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Saturday, 19 January 2008

Politics: aphorism

Two effects of propaganda: to deceive the stupid and to demoralise the intelligent.

Police don't want me to visit my gran

I'm staying in my dad's flat in Bethnal Green at weekends. Yesterday I went to visit my gran in Redbridge, a simple few stops on the Central Line.

Now, last time I tried to visit my gran was after I had been at the Gatwick Camp for Climate Action for a few days, mostly helping with the cooking. I thought that by staying on site and cooking food I could avoid the usual hassle from the police. I've had so much unpleasantness and violence from police over the past few years that I can't really stand it any more. My nerves are wrecked. Unfortunately I had to leave the site to visit my gran. I was searched once on the way out. I knew the stop and search was illegal as there were no objective grounds to reasonably believe I was carrying any illegal items. But I decided to give in to it - which is a big ethical compromise for me - because I knew I would be arrested otherwise and my gran would get worried. The police on the gate did a superficial check on my bag and let me go. I didn't bother to get a receipt because I just wanted to get away. Foolish. Walking into the centre of the village towards the railway station, I started feeling a bit warm as the sun came out and stopped at the end of the road to change my boots for sandals. As I was doing this, a young woman came along, pointing a video camera at me, and asked me some questions about the climate camp. I was quite happy to talk to her about it. Afterwards she told me she worked for the film company that made the McLibel film. She continued towards the camp and I finished changing my shoes. I was just fastening my boots onto my rucksack when a Metropolitan police officer came up to me. Another officer was with him. I was sitting on a low wooden railing. Standing over me, he asked me what I was doing. I told him I was changing my shoes. "Oh!" he said sarcastically, "so you're changing your shoes, are you?" as if this was an extremely unlikely thing for someone to be doing, and I was obviously up to something highly dodgy that involved sitting on a low wooden railing and attaching hiking boots to a rucksack. I was already feeling nervous at this point after many experiences of police lawlessness and aggression. "Yes, I'm changing my shoes," I said, "it' got warm when the sun came out. These are the boots I took off and here are the sandals I put on."

"Oh! I see!" he spat, with a sarcastic sneer. I felt rather exasperated as I had told him what I was doing although it was none of his business. "Well I'm going to have a look in your bag," he stated. No explanation, no attempt at politeness. Being involved in political activism I was automatically defined as scum with no legal rights, not even worth being polite to, a non-citizen. It's almost always like that these days. "What for?" I asked. I have a legal right to know what legal power the police are using to detain me, and their objective grounds for using that power. "Take your hands out of your pockets when you're talking to me!" he ordered. "No, why should I?" I said, "You can't just order me around like that." He grabbed hold of my right wrist. "Please don't assault me." I said. He and his colleague grabbed my arms, twisted them straight, lifted me to my feet and pushed me towards a tree.

By great fortune, at this point the film-maker came back along the street. I shouted to her to come over and film me. A third police officer turned up and made a show of patting me down, taking the opportunity to push his hand up my bum and fiddle about with my waistband. On the video it looks like the start of a uniform fetish gay porn film - "These two bobbies thought it was an ordinary night on the beat til they saw what Manog had stashed in his pants..." Actually it was extremely disturbing. I knew they had total power over me and could do whatever they wanted. They already knew they were acting illegally by detaining me in the first place, so what's to stop them. What could I do - call the police?

It is this understanding of the lawlessness of the state that makes me feel alienated from most people. We are brought up with some kind of vague idea that the state is basically benevolent and that the occasional error will be sorted out and justice will be done. As an activist I have come face to face with this naked, gleeful evil and violence over and over again and I am thoroughly disillusioned of the idea that the state is there to protect us and that there is always some authority we can appeal to to get justice. Actually the police are above the law, they know it and they revel in it. But this does not disturb me unduly. That is the nature of states and governments. That is what they do. What really upsets me is that the relative and limited freedoms of the liberal state have been rapidly dismantled over the past ten years and that hardly anyone seems to know or care. "So what if you don't have the right to protest. Why would you want to do that anyway? If you don't want to get pushed around by the police, don't go on demonstrations."

There is a nihilist, selfish philosophy that has given up on the idea of social responsibility or of taking any interest at all in what's going on in the wider world, or indeed in the deeper self. Fair enough. If someone believes that, then that is their belief system, and I can argue against it at the philosophical level. But it is a very dangerous fallacy to jump from this opinion to a further belief that the destruction of the right to political expression does not matter, just because someone does not choose to exercise that right. The loss of liberal freedoms and the undermining of liberal ideology by racism and fear propaganda is extremely dangerous and worrying. Any perception of the patterns of 20th century history will reveal warning signs of incipient totalitarianism, and I must say that a few lights are flashing on my totalitarian-ometer these days. Of course we are not there yet, and history will not repeat itself in the same form. The propaganda system is infinitely more sophisticated, producing not only a violent and nonsensical belief system like the old totalitarianisms, but a whole mindset, personality types, a late-capitalist structure of consciousness - or better, unconsciousness. States and corporations in the rich world have almost totally succeeded in making people do what they are told without the crude violence of Hitler and Stalin. Of course the violence continues on an unprecedented scale outside the borders of the rich nation-states. But within their borders, the imperial world war is just one of many phenomena that can be used to create the basic psychic splits of mass consciousness - the split between what is known and what is admitted to everyday thought and discourse, or alternatively the split between what is known and the individual's actions in the world.

So, after the Climate Camp, I ended up being a good 2 hours late for my gran. I was feeling pretty shaken after being pushed around and insulted by three big men carrying weapons who are effectively immune from prosecution. Of course I couldn't expect any sympathy from my gran. She's a convinced Daily Mail reader and a fanatical Zionist, like most of my relatives apart from my immediate family. She feels threatened by Arabs and squirrels. I've tried to tell her about the Daily Mail's anti-semitism and their support for Moseley and the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, and I've tried to point out that the hate propaganda against Muslims now is exactly the same as the hate propaganda against Jews when she was growing up in Nazi Germany, but she thinks it's all different now: it wasn't true that time, but this time it is. I find this infuriating. And, she believes, if anyone gets pushed around by the police it must be their own fault. This is the logic: Britain is a democracy; therefore the police do not repress political activity; therefore anyone who is repressed by the police must have been doing something a bit dodgy; therefore the police do not repress political activity; therefore Britain is a democracy. How on earth can I think about trying to extricate an 86-year old from a mind trap like that? It's totally impossible. Anything I tell her that does not fit in with her bigoted world view, she will not accept. A few years ago I had the mind-boggling experience of her telling me that my eyewitness report of a riot could not be true because she had read about it in the newspaper. This is an intelligent woman and a close relative. Not only that, she is a refugee from Nazism and saw her own parents taken away to be killed by a modern nation-state ruled by an elected government.

Ironically, it is her experiences and those of others of my relatives who escaped the Nazis, and my thinking about my great-grandparents and others who were murdered in the death camps, that first informed my political thoughts and convinced me of the duty of every individual to keep a careful watch on the actions of the state and to take responsibility for their own actions. At what point does a person say 'no'? When they are routinely carrying out illegal stop and searches to intimidate demonstrators? When they are ordered to attack a group of people sitting down in a road with batons and pepper spray? When they arrest people who are suspected of no criminal offence and lock them up for years in conditions worse than prison, with no clear legal status? When the army sends them into an imperial war to massacre civilians? Or when one day in the future they find themselves bulldozing corpses into a pit in England's green and pleasant land? Once this process begins it is very difficult to draw the line.

So, yesterday I was stopped and searched by the British Transport Police Counter-Terrorism unit in Bethnal Green Tube station. According to them (I haven't checked the law yet) Section 44 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act gives them a permanent stop and search power on London Transport. They stopped me because they "have to be seen to stop a cross-section of people" - i.e. I was the token white guy in an Asian area, so that they don't look like the racists they are. I don't suppose they will be doing stop and searches at stations in rich white areas like Hampstead or Kensington. Most people seeing this authoritarian pantomime will assume that because they're doing it, it must be necessary, which justifies them doing it (Muslims will probably not believe this as they know what's going on better than anyone, having been at the sharp end for so many years, but they're mostly too scared to speak out about it). So the security state tautologically justifies itself. If there are terrorist attacks, it justifies security. If there are no terrorist attacks, it justifies security because it proves that it works. Does anyone remember the ricin plot? How could anyone forget after the weeks of hysterical newspaper headlines? But where were the weeks of headlines when it turned out to be a load of old nonsense made up by the security services, no-one was charged, and the various supposedly suspicious substances were various harmless household products? Where were the weeks of hysterical headlines when a white racist was arrested with a massive stash of explosives and a rocket launcher in his house, and where were the earnest newspaper editorials agonising about the contradictions of white culture and encouraging white community leaders to watch out for extremism? In the mass media in general, and almost everywhere in London, there is a contant bombardment of panic and suspicion. The posters read, "Be suspicious..." this is terribly damaging to the social fabric. I feel that we are on the brink of a social catastrophe that will see the Western nation-states descend into a storm of totalitarian killing. Given the hypnotised and self-alienated depths to which mass culture has descended, it may be too late to stop it. My worst nightmare may be coming true in my lifetime.