I knew it wouldn’t take long, and it didn’t.
Following the UK’s recent, devastating incidents in Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge and Borough Market, along with the horrific Grenfell Tower fire, the emergency services – and in particular the police – were hailed as heroes in the press, by politicians and by the public. Who can forget the London Fire Brigade being clapped and cheered by grateful residents as they left the scene at Grenfell?
Rarely have the police been so popular. PC Keith Palmer was stabbed to death protecting Parliament. Officers rushed to aid those injured during the suicide bombing at Manchester. On duty and off duty police officers were seriously stabbed – and lucky to be alive – after selflessly tackling a gang of armed terrorists at London Bridge.
People were calling for medals to be awarded (PC Palmer was posthumously awarded a George Medal for gallantry) and there was talk of our brave police being given the protection they deserve; for them to be fully armed with guns, so that they can shoot dead any would-be attackers before they caused too many casualties.
It’s fair to say that emotions were running high and everyone was behind the police and emergency services in general. But, like I said, I knew it wouldn’t last.
There were similar, but much bigger scenes, in New York following the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers. I can remember clearly the reported scenes of local New Yorkers lining the long, wide avenues of the city, cheering, clapping and waving American flags each and every time a fire truck or ambulance or police squad car rushed by to reach the scene. Residents set up picnic tables in the street that were filled with bottles of water, soda, candy and other refreshments.
Everyone wanted to do something to help out and to show their support for the emergency services – they were the city’s real-life heroes. It was even reported to me that local criminals curtailed some of their activities.
But it didn’t take long for the political, public and media attitude to change. Soon, it was business as usual. Police actions, police-involved shootings, the police just being police and doing their jobs, whether controlling a violent demonstration or whilst enforcing the day-to-day laws; suddenly for many, the police had become the enemy again.
The memories of their truly heart-breaking sacrifices during those terrible days around 9/11 have long passed. And let’s not forget that each and every year since, NYPD officers have continued to die from the effects of Ground Zero.
Though not to that level, I watched the recent ‘Day of Rage’ march in London, which appeared to use the Grenfell fire disaster as an excuse to organize a political attack against the government. Its very name – ‘Day of Rage’ – seemed a totally insensitive and tasteless label.
Police officers across London (and elsewhere) have been stretched to a limit that this genuinely thin blue line has never seen before. Officers are exhausted. They haven’t had days off in weeks. They haven’t seen their families and they have witnessed their own colleagues losing their lives and being seriously injured. They are at breaking point, doing everything they can to keep people as safe as possible, and all the while are willing to give their own lives for others.
And then they are faced with a ‘Day of Rage’, where demonstrators (some of whom I believe simply hate the police regardless and turned up to dish out abuse and hope for a bit of violence) faced off with the very same police officers that had rushed to the scenes at London Bridge, Grenfell and Westminster with little thought about their own safety.
Images from the Day of Rage showed officers rolling on the floor, trying to control and arrest some of the more volatile people. Other demonstrators were shown practically spitting venom into the faces of police officers – all this despite some of the true victims at Grenfell reportedly requesting the demonstration not to take place at all.
I mentioned at the start how the London Fire Brigade was cheered as they left the scene but they, too, can often come in for abuse and attack. At riots, like those of 2011, they have been subject to attack by rock-throwing thugs trying to prevent them from putting out the fires that the rioters had started – including in residential buildings.
How quickly some people forget or, perhaps, ignore the heroic actions that police officers and other emergency services carry out everyday – not just at major disasters. There is a lesson in that fickleness for all of us.
Michael Matthews is a former police officer and the writer of The Riots published by Silvertail Books.