And learned that boredom is the British police's favourite weapon.
The author being led to the double-decker police wagons.
Boredom is the British state's primary means of political repression. In Madrid, Athens and Rome, the cops hurl out the tear gas; in London, they bore you to tears. Granted, horrifying stuff has happened to protesters at the hands of the British police – and they're not doing badly in the global surveillance stakes – but their bread and butter is boredom.
I got some first-hand experience of this myself after I was arrested while reporting at an anti-fascist demonstration on Saturday afternoon. Militant anti-fascists had taken to the streets to confront the marauding punchline that is the English Defence League, and – as is often the case with journalists – I was there to cover the occasion. (I still managed to do this – you can read the report here.)
Unfortunately, the anti-EDL march had defied the Met's strict itinerary and set off 15 minutes early, which was reason enough for the police to kettle the antifa crowd for hours on end. Eventually, we were arrested en masse. They ended up releasing most people with restrictive bail conditions that make it pretty much illegal for them to protest against fascists (or, in my case, report on those protests) in London until at least late October.
As the kettle closed in, I realised that had I been standing ten metres in either direction, I'd have avoided arrest. Instead, I was stuck there. Consensus was sure that once the EDL had been sent packing, we'd all be released. After all, what would be the point in detaining us if there were no fascists for antifa to fight?
Police kettle anti-fascist protesters in Tower Hamlets on Saturday. Photo by Henry Langston.
We were wrong. As the hours ticked by, there was still no sign of the EDL but ominously the police started to wheel portaloos into the kettle. We kicked our feet and slowly ran out of cigarettes. Then word started filtering through that arrests were being made in another kettle and the tedium turned into agitation. Some empty red double-deckers rolled into view. Anyone who could remember the recent BNP march in London realised immediately what this meant: we were all going to be arrested. Some decided it was better to get it over with and formed a queue towards the cuffs. Others hung back, but we were all arrested in the end.
I was led off by a member of the City of London Police. Somewhere near the beginning of his questions, he interrupted himself, looked me in the eyes and said, “I just want to let you know that I get no pleasure at all from doing this.” I wasn’t sure if it made it better or worse that we were both having a shit time.
Things really got awkward when we got on the bus. With the bottom deck full of bored looking protesters each with their own bored looking cop, I was led to the top deck. Unfortunately me and my policeman were the only people up there. The cop seemed pretty determined to make friends, so we exchanged stilted small talk all the way to Lewisham Police Station, like two strangers at a house party trapped by common courtesy and a queue for the toilet. He admitted that he was content in his job 90 percent of the time, but wasn't too happy about the way today had gone.
He told me that he didn’t really like the EDL. His parents were Spanish and had fled to England when the Spanish Civil War ended, having fought against the fascists. The EDL are hardly Franco, but it seemed a little miserable that the son of people who had risked their lives to fight fascism was currently rounding up anti-fascists and journalists.
After arriving at Lewisham police station, we were all led out to join a queue of about 15 other protesters. As time went by, the queue increasingly resembled the line for the world's most paranoid nightclub, one overzealous bouncer to every punter. Nothing really happened for about four hours. There was more awkward small talk between cops and perps. Absolutely nobody wanted to be there.
At all times, from my arrest onwards, I'd taken every opportunity to point out that I am a journalist, not a protester. It made absolutely no difference. Eventually, we made it inside to a little caged waiting room. Just before I was processed, my arresting officer was given leave to go home. He tapped me and said, “Take it easy, buddy.” Frankly I wasn't being given much option, so I continued to take it easy at her Majesty's pleasure.
I was called in and stood behind a counter while my rights were read to me, before I was photographed and had my fingerprints taken. This made me think the whole thing was more an exercise in intelligence gathering, rather than simply being a lazy way of ensuring there were no clashes in Tower Hamlets that day.
I was put in a cell. This was just until they had verified that I was who I said I was, they explained. This despite that fact they had already asked me for my address about five times, checked my name against my cards and then again against the electoral roll.
I think I was in there for half an hour or so. It was long enough to check out the bed (thin), use the toilet (acceptable) and do a lot of pacing (tax-funded quad workout). At around 2.30AM, they gave me my stuff back and let me out of the huge enforced queue I'd been waiting in for over 12 hours. It was then I discovered that – like most of the others who'd been arrested – I was now on bail and would have to go back to the station for questioning in October, after which I could potentially be charged. My bail conditions are "not to engage in demonstration within the boundaries of the M25 where the English Defence League, English Volunteer Force or British National Party are present". Effectively they've made it a crime for me to report on the EDL. Which is bullshit.
By the time I was at the station, the police were well aware that I was a journalist. The General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists, as well as a number of colleagues and friends, had called the station vouching for me. I wasn’t fully aware of this at the point and no police officer ever acknowledged my position as a journalist. A bunch of drunken racists regularly taking to the streets is a pretty big deal and people have a right to be informed about it, meaning I should probably have a right to write about it.
Around 280 anti-fascists were arrested on Saturday. Reports suggest that, other than the few who'd been charged for GBH or resisting police arrest, they all got the same bail conditions as I did. The police have used their powers in a way that means large numbers of people who wanted to speak out against stampeding bigots will face arrest if they do so until late October. In nearly all cases, their crime was to be present at an anti-fascist march that started 15 minutes early. With only eight of the EDL being arrested, the police are leaving themselves wide open to allegations of bias in favour of the far right and against their opponents.
The police will argue that, no matter what your political stripes, if you transgress the conditions of a protest, you’re nicked (and to be fair, I do remember the police kettling the EDL for hours in Walthamstow and giving them similar treatment). On the one hand, that seems fair. But it also means that you basically can't do anything beyond ineffectual banner waving.
Somewhere during the student protests of 2011, the police realised that boredom was their best weapon. Beating up lefties looks really bad in the press, but a kettle makes for boring copy. Saturday's arrests were weaponised bureaucracy, a brilliantly British tactic of punishing people so mundanely that they won't even have a decent story to tell their mates once it's over. They're trying to make street politics so boring that no kid would ever be bothered to join in. I’m not saying I’d rather live somewhere where the police are likely to kick the eyes out of your head before they’ve even asked you a question, but political policing in this country is all the more effective for its subtlety.
Click here to see a full photo report from the day's protests and counter-protests in East London.
Click here for information about the No Future anti-fascist benefit night (featuring sets from Marcus Nasty and My Panda Shall Fly), which will raise money to help with legal cases.
Follow Simon on Twitter: @simonchilds13
More stuff about the EDL: