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THE Policing Bill now being sent back to Lords and on its way to becoming law, will ramp up police powers to unprecedented levels.
Firstly, it will give the police virtually limitless powers to declare demonstrations illegal and arrest all those in attendance, on the flimsiest of pretexts. Up until now, police could only ban demonstrations if there was a serious threat of public disorder or criminal damage.
This new Bill will allow them to do so on the grounds of such vague criteria as “serious inconvenience” or even “serious annoyance.”
Secondly, the Bill also gives the police new powers over Roma and Irish traveller communities, creating a new crime of “trespass with the intent to reside.”
This will make it easier for police to forcefully move travellers on and even confiscate their homes, effectively criminalising the traveller way of life. The Bill will also remove the requirement for police to have “reasonable grounds” before they stop and search anyone subject to a Serious Violence Reduction Order.
Despite their name, these orders can be slapped on people who have never carried out an act of violence or carried a weapon in their life — and this provision is therefore effectively a blanket power to repeatedly harass anyone on this loosely defined government list with impunity.
At the same time, the Nationality and Borders Act will allow up to six million mostly Bame people to be stripped of their British citizenship without warning, opening them up to deportation to countries they may never have visited in their lives.
Yet even before this massive increase of police powers, police are able to harass and abuse our youth with impunity.
Seventeen-year-old XR Youth activist Jo was arrested by the police after the group Palestine Action occupied the London offices of JLL Investment Management last September. JLL is the landlord of Israeli weapons manufacturer Elbit Systems, whose drones were used to bomb Gaza last summer.
The action was a success, drenching the building in red paint and shutting down its operations. But Jo was not there. The sole piece of evidence connecting them with the event appeared to be a picture of them online, taken six weeks earlier, standing next to someone who was involved.
With this evidence, the Metropolitan Police justified not only her arrest and interrogation, but also the sending of a team of officers to raid her parents’ home in Oxford, 60 miles away.
Needless to say, the charges were dropped. This is the kind of intimidation being used against activists already and will only ramp up with the passing of the Policing Bill.
And it is not only activists who are at risk. Sixteen-year-old Kaya Thomas had her head slammed against a police car last month when she was wrongly accused of involvement in an assault on a girl in Oxford city centre. It later emerged that the assailants were white, yet Thames Valley police claimed to have identified Thomas, who is black, as a suspect.
The arresting officer refused to give Thomas her name and badge number as she was legally obliged to do and the police later told the local press that Thomas had been resisting arrest. They then lost the bodycam footage after Thomas made a complaint.
I met with Thomas and her grandmother Vera at their house in the Blackbird Leys estate in Oxford. Blackbird Leys has a multi-ethnic working-class population, with large Jamaican and Irish communities dating back to its creation in the 1950s.
Vera is a legendary cook in the area, who has served free Caribbean food at many a local carnival, and Thomas is now following in her footsteps and doing a catering course.
The estate briefly gained notoriety as the joyriding capital of Britain in the 1990s and it is for this reason that it took me a while to find their house, navigating the maze of dead end streets and one way systems that city planners had introduced to thwart the joyriders.
When I arrived, Vera told me about the impact of what had happened. “They’ve done a lot of damage,” she said, “Whenever Thomas sees a police car now she’s scared.” For a while, she didn’t want to leave the house.
But after speaking out about her experiences at a public meeting and then to the local media, Thomas’s confidence seems to have grown. She appeared on the local news as well as on the front page of the local paper. I asked her how she felt about going public with her story.
“First of all, I was kind of embarrassed, ’cos everywhere I go most people know about the incident; and I thought ‘I don’t want people in my business.’ But then on the other hand it’s good because it shows that the police have no limits; it doesn’t matter what age you are, they just continue. And I’m glad that my friends witnessed it as well so they know it could happen to them as well, it could happen to anyone.”
I asked Thomas how she felt about the police. She answered with a revealing anecdote. “I was out with my cousin and three police cars went past with their sirens on. Then they pulled up next to a homeless person to move him out of the doorway he was sleeping in.
“They had gone through all that commotion just to move someone who is trying to sleep in a doorway because they haven’t got a home for the night. It’s sad but it’s almost funny because they just looked like idiots.
“If I was in an emergency, like someone was trying to rob us or something I would call them, of course, but I wouldn’t trust them. Because, for us, they take so long to come, sometimes even a week.”
Vera explains that just that week she had had to intervene when six police officers had her eldest daughter surrounded in the local park. Her daughter had been in a mental health crisis, screaming and shouting, when Vera arrived, having been alerted by a friend.
“I tried to calm her down but the police were just aggravating things, telling her to shut up and stop acting like a kid and so on. I said, ‘You can see she’s not well and I’m trying to sort this out and I don’t need your attitude.’ But if I hadn’t got there I believe she would have been arrested, or worse.”
“I think they take advantage of the job,” Thomas adds. “When they have the chance to pick on certain people, like people with mental health issues, they will do it.”
I was introduced to Thomas by Jabu Nala-Hartley, founding member of the group Mothers For Justice Ubuntu (M4JU), a grassroots collective of those with family members who have come into conflict with the criminal justice system in Oxford. Thomas’s family had got in touch with M4JU for support after her arrest and it was Nala-Hartley who had encouraged her to come to the meeting and speak out. I asked Nala-Hartley how she responds to these requests for help.
“The biggest thing is to give them support; to be there and not try to contradict them. It’s their story. One of the biggest issues we have as a black community is the issue of being believed, just getting other people to acknowledge what you have gone through.
“This is what we can offer, because a lot of these services try to blame you for your own circumstances, as if you are imagining the injustice and it’s a form of gaslighting.
“Then I explain our take, which is that any injustice that takes place, we must tackle it — we must push it to the front so that the community is informed about what is taking place.
“So with Thomas and her mother, I reassured them that we are here to offer a space of friendship and solidarity and to give guidance and push the issue as far as we can within our means.
“And when they spoke out, I really saw them breathing power to that meeting. People came out of it feeling elated because of the solidarity and empowerment of each other that was taking place.”
It is encouraging to see that, far from being intimidated or victimised, young people like Nala-Hartley and Thomas are speaking out and fighting back against their treatment and refusing to be cowed.
As Nala-Hartley puts it, “I hope that a lot of these kids can see the example of Kaya and be inspired and empowered by it. This is a young woman of small stature who was bullied and mishandled in the most inappropriate way. But she is showing that you can fight back.”
One thing is clear. If the rest of us have even only a fraction of the courageous fighting spirit of people like Thomas, Jo, Vera and Nala-Hartley, the police are going to need a lot more than even the draconian measures of the Policing Bill to hold us down.
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