Local hostility to Policing

Jun 03, 2003

There is a surreal air around Geneva in the time immediately after the G8 protests here.

Local residents show support

The presence of the German speaking police from elsewhere in Switzerland and an actual German police regiment has lead to hostility from the locals.
At least two British men lie in hospital amongst many other wounded. Visiting photographer Guy Smallman in the city’s biggest hospital, you come across scores of other protesters and young locals scouring the wards looking for friends and loved ones.

Guy was hit by an exploding percussion grenade in the left leg. It blew a hole the size of his fist in his left calf. When I saw him he was in good spirits, thanks to the morphine. He waits though for the news of how bad and how permanent the damage will be.
Up the coast of the lake in Lausanne lies Martin Shaw, activist and experienced climber. In one part of the direct action there, he was hanging from a rope with a friend attached to the other end. The police cut the rope and caught his friend. Martin fell twenty metres and suffered multiple fractures to his leg and a broken wrist. He was lucky to get away so lightly after falling so far.
Aside from the two british activists, there are many many more suffering after police brutality in the region.
Media reports in Switzerland, at least, have been sure to differentiate between the protests and the violence, but the issue of violence does deserve examination.
First thing to point out is that, like other big recent demonstrations, Florence after the European Social Forum, and London’s magnificent anti-war protest on February 15, the police were conspicuous by their absence. It will come, therefore, as no surprise to anyone that the demo was entirely without incident. Only after the protest did the police force come to prominence.

Secondly, when a police force operates in it’s own territory, there is often an element of restraint, those police having to face the population in the coming weeks and months. Here there is no restraint. The German police have been seen openly rejecting orders and suggestions from the Swiss police. They have been acting with a huge degree of arrogance and disdain for people’s rights and dignity.
The Swiss police on the other hand are overwhelmed, prone to panic and over reaction. It is easy to gather what the build up to the protests must have been like in Geneva. hundreds of shops have been boarded up. Thousands of rainbow ‘PACE’ or ‘PEACE’ flags are prominently displayed in shop windows, but it is no hangover from the war in Iraq. It is seen as a cheaper option than boarding up. It worked in some places, but not in others.
The third factor in the equation is the local population, not the black block or other groups of demonstrators coming in from other countries. Local youngsters have been congregating in the town centre, getting hassled by the cops, and reacting. Often shouting slogans whilst they fight back.
I spoke to an american yesterday, who lives in Geneva. She said that the protests would do the city a whole load of good, it was the kick up the butt the place needed. Graffiti is colourfully applied to most of the hoardings in front of the shops. Local people walking by pause to read the messages. They is a ready acceptance of protests here, and a fascination as to what we’ll get up to next. But the real concern is about how badly the police have handled the situation.
Police have been quick to move in on seemingly innocuous bunches of protesters or locals standing in groups on street corners, but reluctant to move when windows start getting broken. Through this, they have succeeded in alienating almost every section of the population. There will be an investigation into the circumstances around the fall of Martin Shaw from the bridge, one that the police readily admit will be an investigation into their handling of the situation.
There will be a whole lot of explaining for the chief of police to do to his superiors. There will be court cases coming from those injured at the over reaction of the cops. There will be a mountain to climb for the police to repair their reputation with the locals. In fact that might never happen completely.
Geneva has had a kick in the butt, most likely the police and authorities will get theirs soon.


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