What with Pussy Riot being sent to the gulag for singing a naughty song in a Church and the Julian Assange case giving everyone an opportunity to point out Ecuador’s dubious record on freedom of speech, here in the UK we’re feeling pretty smug about ourselves from a civil liberties point of view.
But are we really a cradle of freedom? Or are we getting a bit vainglorious for our boots? I can think of several recent UK events that have elicited concerned noises and furrowed brows from the token liberal on Question Time. Here’s a list off the top of my head: The pre-emptive arrests of anti-monarchists before the Royal Wedding, the increasing militarisation of the police, the cases of Ian Tomlinson and Alfie Meadows showing that it’s increasingly dangerous to be anywhere near a protest, LOCOG’s corporo-fascism during the Olympics and the fact that we’re still the most watched society in the world, with a CCTV camera on every high street/in every bedroom.
While navel-gazing about this the other day, I came across the news that two anarchists had been detained for a couple of hours by anti-terrorism cops at the airport on the way back from an international anarchist conference in St. Imier, Switzerland. The conference was the 140th anniversary of a similar anarcho-circle-jerk back in 1872, which happened as a result of the anarchists getting expelled from the global working men's organisation First International because Marx had beef with them over a disagreement about the Paris Commune.
What interested me was the fact that the two anarchists hadn’t actually done anything. They may look forward with glee to the edifice of the state and capitalism being crushed under the feet of an army of angry proles, and smashing the state and capitalism is almost certainly illegal, but for now, at least, it’s just wishful thinking on their part. The conference itself was pretty much a talking shop and had passed a resolution condemning terrorist tactics. So I decided to call them up for a chat to find out what it’s like being a victim of thought crime.
Not Sean, just another anarchist.
VICE: So, take me through what happened.
Sean, 28, anarchist and office worker: We were flying back to Switzerland and, when we got to customs, they spent ages messing around with my passport and made me sit down. Then a guy in a sharp suit came up to me and told me to come with him. He said “Do you know I am?” I replied that I assumed that it was something to do with my passport – border control, or something. He laughed and said no. Then he made me sit in a room by myself. It was about half an hour until they finally told me that they were SO15, which is anti-terrorist intelligence.
What happened in that half an hour?
I was just sat there. They made me empty my pockets and took my bag and mobile phone away from me. They were saying that they could ask for any information under these anti-terror laws and that, if I didn’t give it to them, I could get charged.
Then what happened?
They started asking questions about my politics and whether I’m an anarchist or not, what that meant to me and whether I support any illegal activities. They wanted information on people who go round and set fire to buildings at night. I don’t have that information, but they said I was lying.
What was their manner like?
They were really rude. They were trying to get a response out of me by having a go at me. One of them said, “What would you do if your mother got raped?” I can only assume that was to try to get me angry.
Wow, really? How did they end up asking you that?
Well, they were asking me about anarchism, the police and authority. I said that, in an anarchist world, you wouldn’t have a police force in the same way, that people would sort things out within the community, so he asked, “What would you do if your mother got raped?”
Oh, so you were having a philosophical discussion with the police about anarchism?
Yeah. I said they had offended me and that I didn’t want to talk any more.
Why did they choose to detain you, and how did they know you’re an anarchist?
They must be monitoring us somehow. If they had been monitoring me properly they would know that I’ve got nothing to hide.
And what happened to you, Philip?
Philip, 26, anarchist and retail worker: The questions asked of me were more bizarre. They were asking how I get to work, my personal details, whether I’m in a relationship at the moment, what I do when I’m not at work. So I guess they wanted to know how I get about in my day to day life
You’re both from Bristol, which is where the Informal Anarchist Federation (IAF) sabotaged some rail infrastructure recently. And the IAF was linked to the knee-capping of a nuclear executive in Italy in May. Do you think that’s why you got detained?
Sean: They didn’t ask about that directly. They were asking around it, maybe they wanted me to say something about that.
Philip: I’m guessing that might have played a part in it, but we don’t have any links to the IAF whatsoever. I’m part of the Anarchist Federation (AF), which is rather critical of the Informal Anarchist Federation because their ideology and tactics are quite dangerous. They endanger the lives of workers and innocent people.
Maybe the police got confused by all these acronyms. But you are an anarchist and anarchism is about revolution – potentially violent revolution.
If you look at the aims and principles of the AF, we’re not the ones who are going to start the revolution, or try to start it. It’s up to the people of this country to decide that enough is enough and they don’t want to have government or capital any more – it’s not up to us to decide that.
There are other reasons for the police to be concerned about the Bristol anarchist community. Obviously you are aware of the riots in Stokes Croft in April last year and anarchists have been involved in a lot of protests recently. And, because of the criminalisation of squatting, there have been quite a few confrontations between the police and the anarchist community on that issue as well. But these gatherings were not, in any sense of the word, illegal. The purpose of the gathering at St. Imier was for different anarchist groups from around the world to discuss how they’re organising and what they see as their idea of anarchism. Even the locals were happy to have the gathering in the village.
But the police do stop terrorism. Maybe there would have been more 7/7 type scenarios without these laws, and the police occasionally overstepping the mark is a price we have to pay?
7/7 was a tragedy, but it’s not the first time this country has experienced terrorism. And not just from Islamic fundamentalists, but from the Irish Republicans, as well. What makes terrorism today different? Why do they justify an increase in police powers when there have been worse attacks in the past? All these new laws coming in to combat extremism are becoming a lot more, er, extreme.
Having spoken to Sean and Philip, I phoned up the police for their take on it. They said the guys had been detained under Schedule 7 of the Terrorist Act 2000, which means they can detain whoever they want “without the need for any suspicion of prior authority” and ask basically anything, or else you might find yourself in the clink or hit with a fine. In fact, they're allowed to detain people for up to nine hours and strip search them, so Sean and Philip got off fairly lightly.
This isn’t the first time the cops have cracked down on people for having rebellious thoughts. Back in July 2011, the Westminster police asked residents to grass up their neighbours if they thought they were anarchists. Sean and Philip’s experience was hardly like something from Mubarak’s Egypt, but should the police have any say on what I get to think about in my own head? If we weren’t allowed to think outside the box, humanity would still be shivering in a cave trying to get the most out of a mammoth carcass and fending off Neanderthals. I reckon the police should cut this shit out.
Follow Simon on Twitter: @simonchilds13