Wednesday 11 September 2013

So I took cake to a police station last Saturday

It was going to be a good Saturday. I've had a very stressful summer, and I've been ill and had to miss a lot of things, but I was on the mend. That day I was going to have to myself. I was going to play games and perhaps do a bit of cooking and cleaning, but nothing major. I was going to be lazy and I was not going to worry. Well, I might be a little tense for a few hours: a few of my friends were going on a demonstration, but they'd said they were going to be careful and move away from anywhere that looked like trouble. They'd text me when it was over and they were safe. It was going to be fine.

I love old-fashioned games like Theme Hospital and Roller Coaster Tycoon. Roller Coaster Tycoon 2 has some pretty high targets to win the levels - "Have 3,500 guests in your park by the end of year 5" - so sadly you don't get time to enjoy the levels and build roller coasters bit by bit; there is, however, a tool to design them in advance. So I was playing around with types of roller coaster I don't usually build. Excitement rating this, intensity rating that, nausea rating the other. Oh, a text. From a close friend. "Kettled at Tower Hill approach. S with me. Arrest looks likely."

My insides shrank and everything around me seemed to fall away for a moment. My heart began to pound painfully. It was hard to breathe. There was nothing I could do. I could only send a supportive reply back, trying not to sound too scared, and attempt to carry on playing, but it was hopeless. I went onto Twitter to see what was happening. My hands were shaking so much I could hardly type. My phone, which is old and unreliable, kept saying "Message sending failed". I couldn't even send words of hope.

Twitter was well aware of the kettle. A picture began going round - the best description I saw of it was "Overkill much?" As you see, the people in it are very much outnumbered by police. I had no idea if that was where my friends were or whether there were other kettles too.

I soon found out that only a few of my friends had gone on the demo and that most, like me, were awaiting news. For a while things seemed to look up. The next text said: "Still kettled in a group of 50 people at Tower Hill Approach. Maybe won't be mass arrested because I can't see any arrest buses, only lots of cops, police horses and about 5 vans. I think they are just keeping us here."

It's true - you do breathe a loud sigh of relief. I felt a bit weak. But my brain was racing. They might be in the kettle for a very long time. Should I take some food there, to greet them with as they got out? Would that put me in danger too? Where were they - and why? What had they done to get kettled? What was going on? I knew my friends wouldn't do anything stupid like be violent . . . but I have heard some horrible stories of police accusing people of being violent - "Stop kicking me, stop punching me" - while they are standing still. You don't believe this kind of thing when you first hear it. But when you hear it from many sources . . . and when incidents such as Ian Tomlinson, Jody McIntyre, Alfie Meadows and Jean Charles de Menezes seem to be increasingly common; when you've been to Taking Liberties and seen the footage of police attacks on a road you used to walk up every day in Brighton; when your own close relatives have been shoved around, trampled on by a horse and forbidden to walk up the street they live on because they live near a football ground - well, those safe certainties start feeling cornered, and wherever they try to run, there's nowhere to go.

I asked my friends what I should do if they were arrested. I was told to tell another friend, and to call Green and Black Cross. They joked nervously about waving from the kettle picture and assured me that even if they were arrested, they would be OK. Messages were getting through very slowly - possibly, I panicked a few times, the network had been blocked, or more likely there was just a high volume of texts going back and forth. Then I heard that another friend had been injured. She has a long term spinal injury and is often in a lot of pain. She tried to explain this to the police, but a policewoman hit her with her baton so hard that she fell to the ground. Several of us tweeted to the @MetPoliceEvents account to ask that she be let out as she needed an ambulance. It was a long time before they let her go. One other friend was allowed to accompany her. It turned out it was a blessing in disguise, because as they got into the ambulance, several unmarked buses arrived and the mass arrests began.

Talking to another friend who'd stayed at home, I learned of a lovely activity called "arrestee support", where you go and wait outside police stations to help activists as they are released. They are often very hungry or thirsty, released into an area they don't know, and if they're especially unlucky they've had their possessions confiscated so are unable to buy bus or train tickets home. I had been sitting still in a fizz of adrenaline for the last few hours, and doing something positive would make me feel better, so I went to bake some little chocolate cakes. I'd bought a jar of Nutella only to find out I didn't like it much, so I spooned the chocolate cake mixture into the tins, put a teaspoon of Nutella on top of it, and then another teaspoonful of cake mix on top of that. I ended up with 28 little cakes, and ran back upstairs to hear of any news - had the police followed my friends into the ambulance, or had they been let go? - where should I take the cakes? - did anyone know?

It wasn't yet certain where the arrestees were being taken. I tweeted out to ask if anyone would need the cakes and initially got no reply. However, I heard from my friend who had been hurt. Her injury might well have been inflamed and she was in a lot of pain and keeping very still, but she didn't need to go to hospital. She was going to give it a few hours and then three of them were going to do arrestee support. A fourth friend and I asked if we could join.

I got a reply to my cake tweet advising me to ask Green and Black Cross. I was under the impression that they provided legal support, not cake delivery, but they promptly sent me a number to call. It felt most silly and surreal. "Hello, this is @PenguinGalaxy . . ." "Ah, are you the baking lady? Can I give you a call back in just a moment?" "Yeah, sure!" It was late afternoon now. Over two hundred people had been arrested. Twitter was bickering and the last few cakes were refusing to rise because they'd had to go in the bottom of the oven and had cooked too slowly. It was a mundane day. But I just felt I had to do something.

Green and Black Cross called me back and told me that people were being taken to four police stations: Colindale, Sutton, Lewisham and Croydon. I hadn't even heard of the first two and the line was bad, so I had to get them to repeat it. I told them my friends and I would like to help out. They gave me another number to call "to coordinate arrestee support". I said I would pass this on to a friend who has better connections than I do. I'm not very political, I'm not in any activist group - I currently don't call myself an antifascist or anything like that - and I would be a useless coordinator. I could simply see that a lot of people had been arrested for not very much and would need some help - and I wanted to learn more about what went on.

I passed on the information, waited a little while, and soon heard back that they'd decided which station to go to and that they'd meet me there. What with Green and Black Cross calling me "the baking lady", and there being ten times as many people arrested as there were cakes, I added some more supplies - tissues, some Pepsi given free with a pizza, plasters - and went via the supermarket where I bought crisps, chocolate, fruit juice and disposable cups. Money is very tight, but I found all the special offers.

It was a long journey to the police station, and it was in an area out of my pocket A-Z, so I had to rely on a pencil drawing I'd done using Google Maps earlier (my phone is too old to cope with maps). It was almost dark by the time I arrived. Finding the police station was easy, but none of my friends were there. I stood in the deepening blue air and looked around for them, then got out my phone - and saw one of them emerge from the building. I was astonished. What were they doing in there? Was it safe? Turned out, it was. They were all inside - details were not taken on the spot. The ones who'd been kettled apologised again and again for my worry earlier, even though they'd hardly asked for it to happen and had suffered much worse than I. I hugged them all emotionally - my injured friend very carefully - feeling a great rush of gladness that they were safe. Except one, who was very busy with a notebook, talking to a man I didn't know. He was shaking and visibly on edge; he was one of the arrestees, the first to be let out. He'd come on one of two large buses full of people. It seemed that Green and Black Cross had set my friend to collecting information for them - what people were arrested for, their bail conditions, when they'd have to go back, and did they have a solicitor or anyone who could give them legal advice?

It was a small waiting room in a super-modern building, looking rather like the leisure centre of a university campus or similar, and it was full of people. Several clearly spoke little or no English and seemed to be anxious relatives of arrestees. There were six seats, not enough for us all, and naturally much pacing about. The door kept opening automatically and each time its metal handles clanged loudly on the metal railings outside. I didn't really know what I could usefully do, so I opened up some of the bags and boxes of food. Most people didn't want anything, but the cake slowly began to disappear. I remembered the "peace" cake that got Mark Thomas's friend ordered to leave Parliament Square. (I keep meaning to take a cake with "peace" iced on it to Parliament Square just to see what will happen, but I haven't yet got round to it!) Bit by bit, I talked with my friends and began to learn what had happened.

I have not yet heard any reports of violence. It seemed that people were being arrested for "breaching sections 12 and 14" - all they knew was that they were walking up an empty street, some with banners, some without, and hadn't even met the EDL, when they saw police coming at them from all sides and were unable to escape. It seemed that certain areas had been designated as out of bounds without warning. Figures of arrests were between two and three hundred. The EDL (English Defence League, one of the two main far-right organisations in the UK, which has links to Anders Breivik) had chosen Tower Hamlets as their marching point - specifically Altab Ali Park - because of its large population of ethnic minorities and their apparent belief that it is "under Sharia law". (They do have some rather odd beliefs, such as that Brighton Pavilion is a mosque.) As far as we knew then, two EDL members had been arrested (I have since heard fourteen), including Tommy Robinson again. I had seen a tweet earlier that they were extremely drunk and were escorted by many police across London Bridge, but I don't know if it was true, or, if it was, whether this "escort" was protecting or restricting them or both.

It was a long time before anyone else was released. The next person out was a quiet girl who'd come in from outside London by herself. She hadn't been charged, but bailed and told to return in late October. She was extremely thirsty. The policeman with her directed her to the nearest train station, but by this time it was too late for her to get home. My note-taking friend told us how she'd felt to be arrested at a demonstration and then released in Basildon, which is way out of London, with no means of contacting anyone or getting home, but how she'd been helped by arrestee support.

Suddenly another bus arrived. It was a red, unmarked single decker, and it was full of people sitting very still. I learned later that they were all handcuffed. The kettling had begun some eight hours before now. I had never seen so many people with such miserable expressions. My friends ran outside and shouted greetings to them. I followed and tried to give them a supportive smile, wondering what they were all thinking, how much longer it would be before we saw them again. A policeman told us to move away and that we could be "arrested for obstruction". We were standing on the pavement, well out of anybody's way! "Are you proud of yourself, supporting fascists?" one of my friends asked him as we went back inside.

Gradually it got darker. The windows suddenly became mirror-like instead of transparent. A few more people were released. Their bail conditions forbade them to "engage in demonstration within the M25 where the English Defence League, English Volunteer Forces or British National Party are present". In other words, the far-right organisations may protest, but those who protest against them may not.

Some people released had heard of Green and Black Cross; others had not. One was in a state of shock because his solicitor had told him that his flat in the North of England may have been raided by the police - it was uncertain whether it had or not.

A couple with limited English arrived and waited a long time at the counter to be seen. I tried to work out whether they were more worried relatives or here for something else, but I wasn't sure. In the end, I just offered them cake. The woman took one with a huge smile and then began to cry. She didn't have any tissues, so I went and got her some as discreetly as I could. She managed to say "It gets better!" and soon after that, they were called through a door. I never saw them come out. Other relatives had less luck. Some were there from when I arrived to when I left three hours later. One woman who had initially refused any of our supplies changed her mind. Eventually a policewoman called four or five of them forward and told them that only one would be allowed to come inside to speak to them. I heard her say "Do you speak English?" and "I don't care" several times in quite an aggressive voice. It was a stark contrast to how wonderful the police had been the day I called 999 when a man had been attempting suicide at Leytonstone station. I felt bewildered and sad.

One of our group offered the girl who couldn't get home a place to stay. Two of us had nasty colds and badly needed hot drinks; my friend who'd texted me went off in search for anywhere still selling them. There was a toilet, but it had no lock and no paper; I made a mental note to bring lots of tissues next time I did arrestee support.

I went off in search of my coffee-bearing friend and when we got back, two more buses of arrestees had arrived. I went to the gates, unable to believe my ears - I had already heard that all the cells were full. There was a double decker and a single decker bus, and they were parked behind the building, the engines and lights still on, and nobody was coming out of them. Evidently the buses themselves were being used as holding cells. It was then that one of the recently released people - a remarkably cheerful person who'd come from the South of England and refused a cake due to being a vegan - told us that nobody was allowed to talk on the bus. "Sounds like school!" I said. He laughed. "Yes, exactly that!" We could only laugh and try to remain upbeat and strong. We were in shock, but would keep our spirits up for each other.

How could the figure be only up to three hundred, I wondered? It looked like nearly that many were at this police station alone. And people were only being released every half hour or so. How long would it take to release them all?

We all talked, a little. One of the arrestees rolled up his trouser leg. The worried relatives were intrigued to see it was covered with heavily inked telephone numbers. He explained that it's a standard activist tactic: pieces of paper and mobile phones can be removed, but your limbs cannot. My limited experience has taught me that you should use a thicker pen than a biro - upper arms are very soft.

I went home at elevenish, so as not to miss the last trains. I later learned that three of my friends stayed until 2am, when a new shift of support workers took over. Between some time before 8pm, and 2am, my friends helped fifteen people. (A couple more hadn't wanted to talk to us - understandably, since we could have been anyone.) Of these fifteen, three were simply members of the public who had had nothing to do with the demonstration, but had simply been walking up the street and then driven into the kettle. By about 9am the next day, Green and Black Cross tweeted that everyone was out of that police station. My estimates of how many had arrived were too high; "only" 286 people had been arrested - the largest number in one go since at least the student protests of 2010.

It was a slightly shattering experience. One assumes that you're safe from arrest until you break the law. I've yet to hear any evidence that the people arrested were even disruptive - none of the people that I saw released were charged with anything. That's not to say that I think antifascists are all completely peaceful. I don't. Actually, I don't call myself one because I know they include some very unpleasant people. I'd tagged along on one demonstration before and overheard some sexist and ableist remarks being made, as well as a lot of showing off. But the notion of antifascists being a screaming, violent, uncontrollable mob - the picture we get many times through the media and through other people's remarks - was utterly at odds with the calmness I'd seen on Saturday, the support and care people showed each other, the quiet and controlled behaviour. One would have thought that for 286 arrests, there must have been some kind of riot. But I have heard (only through rumours; sadly, when there is no trust, most information comes via rumour, so we can never be certain of anything) that mass arrests were planned that day. And one senses from the bail conditions that the aim is to put people off demonstrating.

Demonstrating is a fundamental human right. The EDL have the right to speak their minds, and so do antifascists. I have seen the sentiment that antifascists are removing the EDL's right to peaceful assembly by demonstrating and using phrases such as "they shall not pass". I have also heard the contrary sentiment that fascism and racism are illegal, so why should the EDL get to march at all? My personal take is the least "controlled" of all: that the EDL do have the right to demonstrate, and the rest of us have the right to tell the EDL that they are neither right nor welcome. To deny anyone the right to say what they think, no matter how horrible it is, opens up too many doorways to abuse (I wrote more about this here). But since the antifascists are not law-makers, they cannot forbid the EDL to assemble; they can, however, disrupt such assemblies - disruption often being a very peaceful and effective tool. But let's face it, choosing to march in Tower Hamlets is not abstract debate or a polite message to Parliament. If it's not a deliberate attempt to intimidate and inflame, I don't know what it is.

One of the arrestees told me that she was sure the police dislike the EDL and the antifascists equally. I have heard others claim that the police favour the EDL. I don't know. I only know that, last Saturday, I witnessed a very heavy-handed official response to people's expression of their views. And I know that since the ghastly Woolwich murder, some of my non-white friends are afraid whenever they are out in public. One has been stopped and held up for a long time arriving at Glasgow airport, while white people who were being loud and disruptive were waved through without question. The atmosphere is fairly easygoing here in Ilford, with its large Asian population - indeed, people in shops especially seem to be going out of their way to be extra nice. But when I go to other places, I feel the tension.

I have not named which police station I went to and have avoided revealing any details of my friends or anyone else there or marching. If you were there and would like to reveal yourself, please by all means do so, but please respect others' privacy.

And I hope you got some of my cake.


Andy said...

Wow... that's left me speechless. But well done for playing your part in supporting the victims of what seems unquestionably to be heavy-handed policing...

Alice said...

Thanks, Andy! And all the rest of you who have read and shared this.

Here is an excellent blog about some of the history behind such marches, making the important point that fascism doesn't come randomly from nowhere and is not restricted to the ignorant. And a nice little mention of arrestee support :-)

DBOLer said...

So this is how it was. THX