War of Attrition | 29.07.2010 10:49 | World
This is an account of what I witnessed the night Ian Tomlinson died on the G20 demonstrations, and my account of the investigation up until then.
I believe it sheds some light on;The initial response of the police to Mr Tomlinson when he was dying.The nature of the symptoms Mr Tomlinson displayed.
An insiders view of the IPCC investigation and some of its flaws.
I’m aware that this is a lengthy article, but it is a thorough account of my experience over the last 16 months. It needs to be long.
This is not going to be a short article. I have a lot to say. Nearly sixteen months ago, I stood and watched a man die on a central London street.
Since then the story of Ian Tomlinson has made it all the way across the globe. Last Thursday that story was brought to an end when Keir Starmer, Director of Public Prosecutions for the CPS, stood up in front of the media and announced that no officer would face criminal charges. His reasoning was poor and his arguments unconvincing. In the end, after three post-mortems, a five hundred day investigation, and one crucial video clip, the saga ended with a whitewash. There will be no justice, no meaningful resolution.
Those responsible for the death of a 47-year old newspaper vendor will not be held to account. His family are left with their grief and the prospect of endless appeals, inquests and documentaries, each promising what now cannot be delivered; justice and closure. And so I have decided to state publicly my experience, in the belief that all that really matters now is for as many people as possible to know the truth about what happened to Ian Tomlinson and the reasons why nothing will be done.
Wednesday April 1st, 2009. The time had just passed seven o’clock in the evening and I was standing about halfway down Cornhill, near Bank, with a group of other demonstrators. We had just been forced down the street away from the main group of demonstrators by a police baton charge. For most of the day, the atmosphere had been relatively calm, but in the last half hour things had changed. The police, who for most of the day had been subdued but menacing, lashing out only occasionally, were now on the offensive and trying to clear the streets. Dogs had been brought out and set on protestors. People had been grabbed and arrested.
I saw one man get his head deliberately smashed against the open door of a police van as he was dragged along by several officers. The peaceful, almost carnival mood that had characterised the day had not quite disappeared, but now people were tenser, more afraid, more angry.
I remember looking up and seeing a man coming down Cornhill away from the police lines. He was half running, half stumbling, speaking to himself and gesticulating as he walked. He caught a few eyes and from his dress and demeanour it was clear he wasn’t a protestor. He bumped into a building, stopped, turned and fell, almost comically, to the ground. He lay there, flat on his back. A few people laughed, thinking he was either drunk or clowning around. I waited for him to get up, but he didn’t. I nudged my sister, at the time a third year medical student, and pointed him out. She went over to see if he needed first aid and I went with her.
We asked if he was alright and he told us he was, lifting his head up and smiling. However, he appeared unable to stand. Then his head dropped back to the ground and he stopped answering our questions. My sister felt for his pulse. It was weak, but at this point he was still breathing normally. She placed him in the recovery position and word went through the crowd that a man was hurt. People with a megaphone started calling to the police for help. Someone next to me phoned an ambulance. Then the collapsed man’s breathing changed, becoming deep and hoarse, sounding similar to deep sleep snoring. Later I found out this may have been what is known as agonal breathing, or the death rattle, as the body starts to close down. The ambulance operator told my sister to lay him on his back which we did. I remember his legs spasming at this point, and although his eyes were open, they were glazed and unable to focus.
Then suddenly the crowd surged. The police had carried out a running clearance, striking people with batons, and the crowd of demonstrators ran helter skelter down the narrow street. I retreated a few yards, but my sister stayed by the man’s his feet, protecting him from the running crowd, shouting that someone was hurt. The charge stopped. The crowd gathered again around the man on the floor. Later, my sister told me that at this point she was just about to start CPR.
But then a group of police officers arrived, and shouted at the crowd surrounding the dying man to get back. My sister refused to leave his side, and was eventually physically shoved backwards. They formed a ring around him and wouldn’t move. The man with the phone held it out to the officers saying the operator had asked to speak to them. They shouted at him to get back and didn’t take the phone. Police medics arrived and began checking his body from head to foot. At this point, a glass bottle, thrown from the back of the crowd smashed against a street sign about three metres away from the police and around twenty above their heads. Immediately people shouted at whoever had thrown it, telling them a man was lying on the floor, telling them to let the police do their jobs. After that, nothing more was thrown.
We retreated to the bottom of Cornhill, and eventually the police line pushed forward, forcing people out of the road. An ambulance arrived sometime later, and was forced to wait at the police line before it was let through. The remaining demonstrators were chased from Bank over London Bridge into South London. I have rarely seen the police so violent or vindictive, chasing people down and striking them with extendable steel batons. It was a busy London evening and passers-by received the same treatment. The police looked out of control.
On the way home, my sister fretted constantly about what had happened to the man we’d seen. The way he lost consciousness, she said, looked like a reaction to brain trauma. When we got in and turned on the news we saw someone was reported dead. A photo was released of police medics tending to a man lying on the ground. It was him. He was named as Ian Tomlinson.
Of the many things that stay with me from that night, some stick out more strongly. When the police carried out the running charge, they had heard over the megaphone that a man was lying on the floor injured, possibly severely. To willingly panic and scatter the crowd at this point was nothing short of negligent. Had it not been for my sister placing herself at his feet, Ian Tomlinson could easily have been trampled. Secondly, given his deteriorating condition, the time that was lost when the police refused to listen to the people tending to him, refused to speak to the ambulance operator and made the ambulance wait at the bottom of Cornhill before it was let through their lines could have been crucial.
Needless to say my sister and I have discussed these events many times in the months that have followed. Although she was unable to save his life, she draws some comfort from the fact that she managed to sit with him as he was dying, to tell him everything would be ok and to hold his hand. For my part, after what I saw her do, I’m just proud that she’s my sister.
Unsurprisingly, by the next day, the story was all over the papers. But the reports were strangely different to my recollection of events. The articles read, ‘police pelted with missiles as they tried to help dying man’ and ‘protestors attack police with bricks and bottles as they tried to resuscitate a man who had collapsed at the G20 demonstrations’. These rumours were started by the City of London police press statement and were later withdrawn. In addition to this the articles contained a second, strange piece of detail. Despite the fact that no post-mortem had been conducted, suddenly it was reported that Mr Tomlinson had died of a heart attack. This was also drawn from the police press statement. When my sister read that, she told me that if it was a heart attack, considering what she knew about the symptoms, she would quit medicine. She was in the middle of a placement at the London Chest Hospital at the time.
That night, we went to a meeting at a left-wing resource centre in Whitechapel. We told our story, and some people from the independent news website, Indymedia, took written and video statements from us which contradicted the statement the police had released earlier.
The next day other witnesses came forward, saying they had seen Mr Tomlinson being assaulted by police in three separate locations. The talk of a hail of missiles disappeared from the press. But still, without any evidence to confirm it, most newspapers maintained that he had died of a heart attack.
At the weekend, the results of the first post-mortem were released. Ian Tomlinson, it was said, had collapsed and died of cardiac arrest. When I read that, I phoned my sister and listened to her swear several times. I can’t believe it, she said, there is no way that was a heart attack. He’d shown no signs of chest pain, he hadn’t even clutched at his chest. He had collapsed and then slipped out of consciousness.
At this point, I honestly believed it was over. I thought the story would disappear from the news, Ian Tomlinson would be buried, and I would spend the rest of my life telling people who didn’t know or care that there was more to it than they said in the paper.
But then on Monday, we got a call from Sky News. We met them in a flat in Mile End, and they showed us a video, that had been sent to the Guardian of a police officer hitting Ian Tomlinson from behind and throwing him to the floor. That video has now travelled all over the world, but the first time I saw it, I couldn’t watch. The way he was attacked, the way he fell, so sickeningly hard onto the pavement was horrible to see. But worse was how little he was expecting it, how he was walking away, passively hands in pockets, with no idea what the police officer standing behind him was preparing to do.
The family’s lawyers requested a second post mortem with a different pathologist and the cause of death was announced as internal bleeding. So now the story was out. We knew the truth and so did everyone else. This wouldn’t be another Blair Peach or Kevin Gately, this time the person who had done it would be held responsible.
But as things wore on and we became involved in the IPCC investigation, this began to feel increasingly less likely. My sister was interviewed first on April 25th 2009. During the course of it, she was told that they were interested in speaking to her because she had seen Mr Tomlinson bump into a pillar before he collapsed. The interviewer made it clear that the reason this was important was because they were investigating other potential causes of Mr Tomlinson’s internal bleeding. My sister assured them that the bump was a minor incident, a gentle collision that looked almost deliberate, as if Mr Tomlinson was intentionally exaggerating his movements. However their interest in this collision did not die down.
When they contacted me I was told that despite all I had to say about the symptoms he displayed and the actions of the police who attended to him, the collision with the pillar was the sole reason they wanted to speak to me. My interviewer admitted that she had been asked to specifically investigate this incident, again stating that it might be an alternative cause of the internal bleeding. I repeatedly told them it couldn’t have been. It was the kind of minor impact people sustain on a daily basis. But they persisted, and both my sister and I were later called back down to Cornhill to recreate the impact for a video statement.
On April 28th when my sister went down to the IPCC offices to collect a copy of her statement, she raised concerns over the idea that Mr Tomlinson was drunk. The newspaper seller working with him had been reported saying that he hadn’t been drinking at work that day until he left at 7 PM. Given that he was assaulted at 7:25 PM, this left very little time for him to drink. She mentioned that, if he was sober, the drunken behaviour he displayed could be the result of him bleeding out. The IPCC investigator told her they were keeping an open mind about this. Again, she was asked about his collision with the pillar, and again she explained that his actions had seemed mimed and exaggerated, as if he was trying to be funny. The investigator nodded and said, “I suppose you always think you’re funny when you’re drunk.”
They also spoke to a friend who had been with us on Cornhill, but hadn’t witnessed Mr Tomlinson’s collapse. In the course of an interview that lasted over an hour, she was quizzed on what she’d been doing by Bank that day, how often she went to demonstrations and her political beliefs. They wanted to know when climate camp would meet again and details of the Stop the War organisers. By the end she was in tears.
Towards the end of my interview, I told the interviewer about the empty glass bottle which had been thrown from the back of the crowd. She nodded and told me, despite having read my two written statements, that she was very interested in that, because although they knew many missiles had been thrown that day, this was the only evidence of a Molotov cocktail. I explained again, more slowly, that the item thrown was an empty glass bottle. Whether she didn’t know the difference between those two things, whether she was trying to put words in my mouth, whether it was just a Freudian slip, I don’t know. But I left the interview feeling even less optimistic about the potential outcome of the case. In my opinion, the IPCC were had their priorities in the wrong place. Instead of investigating what we had to say, the opinion I left with is that they were only interested in building a defence.
In the meantime a third post-mortem had been carried out, but the results were not released to the press or even the family of Ian Tomlinson. I was told by the IPCC in May that a decision would not be made until around Christmas. But things wore on, Christmas came and went and so did the one year anniversary. Slowly the press, on the few occasions they did mention it, returned to referring to Ian Tomlinson as the man who died of a heart attack during the G20 demonstrations. More time passed. And then, on the day before the fifth anniversary of the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, the CPS announced that they would present their decision on the case publicly tomorrow morning.
And so, last Thursday, I sat down in front of the television with my sister and watched Keir Starmer announce that the officer would not face charges. Manslaughter was out of the question, he said, because a link could not be proved between the assault and the death given the conflict of medical opinion. The first post-mortem would create too great a conflict in the medical evidence for causation to be proved. That post-mortem was carried out by a pathologist named Freddy Patel, who is facing being struck off for incompetence after a horrific record of mistakes (see here for more details).
In that post mortem, Mr Patel discovered three litres of a liquid he called ‘blood’ in Mr Tomlinson’s abdomen. But due to a partial blockage of the coronary artery, he ruled that the cause of death was a heart attack. He later changed his statement to say that the fluid was a small amount of blood mixed with ascites, a liquid present due to an underlying liver condition. He had disposed of all the liquid without keeping a sample, so his conclusion could not be challenged. He had also carried out the post mortem alone, contrary to medical practice. The subsequent post mortems ruled that Mr Tomlinson had died as a result of a ruptured liver caused by blunt force trauma, perhaps his elbow as he fell. No one knows why Mr Patel, with his record, was picked to be the pathologist for the first post-mortem. No one knows why despite the liquid present in the abdomen, he ruled death by coronary artery disease. No one knows why he later changed his notes and disposed of the liquid. No one knows why, rather than allowing a jury to decide which evidence to accept, the CPS would not proceed with the case. But we can guess.
Starmer went on to say that a charge of assault occasioning actual bodily harm was also not possible on account of the differences in the medical evidence. This is even more tenuous. The CPS admit that Mr Tomlinson suffered bruising from baton strikes and dog bites. That, in most cases, would be enough to bring a charge. But not, apparently, in this one. Finally, Starmer concluded that the simple charge of common assault, which he admitted had occurred, would not be bought because the time limit for prosecution was six months and that had passed. Despite conclusive evidence of this offence being available less than six days after it happened, the agonisingly slow pace of the investigation meant a whole six months was not enough time to bring a charge.
Reading through the CPS report in more detail, two things in particular stick out to me. Firstly, their description of the day includes a paragraph on the violence of demonstrators on April 1st, and the injuries sustained by police. Nothing is said of the much more widespread violence from the police and the many severe injuries sustained by demonstrators. And of the many things of significance I witnessed and mentioned in my statement, only one managed to make it into the report, “(Mr Tomlinson) was seen by members of the public to walk up the street and then appeared to bump into a building.”
The interview with his family outside the CPS building is one of the saddest pieces of footage I have ever seen. The stress of the last year was visible on their faces and the mixture of anger, grief and defeat in their comments was heart breaking. That afternoon I attended a vigil outside Scotland Yard with my sister. That too was a depressing affair, with less than thirty attendees, who vowed to fight on, but seemed to know, inside, that the fight was over.
So what do we take away from this? For me, these are the salient points. The way Ian Tomlinson was treated by police when he was assaulted is not a one off. It had been happening, and continued to happen all day. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen it, and it wasn’t the worst I’ve witnessed. I have seen, on many occasions, police approach peaceful demonstrations with unnecessary and even vitriolic levels of violence and aggression. It is that deliberate tactic, not a one off bad officer, that killed Ian Tomlinson. Secondly, the immediate response to his death from the police was to lie, brazenly, publicly and apparently without fear of being caught. With the exception of one journalist, the entire mainstream media swallowed these lies completely, and the reports of a hail of missiles and death by natural causes have clouded the affair from the start. This is a damning indictment of the effectiveness of our national press, and begs the question, how many other times have they got it wrong? Thirdly it has exposed the IPCC and CPS as lacking both the will and the ability to dispose of justice effectively when the accused is wearing a police uniform. This gives the police something close to impunity, and the result is the violence that characterizes demonstrations and police cells up and down the country. Here, if nowhere else, something must change.
Ultimately, this is a tragic story which ends with no justice. After what I saw, and my close involvement in the case from the beginning, it is impossible not to become emotionally involved. Despite everything that was done, despite the evidence that was produced, despite the video footage, despite the efforts of lawyers, journalists and the family, in the end, the desire to protect a man in uniform was too strong, and now nothing can be done. To know that leaves me feeling hollow and cynical. But my heart goes out to his family, who are left to grieve knowing that the person who did this to their father and husband was allowed to walk away. For them at least, it will never be over and never be laid to rest. What happened last Thursday has taken that possibility away from them.
War of Attrition