Friday, January 14, 2011

Christmas - a time for taking stock

Overwhelmed again. I always seem to be at this time of the year.

Is Christmas a time when I notice more injustice, more incursions into the shrinking stock of personal and social liberties which we used to think we owned?

Or a time when more injustices are reported (in the hope that they will remain un-noticed because we are all drunk and stupefied with preparations for Christmas)?

First, there is the curious case of the undercover policeman who went by the name of Mark Stone and who spent seven years, no less, at an estimated cost of £250,000 per year infiltrating environmental movements and buddying up with Green activists.

He helped them with money and transport and to organize their entirely peaceful protests, all the while reporting back as much as he could to the shadowy and sinister National Public Order Intelligence Unit to which he had been seconded by the Met.

When six of the activists were charged with conspiracy, his evidence would have made it clear that they were not conspirators in the legal sense, that this particular group of six (out of some 146 people who were originally arrested) did not know the target of the planned non-violent demonstration.

It seems that he offered to come forward and reveal this and the case was immediately dropped.

What is truly shocking is that the Crown Prosecution Service either did not know about or chose to ignore his presence within the movement and his possible testimony.

The CPS would happily have fought to convict six innocent people if he had not crawled out of the woodwork in time to upset the legal applecart.

Indeed, it successfully convicted 20 people previously, from the same group, without revealing the existence of the police informers or appearing to take their prejudicial activities into account. These 20 people are appealing their sentences.

It all reminds me (as some newspaper columnists and correspondents have also pointed out) of GK Chesterton's novel, The Man who was Thursday, first published in 1908.

Seven bearded Anarchists meet each week to discuss plans for the violent overthrow of Britain and neighbouring states.

But, it transpires, every single one of them (including the Big Boss) is a plain clothes policeman working undercover.

If the British police spend millions of pounds on surveillance of peaceful and non-violent protesters, it seem that we are all, as I have often suspected, continually under surveillance and in danger of active repression or persecution if we attempt to defy the wishes of the government or the prevailing orthodoxy.

Certainly a group of letters in the Guardian on 28th. December, written in the wake of student protests about the huge proposed rises in university tuition fees, confirmed this feeling.

One correspondent, who lives in France, went so far as to suggest that British police are now even fiercer and more out of control than the notorious (and rightly feared) French riot police, the CRS.

"The police need to be made truly acccountable to prevent them turning into brutal bullies."

Other correspondents thought that it was too late, that the police already had turned into bullies - and worse.

A student writer drew attention to the police's 'kettling' tactics, confining peaceful demonstrators in a small area for long periods until the crowd's frustrations and the cramped conditions provoked exactly the types of disorder that the police were, in theory, there to prevent.

"People just wanted to go home and instead were crushed, left screaming and, in some cases, gasping for breath."

"This is not democracy, but repression." wrote a third correspondent. "The police are clearly being used for political ends. I look forward to .... the restoration of our right to protest without intimidation and violence."

Well, so do I.

But I don't think I will hold my breath.

And is 'restoration' the right word?

Did such a 'right' ever exist?

Timothy Garton Ash, writing in the Guardian in June 2008, made the following comments when discussing the proposal to make it possible for terror suspects to be detained for 42 days (seven weeks - just think about it - in a 'free country') without any formal charge.

"Let us be clear. Our liberties are under threat from two sides. They are threatened by terrorists, especially takfiri jihadist ones, exploiting new technologies and open society in order to kill, maim and terrify the innocent. And they are endangered by the overreaction from the state, eroding those liberties in the name of defending us against these threats. Taken to the extreme, that means strangling freedom to save it."

Repression and surveillance can have humorous aspects. This next letter made me laugh.

Liam O'Farrell to the Editor, the Guardian, December, 2009:

"I was stopped and searched twice near London City airport - for watercolouring! I was not even facing the airport. I was painting the Tate and Lyle sugar factory opposite. They said they saw me on a camera and thought that "no one would want to paint a factory." I explained that L.S. Lowry did loads. Then they said I could be an anarchist and I was carrying "suspicious paraphernalia" - this being a flask of coffee and an IPod. Oh, and a box of watercolours.
Once they had all my gear out, rummaged through what identity documentation I had and double-checked it on a few radios, they were satisfied that I was just "weird" and left me to it. Until the next week, when I went back to finish off the picture and had to go through the same rigmarole again.
I have painted in Ukraine, Russia, Vietnam and plenty of other "controlled" states and have never been questioned about watercolour anarchism."

Note: "In 2004/5, stop -and-search powers under Section 44 (of the Terrorism Act 2000) were used 33,000 times; the figure rose to over 117,000 by 2007/8. People were being stopped at random - children, tourists, photographers. Moreover, no one knows of a single conviction for a terrorist offence that arose as a result ..... The police were out of control." David Allen Green, New Statesman, 17th. January, 2011

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