Sunday, February 23, 2014

Why we must keep water cannon off our streets

Finding myself agreeing with senior police officers on the subject of policing protest is an unfamiliar experience for me. But it seems like the Met have outdone themselves with their latest wheeze: asking Theresa May for permission to purchase and use water cannon. Suddenly, in fighting against the Met, I’m on the same side as Ian Blair, who recently said he didn’t think a good case had been made for the use of the weapon in England and Wales; Police and Crime Commissioner Bob Jones, who’s said they would be “about as much use as a chocolate teapot”; and indeed Theresa May herself, who said in 2011: “The way we police in Britain is not through use of water cannon. The way we police in Britain is through consent of communities." (Mind you, in her recent reply to Boris Johnson’s letter on the issue, she’d changed her tune a bit, saying only that, “Like you, I am keen to ensure that forces have the tools and powers they need to maintain order on our streets” – so who knows what her position is these days.)

As my husband points out, it’s not clear why anyone would assume water cannon were innocuous, other than the fact that their name includes the word ‘water’. But, you know, it does also include the word ‘cannon’. If they were called “pressure cannons”, nobody would think they were just a thing that might get you a bit wet and cold.

Which, of course, they’re not. Even the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) acknowledges that water cannon can cause “serious injury and even death”. Liberty calls them “inflammatory, militaristic and brutal”, and the Home Affairs Select Committee has pointed out that they’re an indiscriminate weapon with a high risk of injuring innocent bystanders. German pensioner Dietrich Wagner, who was blinded by water cannon in an environmental protest (warning: the details of his injuries are seriously gruesome), recently travelled to London to warn us not to make the same mistake his country did. 

The Met would like us to believe that water cannon have become a regrettable necessity after the London riots of 2011. Almost every official document about their request opens by talking about the riots. And yet even the water cannon zealots accept that they are useless in that type of situation – what ACPO calls “agile disorder”.  This isn’t that surprising when you consider that the alleged point of water cannon is to create distance between the police and disorder – not that useful during looting, when people are already running away with the stuff. The Home Affairs Select Committee has said that deploying water cannon in the 2011 riots would have been “inappropriate as well as dangerous” – and even Bernard Hogan Howe, who’s now apparently desperate to get his hands on this new toy, said they were “not the answer”.

But this isn’t really about the riots. If this sounds like me being my usual cynical self, don’t take my word for it: the following is a direct quote from ACPO’s briefing about the plans. “There is no intelligence to suggest that there is an increased likelihood of serious disorder within England and Wales. However, it would be fair to assume that the ongoing and potential future austerity measures are likely to lead to continued protest.”

So there you have it. The Met wants to buy weaponry that can injure, blind and even kill, using the riots as a convenient excuse, but with the express intention of using it against protesters. It’s a plan so mad, so dangerous, that it’s hard to find anyone outside the Met who supports it. And yet it looks worryingly, bafflingly like they might get their way: Boris Johnson has already informed Theresa May of his “support in principle” for the request. The public consultation is open till 28th February (this Friday): it’ll take you two minutes to respond using this handy template. If you don’t want to see water cannon on our streets, now is very much the time to say so.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The politics of remembrance - postscript

I’ve just finished reading A Very Long Engagement, and thought it was very moving (once I’d managed to get past the feelings of rage against Michael Gove that arose every time I picked it up). Of course, last week the Gove-inspired debate about how we should remember the war flared up again, with the minister in charge of the commemorations saying that there would be no ‘celebration’. Historian Gary Sheffield (one of the ‘good’ academics cited in Gove’s Daily Mail piece for his attempt to rehabilitate General Haig’s reputation) was for some reason quoted in every paper calling this judgement into question, despite having previously commented that the centenary shouldn't be "a jingoistic carnival of celebration", which is basically all the minister said.

In light of all that, I thought I’d share this little passage, which is spoken by a French soldier towards the very end of the book:

“I can wait. I’ll keep waiting, for as long as it takes, for this war to be seen in everyone’s eyes for what it always was, the most filthy, savage, useless obscenity that ever there was; I’ll wait until the flags stop flying in November in front of the monuments to the dead, I’ll wait until the Poor Bastards at the Front stop gathering, wearing their damned berets and missing an arm or a leg, to celebrate what?”

What struck me on reading it was the way the wheel turns: by the time that book was published, in 1991, it’s probably fair to say that the war was seen that way. But less than 25 years later, here we are, batting back Gove’s attempts to reclaim it as a moment of national glory. And he thinks we’re the ones with politically motivated delusions about history…

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Climate criminals? The politics of The Bridge

[Warning: Contains spoilers!]

For my husband and I, this Saturday night meant one thing and one thing only: the series finale of The Bridge (or, to give it its full title, Scandi Crime Drama The Bridge). I thought it was great telly – but, at the risk of sounding totally po-faced and tedious, the whole thing was slightly marred for me by the show’s depiction of environmental protest.

It bothered me from the very first episodes, when they started investigating activists after a cell of ‘eco-terrorists’ apparently released plague bacteria to make a point about people dying from preventable diseases in the developing world (technically not actually an environmental issue, but we’ll let that slide for now). It especially irked me when they brought the Copenhagen climate summit into things, revealing that one of the suspects had been arrested there for assaulting a police officer, and trawling through police footage of protests to identify another. 

My husband, ever the voice of reason, pointed out that in The Bridge things are rarely what they seem, and that I should probably wait and see what happened next before passing judgement. And, sure enough, by about episode six the whole thing began to look like corporate conspiracy dressed up as eco-terrorism, which I was sort of on board with (though it didn’t really change the depiction of the activists themselves, except that they were dupes for some other guy with an agenda of his own). But then, in the final episode, they had to spoil it by revealing that the mastermind behind the big denouement was actually an eco-terrorist after all.

Yes, yes, I get that this is fiction, I get that they are not really suggesting that there are crazy virus-wielding hippies around every corner. But, given that environmental protesters are far more likely to be on the receiving end of police brutality than the other way around, and given that this fact is (certainly in the UK – I guess I can’t speak for Sweden and Denmark) generally not understood because of persistent media misrepresentation, I do think there are issues of responsible film making at stake when dealing with this subject.

A bit of context here. Ahead of the Copenhagen summit, Denmark passed special laws giving the police draconian new powers of arrest and detention which were condemned by Amnesty International. Suspected troublemakers could be pre-emptively detained for up to 12 hours in purpose-built cages, and disobeying police orders could get you 40 days in prison. At the summit itself, hundreds of non-violent protesters – including several people I knew – were tear gassed, water cannoned and held in appalling conditions. And all of this raised barely a murmur in the UK, because – with the honourable exception of the Guardian, which has a fantastic record on policing of protest – news reports generally portrayed the protesters as violent extremists

 So yes, when a TV programme runs an outlandish plotline about eco-terrorism, when it links the suspects to the Copenhagen protests, when it casts them as the aggressors and the police as the victims in that context, when it implicitly endorses the routine surveillance of protesters, and when it makes no effort to explore the ethical implications of any of this, I think that is political. More than anything, it’s really frustrating to see a programme I love depicting real-life activism as a sort of gateway drug to the kind of atrocity no environmentalist I know would even begin to countenance. There is a really big difference between storming a summit and murdering the ministers inside.

Maybe I’m taking all this too seriously. Maybe it's naive to expect my crime dramas to take a critical perspective on the police. Or maybe the writers thought hard about all this and decided that it wasn’t narratively possible to do anything more nuanced. Like the sad person I am, I tried to find out by asking on a live web chat with the creator last night. But it got drowned in a tidal wave of questions like ‘If Saga and Martin were biscuits, what biscuits would they be?’ and ‘I failed to pay attention to a minor plot point in episode 2, please can you explain it to me?’, so I guess I’ll never know. In the absence of further information, I will continue to feel righteously peeved. Let’s face it, that is basically my default state of mind anyway.