The leftward and other blatherings of Span (now with Snaps!)

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Police and rape and dealing with uppity women who complain

The threads advertising the International Women's Day events at both No Right Turn and Capitalism Bad; Tree Pretty have turned into debates on what happened at the Wellington protest and the heavy criticism of the police culture of misogyny that the media has portrayed as the main thrust of all the events around the country.

I want to focus for a moment (well probably several moments) on the role of the police, and the broader justice system, in the recent outrage about rape and violence. I've made a few comments around the traps, and on my own post about the Auckland march, and I want to tie them all together and hopefully coherently communicate about this issue.

I write this an activist woman, a leftwing feminist, who has been involved in a lot of protests (compared to your average Kiwi) and organised a fair few. Mostly this was from 1996 - 2000, although I do still attend marches and rallies on issues I care about, when I can. The vast majority of these demonstrations of various kinds were about education issues, although I have been on some organised by women's groups, peace activists and environmental concerns. Almost all of these actions of varying kinds having been in Auckland - out of the City of Sails I've been on an anti-war march in Wellington in 2004 and I was involved in all the protests on the Bus Tour to Wellington taken by Education Action Groups around the country in 1996. So there's a bit of context for you.

Before I became an activist I had had few interactions with the police. I remember as a school girl being at a few parties that the police broke up, being in cars that were breath-tested (and never failed), that kind of thing. My parents have never been burgled, and as a child and teenager I wasn't aware of the police as anything other than a benign force protecting us all, when they weren't annoying us youf by shutting down parties.

This perception changed mightily through my years as a protest organiser and since then, but not just because of the way marches and the like were policed in Auckland.

The policing of protests is always a difficult area. As activists we know that the police exist, in this context, largely to suppress the rights of demonstrators and to manage the way that these events are covered in the media. If there is any conflict, no matter how minor, between police and protesters, regardless of who is to blame, that will become the reported issue as opposed to whatever the protest was actually about. I've seen this happen too many times for it not to be a strategy used by some police. The second question media always ask about a march* is "how many arrests were there?" or some variant of this.

There is an argument that police deal with protests in a way to protect those demonstrating and ensure their rights to free speech are upheld. And sometimes this is true. I organised a march once where the police officer in charge actually asked me, as we reached the end of the march route, if we wanted to go the wrong way up Alfred St. As the march had gone well and there had been no conflict, I asked if we could. He said yep and I got to vicariously tick off one of my minor dreams - to drive a vehicle the wrong way up Alfred St. The next week we had another march and it was a totally different story. Something had changed, and I never worked out what. Violence did ensue and to be honest the march organisers were baffled as to why, beyond an intention by the police to fuck shit up. Of course it was the violence that got the coverage, not the issue.

I could tell you all my protest war stories, but there were two particular incidents that really impacted on my view of the cops. One was a bizarre incident that I still can't fully believe it really happened - I won't go into the detail of it now but let's just say it includes the lines "and then the helicopters swooped out of the sky" and "thankfully they didn't have any female officers or they would have found me hiding out in the KFC toilets." That's a story for another time.

But the tale I want to focus on today speaks strongly of the reason why so many women activists are sceptical of police genuineness about complaints of violence and rape that we might make.

I don't remember what year it was** but I was involved in an Auckland group called Feminist Action. One of the issues we were focusing on at the time was a particularly abhorrent advertising campaign by The Rock radio station, which disgustingly blended sexism and homophobia to promote their breakfast show. We decided to occupy their radio station one afternoon, about ten of us, to show our contempt for their tactics. I was pretty nervous, this was a bit edgy for me, but we marched into their offices and started chanting, after we failed to get in the actual studio door. We had underestimated the sexism of the staff - some of the women were wearing white Jenny Shipley's Not My Sister t-shirts, and the men deliberately doused these women with drinks, in the best tradition of wet t-shirt contests. While there's more to it than this (of course) we were assaulted by these men, despite the fact that we were leaving anyway, and one woman was so badly hurt she ended up on crutches.

Once ejected we went across the road to the police station to complain about the assaults. They went far beyond using reasonable force to remove trespassers. However the way the police dealt with it was revealing. We were split up and interviewed in pairs. I was with the woman whose leg had been badly hurt and she was in a lot of pain. I asked repeatedly for the police to get a doctor, and they kept ignoring me. As a baby law student I was an annoying pain in the arse to them. We didn't understand why the focus of the police was not on the men who had assaulted us but on our protest. We worked it out when they served us all with trespass notices and kicked us out of the station, refusing to take our complaints of assault. I managed to guilt one officer into driving me and the badly hurt woman to the nearest White Cross. He used this opportunity to lecture us on our actions, as if we were children. My friend was too hurt to take it in, I was seething but we needed the lift as she couldn't walk properly so I shut my trap.

What we did may have been illegal, I'm not an expert on trespass law, but what those men in that radio station did to us was definitely against the law. But who did the police choose to pursue?

Since then I have heard many tales of women not being taken seriously by the police when they have complained of rape, abuse and violence (mostly outside of the context of political protest, although Maia can tell the story of a nasty incident in Wellington that was not). Louise Nicholas and the other women who took the recent cases are examples of women who persisted with complaints not just about rape but also about abuses of power by the police. Yes those complaints were historic and yes they applied to particular police officers. But one of the key issues here is why they weren't dealt with at the time, or when the women originally complained. That is an issue of the system, not individual bad eggs.

Yes I think the system has improved. The increase in women police officers has been one of the drivers of change I'm sure. But there is more to be done.

We need a police force, as part of our justice system, that deals sensitively and appropriately with complaints of rape and violence towards women. We need to find a way to resolve the difficulties of the "he says, she says" nature of rape allegations, particularly when the victim is too traumatised to come forward when there is still physical evidence. Who thinks first of protecting all that evidence of violence rather than trying to destroy it, when they can still feel the hands of the rapist on their body, think of the weight of his body on theirs, still notice the pieces of himself he has left behind? I doubt I would have the incredible strength necessary not to scrub myself raw. That would be superhuman, imho. Should we expect more of rape victims than we do of anyone else?

In reference to the protests this week, I think Terence has put it well in his post about the Wellington march:

1. I was marching against the culture of misogyny that still persists in New Zealand. And which provides oxygen for the violence and rape that affects too many New Zealand women's lives.

2. I marched in particular on this day against the manifestations of this misogyny that can be found in our police force.

3. I also was marched to express my outrage against the rapes committed by Shollum and Shipton, and Rickard's repulsive attitudes and abuse of power.

4. And I was marching for changes that lead to a justice system that is more in tune with the needs of rape victims and which, while still offering fair trials to all, makes it easier for the perpetrators of rape to be brought to justice.

Ultimately I think that many people don't want to believe that the police force is still in part a sexist institution. We can't believe it, because then who is there to turn to when rape happens?

Update, 10th March 6.48pm: And when I wrote the above I didn't even know about this. Shudder.

* The first question is invariably how many people were there. Questions about the actual issue being raised, the arguments being made, are a long way down the priority list. The reporting of protests, imho, is not about exposing and considering the cause of the protest, but about getting pictures that are exciting. Conflict is always creates exciting pictures, and thus always gets coverage. This is one reason why savvy protesters often seek to construct another visual image that the media could use, eg an effigy burning (fire almost always makes it onto the news or into print), people in crazy costumes, everyone wearing the same colour, or some kind of visual symbol of the actual issue like the Debt Monster that student protests have used in recent times or the five red stars laid out by the Auckland kindergarten teachers to indicate the concerns about quality or the creation of a funeral complete with coffin, etc.
** I had ME for three years and it has wiped a lot of the detail from my memories pre-2004, sadly. I think this particular event happened in 2000.


jo said...

the police are like a massive gang really, they will say anything to protect each other. We can't let these issues die now that we have some traction on them. NZ policeforce are thugs and bullies..I have many stories too. Hope u don't mind me adding this link...

jo said...

my neighbour

Grant said...

Having spent a lot of time in years past organising protests of one kind or another can i say : never expect the media to simply report the message the protest is attempting to convey. Media look for a "story" but they also look for some perspective on issues and a protest is not a "balanced" forum.. So it's treated as an event, like a sporting event or a concert. Engaging the media effectively means sitting down with them and talking thru arguments, not simply doing the protest stuff and expecting them to report it as a political statement, cos they just won't do that in a way that means anything ...

Gerrit said...

Share your concerns regarding how the Police deal with assaults and rape on women.

Must point out however people like Jo do themselves or the cause in providing a change to Police thinking and behaviour by calling them "pigs" or "poo-lice" in her linked article, no good at all.

If that is what the Jo's of this world think of the Police then the policemans attitude is not likely to change at all.

As you point out in your post "We need a police force, as part of our justice system, that deals sensitively and appropriately with complaints of rape and violence towards women."

Perhaps the place to start is encouraging more women to join the Police and working from within to change the culture.

Single Malt Social Democrat said...

Recruiting more women into the police force will probably help th police culture, but, we also have to make sure that women progress into the upper ranks of the force, and we have to put external pressure onto changing the police culture as well, or the women who join at a junior level will just en up being bullied.

Span said...

Grant, I agree with you about how protesters often just let the protest do the talking and that isn't actually the most effective media strategy. I remember when organising activist groups was most of my life, we were actually very hostile to the media and it wasn't a constructive attitude to take really. (Although this was an understandable attitude, given some treatment we got from the media).

Span said...

On the issue of police culture - changing it through entrism of women (which is basically what Gerrit and Carl are proposing) is one way, but it can't be the only way. For a start, that pre-supposes a certain pre-existing organisation on the part of those women who do enter the force, and a heavy burden on them, which I do not think is fair or realistic.

Change needs to come from both within and without on this one. And I have hope that it will. We can play our part by communicating clearly what our expectations are of the police, and calling them on it when they fall short.

Gerrit said...

That external pressure must surely come through our elected representatives (our parliamentarians, local body politicians, etc.).

The Police however have been stuffed about so long by our politicians in regards adequate resources.

First priority sutrely must be an increase in numbers (at least an extra 2000) with vehicle, equipment and most importantly supervisory management to match.

Notice that Labour has done little in 12 years to do this and National (as Span quite rightly has pointed out a number of times) dont have a policy in this regard.

The 1000 extra police promised on NZ First joining the Labour government at the last election has not materialised.

I want to see police in greaster numbers in cruisers like they do in Australia, USA and Canada. Able to repond quickly to a rape (or any other crime call).

Nothing like visible police numbers to instill a sense of security in the populace.

jo said...

I don't call ALL police officers poo-lice except when they act in ways that are deserving of such names...what they did was FAR worse.
It's that same old argument though isn't it...when u say police are rapists, someone has to say..No their not, not ALL police are..or Men are their not, Not ALL men are sexist. Did you actually read what happened to this woman, totally un-provoked attack by the poo-lice who did this, THEY are fascist cops...I never said ALL police are Fascists but these ones are.

Gerrit said...

How do we distinquish one from the other? How do you weed them out? As Span says by raising our expectations of ALL their behaviours.

I'm not so sure calling SOME policeman and women "pigs" and "poo-lice" is the best way to influence behaviour.

Still your call. It is not till you have walked in their shoes as it were and see the crap they have to put up with from joe citizen do you see why their mentality is where it is now. Now that is no defence I know for bad attitudes but try and see what they have to do in ALL lines of their policing work.

Do you favour more police on the beat Jo? How do you see the change of attitude coming about? Will you Join the Polie force to break the stereotype behaviour?

Anonymous said...

When you protest you are taking power via intimidation. You intimidate via your numbers, via your demonstration of will and via the danger of violence as part of the protest. All planed well in advance.

I also wonder if it would serve the purpose of this sort of march if the police did not turn up at all - I think probably not.

As to your complaint about the assault - did you raise your complaint seperately? Surely in NZ you can raise a complaint even if the first police officer you meet refuses to take your statement. you should be able to keep looking until someone does.


Gerrit said...

Be an interesting scenario if the police didnt turn out for a protest march.

Especially if another protest march, against what you are standing, for took place at the same time (impromptu of course).

Would you need the police there to protect you? Would you need the police there to ensure your peaceful march went ahead?

Again we are putting the police in an unenviable position. Protecting the general public when protesters block fire egress doors in public spaces (such as the recent Te Papa demo) or protecting demonstrators from what are other mobs.

No wonder they have an attitude problem. When our own attitude towards them is so confusing.

jo said...

Abolish the state and ALL the systems of power and corruption,i.e capitalism, governments, police. I would rather spend my life in a padded cell than become a "token female cop".
Calling the pigs what they are isn't about influencing anyone, I've never been big on subtle malnipulation, it's a way to express my anger and disrespect for patriarchy and racist fascists in general. LOL have a sense of humour!

Commie Mutant Traitor said...

More police? I've seen protests in which the pigs outnumber the protesters, which hardly suggests a *shortage* of cops. The rare protests which don't attract police attention tend to work very nicely.

Hewligan said...

The KFC incident must have been before 2000 - I think it was 98 or 99.

Span said...

Yep Hewligan I think you are right. It was the year the University Council passed differentiated fees (which they brought in the next year). I'm almost positive it was 1998.

The Rock protest I wrote about above was almost definitely in 2000, I think.

To be honest, there were times we needed police presence for what we wanted to do, but these were rare and usually we had another plan that would work without police. Certainly most of the time we would have vastly prefered no police, imho. And sometimes we got our wish and there weren't any problems in my recollection.