Reclaim the Streets 2002: a police riot and the aftermath

Date:

The following piece is an interview with X, a victim of the police riot that took place May 6th 2002. The ‘Reclaim The Streets’ (RTS) protest tactic, hosting spontaneous temporary street parties in the name of community ownership over public space, emerged out of anti-capitalist and environmental grassroots politics in the UK in the early 90’s and rapidly spread across Europe, Australia, North America and later to South America, Asia and Africa attracting anywhere between a few hundred to tens of thousands of revellers. Following a successful first run of RTS in Dublin the previous year, the 2002 street party kicked off along Burgh Quay with about 400 partyers dancing to music played from a rig blocking one of the city’s main roads. The crowd soon doubled in size and the festival atmosphere continued for most of the afternoon until the police became hostile and began making arrests.

Interview

That’s when the cop came over and hit me on the back of the head with a baton. I remember walking away and falling over. The next thing I remembered I was surrounded by a couple of my friends and my girlfriend at the time, they were trying to keep me awake. There was a ban-garda there and she was redirecting traffic. My girlfriend went over and said ‘you need to call an ambulance, my boyfriend is hurt, he’s covered in blood’ but she refused. She was a traffic cop so she was in leather and she had the bike so I’m assuming they had a first aid kit there. An ambulance was called but when it arrived the ban-garda redirected it. My girlfriend is going mental now, she’s screaming ‘what are you doing?’ My girlfriend heard her say that she wouldn’t piss on me if I was on fire.

When I got to Saint James [hospital] I remember being seen by a nurse. She asked me what happened and I told her I was at a protest and a cop hit me on the back of the head. She was very dismissive of me and gave me a look like I deserved what I got, that I was wasting her time pretty much. At that time I was the only person in the hospital from the protest so I imagine it was the first she heard of it. I don't know how many people show up in hospitals with head wounds from a guard without being under arrest. I can only assume her attitude changed when the A & E was swamped with casualties, but who knows? Then when there was a doctor or a nurse and he stitched me up… he was African and he was very sympathetic so I assume that he would have had to deal with something similar back home.

 

Back at the party
While X was in hospital the crowd who had gathered for the street party decided to call it a day but fearing threats to their safety the group moved on mass to Stephen’s Green where they agreed they would then disperse. But as they began to move through the city, an unmarked police car drove into the crowd, several other police vans arrived at this point and police numbers rose to around 150. The group of partyers, now reduced to approximately 200, were indiscriminately attacked at this point as were passing shoppers and bystanders. One partygoer, Y, recalled the Dame Street police riot:

This was the worst of the baton charges I saw. Previously they had been  happy  taking  a  few  swings  at  a  couple  of  people  to  frighten people back. This time they were knocking people to the ground and continuing to baton and kick people once they had gone down. I saw a  young  man  being  thrown  against  the  side  of  a  bus  and  batoned there by at least five gardaí … One advertising executive reported that he had been hit three times before seeing two motorbike cops banging a young man’s head off a wall. A woman was knocked off her bike and beaten on the ground before being arrested, and many people were sent to hospital at this point.

Interview with X

After getting stitched up, tetanus injection, they let me out. It was only 5 stitches but because it was so close to the bone and the wound was three inches half my head had to be shaved and stitched up, it was pretty vicious. When I went out into the car park I remember thinking ‘my god I’m going to have to tell my parents and they are not going to be impressed’ and so I rang and told them and they believed me straight away. I remember the helicopter was still up in the sky and then I got a phone call from one of my mates saying ‘are you in James’?’ I said ‘yeah’. He said ‘I’m coming down’. I said ‘oh no, there’s no need’. He said ‘I’m coming down in the ambulance’. He’d been attacked as well. I spent the whole evening in the waiting room getting to meet all the other victims as they were coming in and as they were being discharged. And as we sat around I remember watching the RTE news and they gave the typical response that you would have expected from the state news, that there was a riot in town and the gardaí had it under control. That was pretty much it.

I made the complaint the day after; I was still in a daze. I went in to Pearse Street [police station], made a complaint, obviously the guy wasn’t the most helpful guy but he did take down my complaint and I gave him my address. I told him basically what happened that I got hit on the back of the head, that I wasn’t doing anything, that if I was doing something surely I would have been arrested, that I was lying covered in blood and that a ban-garda wouldn’t get me an ambulance, when the ambulance came it was redirected. So all this gets taken down. And then the next day, I was living in a flat on Dublin’s Southside at the time, I see one of the big riot vans parked on the road opposite my flat and there’s a guard there with no numbers on, just standing there. He did briefly look up at the window but at the same time he wouldn’t really have known which window was mine. There was a little net curtain there so I’m pretty sure he couldn’t have seen me. When I saw that, you know, you’re shocked but you’re not surprised. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t think shouting at them was a good idea so I got a disposable camera, called out to them and took a photo of them with the flash so they saw it and straight away got into the van and zoomed off.

After that I was always on guard; everything makes you a bit paranoid. Obviously they could have made my life more difficult but I wasn’t going to not go ahead with the case. The first couple of days I felt pretty upset, it didn’t seem like a cover up but it did seem like there was a gagging order of some sort with RTE. I contacted someone; I don’t remember if it was the Irish Times or Independent, I went out, bought a paper, got a phone number and called him up. I saw the 9 o’clock news that day and I wasn’t going to stand for it, I just wanted everyone to know, this is what happened. It wasn’t until Indymedia and the Socialist Workers Party kicked up a shit storm that RTE started to change their tune. It just seems so mad that all of this craziness went down and the national TV station hardly paid any attention to it at all.

Comparing 2002 with 2001… there just seemed to be more cameras, that’s what made it such a big deal. Everyone had cameras; people had camcorders, digital cameras. I think that’s what made it into the media event that it became because it was documented. Without the documentation you’ve got your word against theirs. No one would have believed that a cop would have chased someone down on Dame Street and just smacked them in the face with a baton unless they saw it themselves.

A couple of days after I went onto Indymedia and gave some brief details and asked if anyone had any photographs or video footage. Some guy from Friends of the Earth got in touch with me and put me in touch with some solicitors who ended up being really sound and also the guy who got the video. I think he was a DCU student, he sorted me out with the video. Sometime after that Primetime got in touch with me and asked me if I would do an interview and I turned it down because my photo was in a lot of the Sunday papers and I was getting hassle by the cops after that, not constantly, not like ‘oh god I can’t leave the house’.

I had no experience of solicitors, I didn’t know if it was just going to be like, ‘oh we’ll take the case for x amount of money’ but they were quite sound. I knew I was on to a good thing when I went in and the waiting room had a big Palestine poster. They took it on pro-bono, they told me they were going to take a certain percentage if I did win compensation, in the end they actually took less than they said they would. So I met up with the solicitors and told them all the details, they said we’d try and take a criminal action, it would be surprising to get a criminal case to court but we’d try anyway. So I gave them video and the details of all my witnesses and they went in and gave some statements and I didn’t hear back from them for ages. I don’t really remember exactly how long it was before I heard back from them but then when I did hear back it was that the wheels were set in motion to bring a criminal action against the guards and that I would hear back soon.

An ex-garda commissioner was in charge of the internal investigation. I went up with my solicitor and was asked to give a lengthy statement. They asked me a lot of questions and then I was shown a video and asked if I could identify my attacker. It was the biggest farce I’ve ever seen. What they had done was they had got a lot of the video from Indymedia and they edited it chronologically with helicopter footage but really what it looked like was just an extended version of what had already been shown on RTE and TV3 and the editing was definitely in their favour. I said to them, ‘this is ridiculous, you’re just showing me footage of people being outraged that their mates are covered in blood, you aren’t actually showing me any footage of anyone getting beaten, I don’t know what you expect me to say here’.

So the procedure was that I tried to take two cases, a criminal case and a civil case (29). For the criminal case, my solicitor had to do something called ‘discovery’, basically had to look for any and all evidence that they had regarding the event. I know they were dragging their heels and then in the end the video that she got was pretty much the video that I saw, the very highly edited video and then a bunch of statements. I only got to see the statements maybe six months before the case was given a date so that would have been mid 2005, a good three years after. The statements that they were making were that I was drunk, abusive, throwing cans.

I lodged my complaint from the flat I was living in. If the cops did any kind of background check on me, and I guess they would have, they would have known my parents lived in a nice house on Dublin’s south side. When I saw their statements, they were really trying to play me out like a real thug. The fact that I ended up getting first class honours in my degree… I think all of these things really contributed to how much compensation I got. I think if I was some young fella from Ballymun, I wouldn’t have stood a chance, not at all. I think that played a huge part in it.

Then I heard back from them to say that the criminal case wasn’t going to go ahead, that it was refused and they didn’t give a reason. After that I didn’t hear anything for ages and then it was really in the six months leading up to the court case things started happening. I was meeting up with the solicitors and they were talking me through what was most likely going to happen. That the defence would make a big deal out of the fact that I was into the punk scene, that the jury is more than likely going to be housewives and professionals, that this could be tough but they could settle. And I said to them, I wasn’t interested in settling, I was interested in getting an apology. If I got an apology and not a penny I would be happy. They laughed at that. I guess obviously they want to get paid. I guess they were laughing because if you get a settlement off the guards, well done, because it’s not easy. It’s not easy at all.

They told me that for a guard to be up in the dock for assault is very rare. When it came down to it, their internal investigation that was happening up in Irish Life, my understanding of it was that they pulled in few guards to state on the record, ‘do you recognise this guard hitting this guy’ and they all said no. Obviously they all had legal advice and they were given it immediately before the interview. It’s an old boys’ network, they’re going to look after their own.

So a letter came and said that the criminal case wasn’t happening. Obviously, I was disappointed. I had been warned beforehand that it was very unlikely to happen so really what I was hoping for was some kind of acknowledgement that they had done wrong. That if it was going to come to a point where I’m going to have to stand in court and there are all these guards are lying by saying that they recognise me from three years ago being pissed off my face and throwing cans at the cops and I got everything that was coming to me, obviously that’s shit. So my solicitors were prepping me for all of the things. The defence were going to play devils’ advocate. They are going to say ‘well, do you drink, did you drink anything that day, do you have a problem with the cops’ and how do you answer that? ‘Well, yeah if I didn’t before, well I do now, and I did before and I don’t know if that is relevant!’

So when the date came through, you get nervous. You know you’ve spent three years telling everyone that you’re going to have your day in court. You’re going to get your apology. You’re going to get some kind of acknowledgement. You’re going to be able to try your best to shame them into making sure that none of this is ever going to happen again. Then I get a phone call from one of my solicitor saying that the legal team of the gardaí want to discuss terms of settlement. And so I said, ‘well what do you think I should do’. The solicitor replied ‘well, I’d recommend you’d hear what they have to say and then make a decision’. So, ok – I went in. It was in the library in The Four Courts. Luckily I’ve never been in The Four Courts before, it was totally unlike anything I’d ever expected. It was really, really busy. The place was full. The library was, if you can imagine Bewleys on a very busy day. And they had something like three barristers. I guess they were barristers sitting at the table, these guys acting for the guards. There was maybe two guys on my side, a woman and a guy working for the firm. So basically they were saying, ‘ok, well look; for a head injury if this was in your place of work this is how much you’d be looking for. If you were to lose a finger this is how much you’d be looking for. If you lost the use of your right arm this is what you’d be looking for. But we’re going to offer you this’…  It was quite a lot of money.

Now my problem with this was, to put it in context, I was one of the first up who was attacked that day and who was going to have their day in court. Two days beforehand when I got the phone call they tell me to come in because now they have the video that they will be showing in court. The video that they had in court was a video that I hadn’t seen before. In this video one of my mates is saying ‘those fucking pigs are going to pay for what they did, fuck those pigs I’m going to fucking kill them’. It’s not going to play well in court at all. And I’m thinking if I say, no I’m not going to settle and I’m going to go to court then I’m more than likely going to lose and if I lose I will have set a precedent for everyone else that’s trying to do something. Now it’s all well and good for me to say that money doesn’t matter, that what I want is an apology but then I’m in a dilemma. Do I have the right to really fuck up the chance for other people where the money would make a huge difference? Maybe they actually have lost some function in their hand and they need some kind of physio. I don’t know. So this is the situation and I’m looking at the solicitor and he’s looking at me and he’s like, yeah it’s not looking good. So that coupled with all of these garda statements versus my mates who at the time were on the dole and I’m there with the college degree. I’ve just finished my masters at the time and how is this going to weigh up? I’m going to sit there and I’ve got a masters degree and here is my mate who is unemployed on the camera saying he wants to kill the cops. Again my word against theirs, pretty much my entire argument was, I don’t have a record and I wasn’t arrested that day. I was lying in a pool of blood. Had I done something that would have warranted the attack, what they should have done was hit me on the arms or the legs and arrested me if I was proving to be a nuisance. But instead I was cracked over the head.

I did have video footage of me being attacked and it turned out that it was up to the discretion of the guards’ barristers whether or not the video could be shown without the person who recorded it being present. I had asked the guy who shot the video if he would attend the court case but he has said he wouldn’t. He just said ‘look I was there on the day, I took the video, I gave you the video. I want to keep a distance from it’. It’s just one of those things. It’s just common knowledge, if you try and fuck with the cops they are going to come at you. If they’re going to send a riot van to sit outside my gaff for making a complaint and then you read about Larry Murphy (convicted rapist and suspected serial killer) being released tomorrow and they’re not going to be able to keep tabs on him at all. He’s just going to be floating around. It makes you wonder how these resources are being allocated

It’s about your class background and how that plays a part. It makes you feel so shit when you’re thinking, ‘oh my god I’m going to have to walk into that and rely on that’. That is shit, when you hate the system, you hate the way all of that shit works and now you’re in a position where you’re like, well I hope they look kindly on me because I’ve got a college education and my parents have a nice house. That’s like a personal dilemma. So in the end they told me how much they were going to offer me and I said, ‘look all I want is an apology, if you give me an apology right now I will walk away’. They all laughed and I got the feeling they all knew each other and they were all going through the motions in the same way you might see two boxers knocking the heads off each other and afterwards they give each other a big hug.

So, yeah I said that and they just laughed and said well, ‘you must be a good poker player’. I didn’t quite get what he meant and then he threw on more on top of what he’d just offered me. I spoke with my solicitors and asked ‘what do you think about that?’ They said ‘well look, I deal with a lot of personal injury and that is very, very good so you know you can risk it and it would be up to a jury to decide whether you deserve to get compensation’. Basically the way they argued it was that this is not a criminal case, this is about money. ‘You’re not going to get an apology this is purely about money. So this is what they’re offering you. You can take it or you can go to court and you can get your name dragged through the mud and lose’. So in the end I took the money.

Conclusion
In total the May 2002 police riot, which put 12 people in hospital and resulted in 24 arrests, cost the State €1 million in fees and claims, €288,700 of which was paid out in compensation. Although the behaviour of the gardaí that day is noted by police researchers as resulting in a major legitimacy crisis for An Garda Síochána, charges of assault against 7 gardaí never made it to court and the one case that did, that of Donal Corcoran who became known as Robocop, resulted in acquittal. No disciplinary action was taken following the internal inquiry and on a public level rank and file gardaí attributed blame to poor management structures while management level police scapegoated rank and file gardaí by ordering the removal of garda batons at the RTS that took place 6 months later.

For further discussion on the implications of events that took place at the 2002 RTS see the pieces “When do the police get away with violence, and why?” and “From force to fencing: political policing in the Republic of Ireland”.
 

 29 * A civil case drawing on civil or common law deals with disputes between individuals from which compensation may be awarded to the victim while a criminal case would enable a criminal conviction for assault.   


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