatcher and with the aggressive policing. There were major protests in Brixton, Hackney, Islington, and finally Trafalgar Square. What I found interesting was how the police dealt with the angry crowd.
In every case the police had the crowd contained, and had the opportunity to disperse the protesters into open spaces nearby. Instead, they chased them violently towards high-value shopping areas. This time I had no trouble from police. There seemed to be a deliberate plan to ensure that there would be photos of looting & smashed shops for the next day’s papers. That can only have been a high-level decision intended to move debate away from the Poll Tax and to discredit the protest. Once or twice might possibly have been explained as poor decision-making, but with military precision this happened at every one of those five protests.
Over the 24 years since the Poll Tax riot the police have been used to suppress and prevent protest to an ever greater degree. This has encouraged the belief within the police that it is they who own the streets, not us. Excessive force has not only gone unchecked – it has been endorsed by court support for ever more oppressive interpretations of the law. A closed, un-self-critical police culture leaves individual officers with little choice but to support their colleagues, even in gross breaches of the law.
The above text was taken from a talk David Hoffman gave at the London College of Communication. As part of East London Photomonth, David’s images are on display until the end of this month at a variety of cafes forming the ‘Roman Road Cafe Crawl’. David’s show at Muxima cafe runs until 27th of November. More details here.