Dragnets of London (for Raul).
I was on my way home on the number 436 to Lewisham recently when a woman did something I thought was both impressive and unusual – she spoke out against the delay caused by the 20 police who had boarded our bus. She scolded them for wasting her time and for picking on certain passengers that, she said, should be left in peace to get on with their travel.
We have become accustomed to these all-too frequent Metropolitan Police (MET) dragnet style interruptions. Such hold-ups are now quite common in my part of London, a predominantly black suburb, where ticket checks are used as a cover for an immigration shakedown – itself justified as part of anti-terror vigilance. I watched the police officers explain to the woman, in escalating aggressive tones, that her demand to know why the bus was being delayed was misplaced because officers were ‘assaulted every day by people without tickets’. This seems a strange and disproportionate response to a legitimate query from a member of the public. Travelling in a uniformed strength-in-numbers group of (more than) 20, some of whom were armed, suggests an excess enthusiasm of the transport police for ‘ticket inspection’.
We might be concerned that such policing will soon again result in further deaths like that which was visited upon Brazilian commuter Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell tube station in 2005 (shot seven times in the head by officers, no-one charged). There have been other unexamined incidents of deaths in police custody and the UK has an appalling record in terms of prosecution of official crime (see the 1999 film Injustice directed by Ken Fero and Tariq Mehmood). Another tragedy is primed to happen especially where commanders readily deploy disproportionate aggression if challenged by an impatient commuter. She was young, white, articulate, and had the sense to back down when the Officer in charge raised his voice and muscled up to her. No need to guess that any other appellant might not have got off the bus so freely. We other passengers, a few anyway, applauded her courage, but somewhat meekly. It does seem that a new anxiety pervades the streetscapes of the metropolis – a consequence of dubious foreign wars and suspect geo-politics, conjoined with institutional racism and a creeping resignation. Not many complain, but at least in this instance, someone did.
I was glad to have met her. We exchanged a few words:
Me: ‘That was great, well done.’
Her: ‘How can they do this, its intolerable.’
Me: ‘What is your name?’
This response is hilarious and smart – she identifies herself, sensibly choosing an alias, as the fabled storyteller who tames a despot with patient narrative over many many nights. Speaking truth to power, in coded repetition, Scheherazade offers a moral discourse through fantasy tales, Sinbad the Sailor and so on. Eventually the despotic ruler relents his power. The trouble is, I never saw Scheherazade again. But I remember her lesson – you do have to speak up.
Several months after the above incident, the MET have assigned dedicated public relations personnel to their inspection teams. Whenever I have seen the dragnet I have made a point of following that woman’s earlier tactic, and each time experienced the full force of MET customer relations, extending to a total bureaucratic run-around when trying to get a complaint about this heard. This is documented below in brief conversations where, while asking the most obvious questions, I find something very provocative – the ways speaking out can be channelled and contained are also to be examined.
In this first exchange, the ‘team’ were wrapping their operation up when I came by, so there was a sense of mild irritation with my questions, a kind of ‘shows over, on your way sir’ tone – which of course I took as an invitation to linger.
Me: [polite, ironic] ‘What’s all this then?’
Cop A: ‘We are looking for people without tickets, you’d be surprised how many we can arrest in a day.’
Me: [politely] ‘Hmmm, why do you need so many police, isn’t this over policing?’
Cop A: ‘Most people around here welcome this.’
Me: [politely] ‘No, no, no, we all think its outrageous. You don’t need to do this, you should go catch some real crooks, you know, corporate types, politicians, the Speaker of the House of Representatives….’ [the controversy over MP’s expenses was current news]
Later, to a different officer:
Me: ‘Why do you need so many police to check tickets on one bus?’
Cop A: ‘This is a message to people, we are being noticed. You noticed.’
Me: ‘Even when just one ticket inspector gets on the bus we notice.’
Stand around a bit, watch the slow process of a lad get a caution for riding his bicycle on the footpath:
Cop B: ‘Why are you riding on the footpath, its against the law.’
Bike-boy: ‘Its getting dark and my light is broken.’
… [some meaningless blather, bike-boy rides off]
Cop C to Cop B: ‘They’ll make up anything round here.’
I asked another cop who was in charge:
Me: [formal] ‘Who is the ranking officer?’
Cop D: ‘Why, do you need something?’
Me: ‘I want to make a complaint?’
Cop D: ‘Why?’
Me: ‘I think this is over policing.’
Cop D: ‘People think this is the free bus.’ (the 436 aka the free bus).
Next to him, a female cop:
Cop E: ‘You could talk to the sergeant.’
Me: ‘Him there?’
Cop E: ‘Yes, but he is busy now.’
Me: ‘He’s not that busy now?’
Cope E: ‘Just tap him on the shoulder.’
Me: ‘Surely that’s more your style than mine.’
I meet the ranking officer:
Me: [polite formal] ‘This is over policing, how do I make a complaint?’
Cop F: ‘Where do you live?’
Me: [taken aback] ‘Why do you want to know?’
Cop F: ‘You can complain to the duty officer at your local station.’
Me: [insistent] ‘Don’t you think this is over policing?’
Cop F: ‘Most people don’t think so.’
Me: ‘I disagree. Most people here probably don’t think this is a good thing.’
Cop F: ‘You are entitled to disagree.’
Me: [exasperated] ‘Not for long it seems.’ [gesturing to the 25 uniformed cops hovering around the bus]
And so yet another micro moment of the creeping fascism of contemporary Englan’ passes at 6.05PM on a monday night on Lewisham Way.
Another day, another routine: Stopping to quiz yet another bus dragnet gang with a colleague, this time we are referred immediately to the public relations London Transport operative ‘Daniel’. This sort of discussion, reproduced below, has become a perverse kind of sport. I know it does little, and now I know the cops see public complaints as a kind of sport as well. Nevertheless, as they say in the Homeland – ‘If you see something, say something’.
A conversation between ‘Police Liaison Operative Daniel’ and two unidentified subjects of the realm, designated as ‘US’:
US: ‘[polite] Why are you stopping this bus here today?’
Daniel: ‘We are arresting people without tickets, booking them for crimes.’
US: ‘Is it an arrestable crime to go without a ticket?’
Daniel: ‘Most people without tickets commit other crimes.’
US: ‘So this is a kind of entrapment? You could just hand out fines.’
Daniel: ‘We are keeping the buses safe.’
US: ‘They are not unsafe because people don’t have tickets. Why are these officers armed? Are those guys immigration officers?’
Daniel: ‘Look, we could be out catching terrorists in the ethnic suburbs.’
US: [incredulous] ‘Sorry, which suburbs, how could you tell? Do they teach you about profiling?’
Daniel: ‘Oh, I know the profile very well thank you. Is there anything more I can help you with?’
US: [exasperated] ‘How can we make a complaint about over policing?’
Daniel: ‘You can complain to me.’
There is no question that the border and border policing has moved from the airport and ferry terminal to the centre of the city and the micro-moments of everyday life. The border is right there on the street, caught between mild-mannered individuals and institutional authority, uniforms on the bus, exclusions and deportations before your eyes. A million minute forms of repression that amount to a generalized war economy. Always under suspicion, ready to have you tickets checked, your bags examined (announcements remind you to never leave them unattended), security fear becomes everyday and the power of the authorities to detain anyone that ‘looks the part’ becomes routine. A border has been crossed, a border has been crossed… we run willingly into battle.