How To Tell If You Live In A Police State

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Remember Freedom? It was that thing we were going to deliver to Afghanistan and Iraq. OK, so it was a little embarrassing when Iraqis joined the Arab Spring to demand the end of the US Occupation, but good intentions and all that…

So anyway, it turns out that the whole “War on Terror” thing may have backfired on us. As the Bush administration was warned, if you’re going to undermine rights on your own territory in order to “fight terrorism”, then, well – the terrorists can claim to have won. And so it now seems. Asian and African leaders can laugh out loud when the US State Department slaps their wrists for doing all the same things that the US has been guilty of over the past decade.

The slide from democracy into a police state is subtle. Some of the very people trumpeting the danger are the same ones supporting attacks on civil liberties. Here is a list of ten ways to spot the trend:

  1. The prison population increases. This isn’t due to increasing crime, but increasing fear of crime resulting in more laws and harsher punishments. Large prison populations are incompatible with freedom – that seems obvious, but morons don’t seem to have noticed. The US has the world’s biggest prison population (24% of total), followed by China (17%) and Russia (9%). Smell the freedom!
  2. You hear a lot about a “terrorist threat”. This is an excuse that has been used by dictators from Hitler to Gaddafi. The tiny number of successful attacks on Western targets in recent years is an indication that the “threat” is hugely exaggerated. But don’t expect morons to understand that.
  3. You hear a lot about “crime increasing” even if it isn’t. Crime is at a historic low in much of the Western World. Crime surveys agree with the official figures: people feel safer in their own neighbourhoods. However, the conservative media’s job is to convince people that life is becoming more dangerous, and the drip-feed of scare stories about crime takes its toll on morons. Fear of crime means that the police are allowed to get away with more abuses, most of which aren’t noticed by the frightened middle classes (though working class people in the inner cities certainly feel the pain of all that extra police attention).
  4. You hear about “knife crime epidemics” that don’t actually exist. This is a favourite in London. A growth in knife crime was “discovered” by the British media just before the mayoral election in 2008, just in time for the right-winger Boris Johnson to be elected. This led to more stop and searches by police (largely on young, non-white males). The UK murder rate has remained extremely low throughout. But morons are frightened, and fear allows the police state more leeway to act as it likes.
  5. You hear scary new phrases like “sexualisation of children”. “Sexualisation” was a clever PR invention by a UK-based Christian lobby group. This was drip-fed through the media so that the average moron has come to believe this is a sudden new problem, indicating some kind of moral breakdown in society. The truth is, all children become sexualised; it happens when they hit puberty, just as it has always done. However, it’s now being used by the UK government (and others) to justify new censorship measures, from Internet filtering to attacks on “explicit” music videos. The S-word has also recently been spotted in the US and Australia.
  6. Minorities become a “threat”. This, of course, is standard far-right methodology. Find a scapegoat that is too powerless to fight back, and imbue it with threatening attributes. It worked against the Jews and this time Muslims are taking the brunt. Moronic attacks on Muslims are gathering pace, especially in mainland Europe. Many morons believe in this “threat”, as a glance at my Twitter family will reveal.
  7. The police are allowed to stop and search someone without good reason. One of the foundations of a free society is that you don’t get harassed by the police unless they have good reason to believe you have committed a crime. This has clearly slipped a long way already, especially in the inner cities. And when young people finally get sick of it, the police are given even more powers to harass them.
  8. The police start finding new reasons to stop people. Terrorist laws are always (yes, always) used to attack free speech. In the UK, terrorism law has been used to harass press photographers who might expose police behaviour. In the US, the Patriot act has been abused to attack Occupy protesters. But the most pernicious of all are the drug laws; while these aren’t new, they are enforced, or not, at the whim of the police. Millions of people use illegal drugs, and always will, but that’s not the police’s concern; the drug laws are simply a proxy for being able to stop anyone, anywhere, any time.
  9. The police get ever-better weaponry, despite crime falling. The police recently deployed rubber bullets for the first time on the UK mainland. Because of increased violence? No, to create increased violence. This adds to the increasing armory of the police, already carrying tasers, batons and pepper spray. Thirty years ago, with much higher crime rates, the police managed without most of these weapons.
  10. Fellow citizens take an increasing interest in your private life. Before we go blaming the state for everything: remember, a police state depends largely on a moronic, frightened citizenship that believes the scare stories served out to them on a daily basis. Effective police states like that in Communist East Germany require citizen spies. Today, citizens are stoked up into constant fear about crime and terrorism and asked to report on “any suspicious activity”.

We’ve got ourselves into a mess. Many things need doing, including:

  • Repeal the Patriot Act and similar “anti-terrorist” laws elsewhere.
  • Make concerted efforts to cut prison populations – however much the morons may squeal.
  • Decriminalise drug possession, removing the police’s single biggest excuse to stop people.
  • Tighten stop and search powers to prevent their random use.
  • Confiscate the police’s arsenal of anti-citizen weaponry.
  • Strengthen laws against police violence – almost no officer is ever prosecuted, even when someone is killed.
  • Educate the morons: their fear drives a vicious circle of ever more aggressive state behaviour.

Morons, Riots and Amnesia

In 1981 I was a pupil at an inner London comprehensive school. Around 75% of my classmates were black, and the remaining quarter were mostly white, Indian or Pakistani. Many of my classmates had been stopped and searched by the police under the infamous SUS laws, under which the police merely had to believe that a person was acting suspiciously. Many more of their fathers, elder brothers and uncles had been stopped and searched. Many of these had been racially abused, falsely arrested and/or beaten up. The police were a law unto themselves. Complaints about police behaviour were handled by… well, the police of course. And the mass media still lived in a complacent bubble dating from an earlier age where the police were never corrupt, racist or unnecessarily violent. The worst police behaviour came from a gang called the Special Patrol Group (SPG), who regularly beat up (and sometimes killed) people without fear of punishment.

The London of 1981 was far less racially mixed than it is today – black and Asian people were concentrated into certain areas, and white estates were no-go areas for them. The far-right fascist National Front (NF) would march through racially mixed areas as a provocation, and in any resulting violence, the police always took the side of the NF.
It was no surprise to me or my friends, but a huge shock to most of the UK, isolated from the black inner city, when the Brixton riot erupted in April 1981. Brixton had been subjected to “Operation Swamp”, during which the number of stop-and-searches rocketed. Ostensibly this was an attack on crime; in reality it was the invasion of Brixton by a racist, violent gang. Of the many stories circulating at the time, a minor one stays with me for some reason: during a raid on a black house, the police smashed a guitar and a TV set, claiming they were looking for drugs inside. The people of Brixton (and other black areas around the country) were being deliberately wound up into a rage, which became all the more consuming for lack of any means of dealing with it. There were few black or Asian people in the police force or media, and even the most well-meaning news outlets had no idea what was going on. When Brixton exploded, so did other areas of London, Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool and other cities. A few blocks of Brixton became a police-free zone for three days, defended at “the front line” on Railton Road. At the front line, people defended the area. Inside was a carnival, celebrating freedom – a police state had been temporarily liberated. Some of my older friends travelled to Brixton to witness or join the festival. People of all races partied and battled the police together; despite propaganda at the time, this was no race riot – it was a community uniting against the police. Yes, there was mindless looting and burning, despite the efforts of older community leaders. Once all respect for law and order has collapsed, this can only be inevitable.
After the dust had settled, the government response to the riots was very British and remarkably level-headed. An inquiry was called under the leadership of Lord Scarman, and later the same year, the results were delivered. Scarman found clear evidence that the police were using stop-and-search powers indiscriminately against black people. The law was changed in 1984, putting new controls on police behaviour, as a direct consequence of the Brixton riots.
Other incidents, most notably the racist murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence (which the police barely bothered to investigate) changed the public and media perception of the police, and things slowly changed for the better as scrutiny and control improved. By the late-1990s, the street confrontations of the 80s seemed to have faded into history.
Then came 9/11. One of the many after-effects of those attacks (although Britain at that stage had never been under threat) was a massive increase in stop-and-search against young men, primarily black and Asian (though affecting whites as well). Within months, the friendly new face of the police had morphed back into something resembling that of the 1980s. I noticed an increase in sirens – and since there was no terrorist threat until after the Iraq invasion, I wondered what all those police were doing with their new-found anti-terrorist powers. The answer: they were stopping and searching hundreds of thousands of young men. In all this time, not a single terrorist suspect has been caught using stop and search. But the result has been an increased hatred for the police among young Londoners. Stop and search is often accompanied with verbal abuse and heavy-handed treatment. The old, violent SPG was dissolved in the 80s, but its successor, the Territorial Support Group (TSG) was becoming known for the same tactics.
Incident after incident has come and gone in the past decade; hundreds of people have died at the hands of the police, and countless thousands have been verbally, racially and physically abused. A young relative of mine was assaulted twice by the police: once slapped across the face, the second time thrown against the side of a van. In neither case was he accused, formally cautioned or arrested for anything. To middle-class Britain, these are just unlinked, isolated events. To people in the inner city, the reported incidents are the tip of the iceberg. Over 300,000 black and Asian people were stopped and searched in the UK during the 2008/09 reporting year. At what point does normal policing activity tip over into the directed acts of a police state? I’d guess it lies at somewhere much less than 300,000 stop-and-searches in a single year.
Deaths at the hands of police come and go, in their hundreds, usually with little mention, but one death did receive media attention: the curious “self-stabbing” of reggae star Smiley Culture in March (which I blogged at the time) led to a march in London, and the uniting of various family campaigns, each one having been previously isolated. The death of such a high-profile black man led to a massive increase in community anger. If they could get away with this, what couldn’t they get away with?
And then last Thursday, Mark Duggan was shot dead. The Metropolitan Police immediately reported that there had been an “exchange of fire”. Yesterday, this was revealed to be untrue – not for the first time, the police had leaked a false story, only to have it overturned days later. Only two shots had been fired, both by police officers. On Saturday, a peaceful protest march was held; peaceful, that is, until a 16 year old girl who confronted police was attacked with batons and riot shields. That was the trigger for everything that followed.
Incidentally, look at how effectively the police lie-machine works. Below are tweets from two police officers. I’ve no doubt that these individuals genuinely believed what they were tweeting – but they were part of an effective propaganda operation that is put into action every time the police kill somebody.
For those that point out the shooting of Duggan or the attack on the girl are no excuse for the destruction that followed: please stop stating the obvious. Everybody realises this, especially the people who live in those areas. The vandals, looters and muggers must be caught and face justice – that goes without saying. But Londoners also know the rage that exists against the police, on a huge scale. It’s inevitable that mindless morons will take advantage of chaos and begin looting and burning. It happens whenever a riot starts, for whatever reason. It’s a symptom of the situation, not a cause.
I’ve been deeply disappointed with the number of suburban progressives and middle-class Londoners who have swallowed the media spin completely. The looting is a side-product of a much bigger story, the descent of post-9/11 Britain into a form of police state, at least for its poorer populations. Last week’s shooting wasn’t the reason for the uprising. It was simply the last straw. Now we have to defend against our moron government giving police even more leeway to “restore peace” in London. Stop-and-search, coupled with abusive policing, got us here, as it did in 1981. Don’t let them justify even more of the same by the use of fear tactics.

Viva July 13th!

If you travel in many countries, you’ll often find streets, bridges and squares named after calendar dates. Countries that have been through revolutionary upheavals tend to have key dates in their histories when everything changed – July 4th probably being the most famous.

We British don’t have such key dates in our modern history. Britain is unusual in that our revolutionary changes tend to be consensual, non-violent and gradual. We’re a nation capable of compromise, which can be frustrating, but makes us one of the world’s most stable societies. Following World War 2, the Labour government introduced the national health service, the welfare state, and began dismantling the Empire, with little other than grumbling from the powers that be. In the 60s, 70s and late-80s, we underwent social revolutions where successive generations used music, sex and drugs to challenge the previous generations’ attitudes. Despite stuffy politicians and media, we are among the most libertarian societies when it comes to sexual attitudes and drug use.

While our revolutionary neighbour and old rival, France, has stagnated back into conservatism, racial segregation and authoritarianism, The British people have thrown off the religious establishment, broadened free speech, and integrated immigrants who have changed our society (and for the better, despite what some conservatives will claim).

So because of the remarkably consensual nature of our society, Britain doesn’t have a calendar date to remember any specific moment when we stepped forward. Perhaps yesterday changed that.

In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher began courting the media mogul Rupert Murdoch. She began a trend; no leader of any major party has dared fear the wrath of Murdoch or his tabloid papers (specifically, The Sun and the News of the World) for over 20 years. In that time, Murdoch’s power has only grown – party leaders go to him on bended knee for his support at election time. When David Cameron became PM last year, Murdoch was the first visitor to Downing Street.

It turns out that the Metropolitan police have also been corrupted, with some/many working illegally for Murdoch’s interests.

Furthermore, our politicians and journalists have been painfully aware (as we now discover) of Murdoch’s ability to trash an individual’s reputation and career; so many have kept quiet for fear of retribution. When the Guardian began its brave investigation into phone hacking, it’s reported (audio link) that Rebekah Brooks (now CEO of News International) was asked how the story would end. She replied “With Alan Rusbridger [Guardian Editor] on his knees, begging for mercy”. This was more than a media empire – it was a power structure that could subvert both police and parliament. And yet we all watched as its tentacles began to spread everywhere, strangling our democracy and free speech.

And out of the blue, as a result of the phone-hacking investigation, last Thursday Rupert Murdoch announced the closure of the News of the World, one of Britain’s best-selling newspapers, in an attempt to stop the damage from spreading across his empire. Then yesterday, 13th July 2011 became a revolutionary moment: Labour’s newish leader, Ed Miliband tabled a parliamentary motion opposing Murdoch’s total takeover of BSkyB, Britain’s largest broadcaster. Amazingly, the Conservatives and other parties were forced to back the motion. And then Murdoch announced he’d be dropping his bid. By the afternoon, American politicians were calling for inquiries into the activities of NewsCorp, Murdoch’s US arm.

In the past day, I’ve heard Conservative politicians speak out for the first time against the way their party had become the political wing of Murdoch’s empire (one recent example: government attempts to cut prison populations were shelved after The Sun went on the attack against them). Of course we can be cynical; why didn’t anybody speak up before? The answer is often that our elected leaders are cowards, corrupt, or both – there are few we can be truly proud of. But cynicism can cloud the enormity of what just happened. Our elected parliament got off its knees and asserted itself. However little we like our elected leaders, they’re the best thing we have – certainly they represent us better than police chiefs and CEOs do. Parliamentary and police investigations are underway. Tectonic plates shifted yesterday, and only time will tell where that leads us – there are many revelations yet to come.

Difficult as it is, and however implicated some of our leaders are, this is a time to be non-partisan, at least for the moment. For the first time perhaps since the 1940s, our parliamentary democracy has flexed its muscles. Viva July 13! A very British revolution.

Smiley Culture And Deaths In Police Custody

Today, we heard of the death of Smiley Culture (David Emmanuel), a London-born reggae artist. For anyone outside the UK, or anyone under thirty, his name will mean little, but Emmanuel had several chart hits during the 80s, in particular his 1984 hit, Police Officer, about the habit of police in unofficially “confiscating” his cannabis and letting him go rather than arresting him for possession.

His death reportedly happened during a police raid on his home, when he is said to have stabbed himself. Reaction to this explanation among the black community on Facebook and Twitter has been angry and skeptical; which is understandable, given the high incidence of black deaths in British police custody over the past few decades.

I saw an interesting suggestion that deaths in custody are more frequent under Conservative governments than Labour ones. It’s certainly true that Labour tends to demand more accountability over police behaviour, while the Tory message is that police should be “relieved of red tape” (in other words, not have to explain their behaviour towards the public).

I decided to test this theory, so I found a record of deaths in custody going back to 1993. I looked at the average annual death rate from 1993 to 1997 (Conservative administration) and from 1998 to 2010 (Labour). The results were more conclusive than I expected:

  • Average annual deaths under Labour: 38.31
  • Average annual deaths under Conservatives: 50.2

It’s also worth noting that there was a spike of deaths from 2002 to 2005, presumably related to increased police activity following 9/11, as the “war on terror” was in full swing. Without this spike, the difference between Tory and Labour administrations would be even more stark.

Whatever happened to Emmanuel, we will (or perhaps won’t) learn as time goes on.

As for deaths in police custody, let’s hope the correlation between these and the party in power proves to be purely coincidental; if not, the British people (especially ethnic minorities) are in a for a rough few years.