Sunday, January 08, 2006

A Free Country

This is a story from September of last year so it might be familiar to you. I'd heard it mentioned in passing a few times but it happened around the same time as the infamous Walter Wolfgang incident so it didn't get as much coverage.

So what is the difference between a terrorist and a peaceful protestor? One person who might know is John Carr, who, like Walter Wolfgang was arrested during the Labour Party conference in Brighton. His crime?
John Catt was wearing a T-shirt proclaiming "Bush Blair Sharon to be tried for war crimes torture human rights abuse" and, lower down, "the leaders of rogue states". The stop-and-search form filled out by the police officer stated, under grounds for intervention, "carrying plackard [sic] and T-shirt with anti-Blair info". The purpose of the stop and search was stated as "terrorism". So now we know. For the Sussex police, at any rate, an anti-Blair slogan is a ground for suspecting terrorism.
Stories like these are not surprising anymore but just stop and think about that for a moment if you can. Grounds for police intervention:
Carrying plackard and T-shirt with anti-Blair info.
This man was arrested and searched under the Terrorism Act because he was exercising his democratic right to protest against the policies of the government of the day. He wasn't somewhere he shouldn't have been and he wasn't even heckling a git. The police officers involved apparently believed that these anti-Blair slogans were reason enough to suspect that Mr Carr was a terrorist. Did I mention that Mr Carr is eighty years old and served with the RAF in the Second World War?

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, this is, when you really think about the implications, totally and utterly beyond the pale. Mr Wolfgang's rough ejection from the hall of the conference was seen by many people watching on TV and it shocked the nation. The New Labour spin machine went into overdrive almost immediately - it was an isolated incident, it was the work of over-zealous security types (they are volunteers after all), there's no way that the Prime Minister would sanction this sort of heavy handed silencing of dissent...

It's just bull, isn't it? To abuse one pensioner may be regarded as misfortune; to abuse two looks like an organised policy of an authoritarian government. I do not use the word abuse lightly here; what happened in both these cases. The fundamental rights of both men were abused. It is an abuse of the very freedoms that these men defended, defended for people like us, in World War II. And, of course, these arrests are an indefensible abuse of power.

The question is, what is it about a person with an anti-Blair T-shirt which makes the police think they're more likely to be a terrorist than anyone else? There is no rational justification for such an argument. Is a terrorist really likely to have an anti-Blair message emblazened on his T-shirt? "Right, I'm off to attack the PM. I've got my bomb, now where's my T-shirt...?" It's laughable. Ah, but the evil terrorists will use the peaceful protestors as cover for their nefarious activities, says the government. Well, yes they might do that, but they could just as easily pretend to be Blair supporters or anyone else for that matter. In fact, a Blair supporter disguise would make it less likely that they'd be stopped and searched so it'd make the most sense (from the terrorist's point of view).

The truth is that police are obviously under great pressure to keep dissenting voices as far away from the Prime Minister as possible.

Lord Falconer said this of the new law prohibiting unauthorised demonstrations in parliament square:
The idea that we take a measure, which is a public order measure, designed to protect our Parliament building, as depriving us of freedom of speech is ridiculously overdone.
It's about protection. Maya Evans threatened the security of parliament by quietly reading the names of the British soldiers killed in Iraq at the Cenotaph. Her arrest was a public order measure. She might have been a terrorist, for goodness sake.

Of course, a terrorist dressed as a carol singer would have been home and dry. What is it exactly about two people reading out names which makes them a risk to public order? And what possible argument could justify the claim that a group of over a hundred people constitutes less of a risk to the same? There is no argument. This law is not about protection, it is about politics. That Blair and his lapdog Lord can even pretend otherwise is an insult to the Brtish people.

Does it make you angry too? I hope so.

Personally, I'm a passive sort by nature and I'm strongly opposed to violence in almost any circumstance.* The thing is, what's happening in the UK under this government has given me a new insight into how extremism develops. It's something I never managed to achieve during my four years studying international relations (I learned it then but I feel I know it now, if you see what I mean). Not that I'm about to do anything silly obviously, but a small window has been opened into that dark world. (I think Tim said something similar a while back but can't find the link. Updated - here it is).

Earlier today, I was thinking about direct action, something of a first for me. I wondered what we could do to get Blair to actually pay attention to us. Is there some means by which we can force him into a proper debate about these issues? He's clearly not going to give such a debate voluntarily because he knows he's defending the indefensible. What can we do?

And then I wondered how often Tony Blair actually meets a genuine "real person". Not a colleague or a civil servant or a party activist, or a bused-in flag waver, but a normal person. Perhaps a public spirited individual could challenge Blair at a public appearance, as has happened in the past. But do you think he ever puts himself in a position where thay might happen these days? How often? I don't know but I do know its not often. For the most part, he takes refuge in his very own mobile ivory tower. He probably doesn't even realise that its actually a prison he has built for himself.

He is immune to rational argument and refuses to submit to reasonable public debate, prefering instead the incessant repetition of "the message" when questioned. The frustration and anger which this cowardly, immoral, undemocratic, irresponsible behaviour generates has opened that window into extremism. That's a bleak way to finish a post but the situation is bleak.

People power (an old cliche for good reason), peacefully exercised, could yet save the day. How much do you care?

* Please note that "almost". There are times when I believe violence is the only option. I don't particularly want to go into the details of that here but I'll give the obvious example because the previous sentence looks rather ambiguous without one. UK, 1939.

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