A few months ago, as I was out buying some milk from the local convenience store, I was quite stunned to read the headline story in the local paper:
ARMED police forced a busy Sheffield road to close after marksmen swooped on a car while hunting for a suspect.
City Road, between Wulfric Road and Cradock Road, was blocked by police cars holding up trams, buses and motorists.
Eyewitnesses told The Star the officers searched local businesses and police appeared to be focusing on a vehicle on City Road.
Tram passenger Stewart Dalton said his journey was interrupted when an unmarked police car stopped ‘abruptly’ outside a barber’s shop, blocking the tramlines.
Another eyewitness, Steve Smith, was also interviewed:
Mr Smith said the police officers arranged themselves in a circle as they surrounded the vehicle.
“There were officers with hard hats, big rifles and stun guns. There were a lot of people looking at what was going on.”
Mr Smith added he saw ‘at least three’ marksmen and felt concerned after seeing the incident develop.
“I’m quite shocked to see something like this happening,” he said.
Having been shaken a little just reading about such an incident so close to my home, those who actually witnessed the events first-hand must have been shocked in the extreme. Armed police “order[ing] customers out of the shop at gunpoint” to be “frisked and held until the incident was over”. Obviously there was a good reason for this excess show of police force…
A South Yorkshire Police spokeswoman confirmed officers stopped a vehicle on the road yesterday morning ‘in relation to an ongoing policing operation’.
“Armed officers assisted as a matter of precaution, the road was temporarily closed for about 30 minutes but was fully re-opened at around 10.40am. No arrests have been made and inquiries continue. Police would like to reassure the public they can safely go about their daily business.”
What? No arrests. And no national news reports. Click here to read the full article in The Star.
I recall this story because I was reminded of it on hearing about the M6 Megabus fiasco on Thursday morning [July 5th]. Here’s the story from BBC news, which begins “Armed police swooped on a coach on the M6 Toll motorway in the West Midlands”2:
[Earlier,] Armed police officers could be seen next to the single-decker coach on the southbound carriageway, as passengers were led off one by one.
Passengers were made to sit on the northbound carriageway, apart from one another, while surrounded by officers.
Sniffer dogs and forensic officers were also brought in to aid the search, as officers in forensic suits and others in military fatigues checked the area.
The Ministry of Defence confirmed military personnel were assisting police, at their request, under routine procedure.
One of the passengers on the bus told the BBC that she had no idea what was going on, that she didn’t see anything supsicious [sic], and wasn’t told why they were pulled over.
She was made to sit cross-legged on the tarmac and still was not told what was happening. She said the whole experience had been very “scary and frightening”.
And the reason this time…?
A police source told BBC Radio WM a passenger was seen pouring a liquid into a box, which then started smoking.
That was enough apparently for calling out police from the West Midlands and Staffordshire forces, not to mention the fire service and ambulance crews. It was enough to close carriageways in both directions on one of our busiest motorways for four hours, to bring in sniffer dogs and forensic teams, and most disturbingly “military personnel [who] were assisting police, at their request, under routine procedure”. Yes, under routine procedure! On this occasion, one of the eyewitnesses, Nick Jones, who was four vehicles behind the coach when police stopped traffic told the BBC:
“I’ve never seen so many ambulances turning up, also armed police, helicopter and dozens of police cars.”
Another eye-witness Barry Jarvis said:
“It was very puzzling as to what was going on at first as there weren’t that many police there.
“It was only after 20 minutes or so when all these unmarked cars [were] coming through that we thought something major was happening.”
Click here to read the full BBC news report.
I think it is fair to conclude that “something major was happening”, but what was the actual reason for such a staggering show of police and military strength. Well, here’s a BBC news article posted just a few hours later:
Staffordshire Police have said they are not linking an incident on the M6 Toll motorway with terrorism.
So no arrests again. But plenty of sound and fury signifying nothing. Then some empty (or should I say ‘robust’) apologies and reassurances that this “multi-agency response” was “swift”, which it was, and “proportionate”, which it blatantly wasn’t.
Click here to read the complete BBC news article and watch video of the police statement.
This latest incident has since caused me to recall a different occasion when the police took exception to a coach load of passengers, although not because “they had received a report from a genuinely concerned member of the public”, but because the passengers in question were heading off for an anti-Iraq War protest outside the RAF Base in Fairford, Gloucestershire. Although the passengers on this occasion [March 2003] represented no threat whatsoever, the coaches were nevertheless held up for two hours by a hundred riot police, whilst the passengers and their possessions were searched under the Terrorism Act. Denied their right to protest they were all then “escorted” back to London.
This incident neatly book-ends Chris Atkins’ excellent film Taking Liberties (released in June 2007 and freely available online). It’s a documentary that should be watched by everyone who is concerned by the on-going erosion of our civil liberties (and that really should be everybody living in Britain right now), and it’s also a film that’s well worth watching a second time, as I discovered a few nights ago:
You can watch the complete documentary here on Ustream (albeit annoyingly interrupted by advert breaks).
Back then, the Terrorism bills were already being used against peaceful dissenters, and this is something I had personally experienced in the days immediately prior to the London bombings.
A mini-G8 summit had come to Sheffield. It was an event that passed off almost unreported but, and in spite of the lack of media exposure, a hundred or so peaceful protesters ventured out into the city centre. Once there, we were confronted by a large number of regular police officers. Police marksmen had also been stationed on many of the rooftops. The regular police formed a line of blue across Fargate, the main shopping street, and for whatever reason (since the site of the actual meeting was unknown to most of us) the protesters assembled in front of them. A little later, three vans filled with riot police pulled up. These promptly disembarked and assembled into another line that looked on menacingly. In the meantime, the main police line allowed protesters and others to cross through but only from one direction. When a friend of mine tried to go back to where he had originally come from, he was told that if he continued he would be arrested. “Under what law?” he’d asked. The Terrorism Act was the answer, of course.
A week or so later, I’d also encountered another high-visibility police presence around the Edinburgh march against the actual G8 summit, with even more marksmen and more officers pointing their cameras towards us. This protest again represented no threat whatsoever to the G8 meeting, which was in any case being held some miles away at Gleneagles. Indeed, it was an almost embarrassingly non-confrontational assembly. What little bite it might have had – and it didn’t have much once the organisers had decided, in their infinite wisdom, to banish politics for the day and focus only on the vacuous demand to “Make Poverty History” – was entirely stolen by Bob Geldof’s simultaneous and self-aggrandising “Live 8” gig. “What the hell was all that about?” I wondered after we’d returned to our hostel – why did any of us even bother to turn out at all? But I am digressing.
Guardian journalist Rachel Shabi wrote a brilliant article previewing the protests at the G8, although one that I came across only later, which perfectly conveyed my feelings at the time. In the same piece, she also detailed the new measures being brought in to stifle “illegitimate” protests (as opposed to the all-too-legitimate protest I’d been a part of), as well as the extraordinary level and cost of security that had been put into place around the Gleneagles summit itself:
We are about to witness how “illegitimate” protest is dealt with at the G8 summit. Already, anti-G8 protesters-to-be say they have been intimidated by police and now fear attending demonstrations. Hundreds of individuals have been filmed going into public meetings held by peaceful protest groups. More have been searched, visited at home, had notes and computers seized, and been offered cash rewards for information on other protesters.
Meanwhile at Gleneagles, rings of steel fencing surround the hotel grounds. More than 10,000 police will be in force, along with a reported 2,000 US marines, an SAS team and specially trained snipers. The area will be riddled with roadblocks and exclusion zones – protesters aren’t allowed to march near the hotel. All this security is estimated to cost around £100m. We can’t tell for sure because there’s a blanket information ban on preparations for the summit.4
As if all of this wasn’t already bad enough, and slap bang in the middle of the G8 summit, we were hit by the London bombings. Blair immediately rushed back to the capital and, before you could say Jack Straw (or on this occasion Charles Clarke), we were being made ready for yet another draft of anti-terrorist legislation: The Terrorism Act 2006. With a few strokes of the pen, still more of our civil liberties had been stolen from us, and all in the name of security.
Comparing these recent incidents to the situation back in 2007, when the horrors of the July 7th bombings of 2005 (which also feature in Atkins’ documentary) were still fresh in our minds, and it’s not difficult to see how the world has changed again. The most staggering example being the security measures at this year’s Olympics. Anti-aircraft missiles on top of London flats and battleships in the Thames. Welcome to Airstrip One!
The Overton Window, that narrow range of ideas that the general public responds to as acceptable, is being stretched again and again, just a little wider each time. A racheting up that started in Britain even before the September 11th attack thanks to Blair’s first Terrorism Act that was passed in 2000. And ever since then, no crisis is wasted, no opportunity missed.
At this point, I’d like to make a comparison. Anyone over the age of about twenty will be uncomfortably familiar with the threat of IRA atrocities. The IRA were a very real and ever-present danger. A group who in October 1984 had bombed the party in government at the Grand Hotel in Brighton and on a second occasion, in February 1991, mortar bombed John Major’s official residence in Downing Street. The ordinary person also had good reason to be concerned, public spaces having been frequently targeted throughout the seventies, eighties and well into the nineties.
Back then our governments had properly advised everyone to keep alert. Keep a look out for unattended luggage; this was the main thing. A few sensible precautions and nothing more. No paranoia descended over our nation. No calls for heavyweight legislation (at least not on the UK mainland). But then, of course, for much of that period we had enough on our minds already with the other very real threat of Cold War annihilation.
So the old bogeyman was the Soviet Union, but that apparently went away – in fact it didn’t, but that’s another story. Meanwhile today’s official bogeyman is al-Qaeda, which is actually quite an improvement when you think about it. After all, al-Qaeda don’t have the second largest nuclear arsenal in the world. They just have a few fanatics with home-made bombs – so just why are we being told to be more afraid than ever?
Since September 11th, right throughout the whole period of this ludicrous “War on Terror”, successive British governments have all been behaving hysterically. Amplifying public fears in order to make wrongful arrest and imprisonment appear justified as necessary evils. This endless war against an altogether nebulous and shape-shifting enemy has also been used to justify and permit such truly Orwellian measures as indefinite detention in places like Guantanamo Bay, where facilities are soon to be upgraded at a cost of $40 million, along with “extraordinary rendition”, which also continues under Obama.
Click here to watch the same interview and read a transcript on the Democracy Now! Website.
When torture becomes permissible on the grounds that it is necessary to defend our freedom then it doesn’t take a genius to understand that we are rapidly approaching the rocky shores of La-La Land. Which brings me back to the events of Thursday morning on the M6. Troops of armed police and military closing a motorway because someone on a coach was looking a bit suspicious, or, as the official story now has it, “smoking a fake cigarette” .
If an emergency response of this kind had happened twenty years ago I feel sure that it would have caused a storm of public outrage. Twenty years ago it would also have been considered absolutely unacceptable for police, let alone military officers, to hold perfectly innocent citizens at gunpoint. These days, however, a lame apology is deemed more than sufficient for the matter to rest. The media are quick to move on, the passengers feel happy just to be alive (or so we are informed), and meanwhile the message has been reinforced that we all just need to “keep calm and carry on… following orders”; the Overton Window having been pushed an inch or two wider again.
Fear, Joseph Goebbals once said, was the approach the Nazis had used to keep control of the German people. A cast-iron way of controlling the masses, it was fear that helped to instill compliance and stifle the voice of all who opposed the tightening bonds of tyranny. Fostering fear was simply the easiest and most effective way to keep the people in their boxes. It still is.
1 From an article entitled “Police marksmen swoop on car”, written by Richard Blackledge, published in The Star on March 8, 2012. http://www.thestar.co.uk/news/local/police-marksmen-in-swoop-on-car-1-4322525
2 From an article entitled “M6 Toll Megabus coach stopped by armed police”, published by BBC News on July 5, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-18719962
3 From an article entitled “M6 Toll Megabus alert: ‘Not terrorist attack’”, published on BBC News on July 5, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-18725577
4 From an article entitled “The war on dissent”, written by Rachel Shabi, published in the Guardian on July 2, 2005. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2005/jul/02/development.g8