Police harassment drove me into hospital. Why aren’t we questioning their tactics?
This article by former Netpol project worker Emily Apple was originally published on the openDemocracy website as part of its Transformation series on the politics of mental health. Content warning.
For many years I was subject to what former British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith described as “harassment style policing”. I was an organizer and participant in anti-capitalist and anti-militarist protests.
I started noticing it when they began singling me out on big demos. Hundreds of thousands of people could be present, and I would be spotted, photographed, and harassed throughout the day.
I was constantly followed, photographed and filmed by the now infamous Forward Intelligence Teams.
Sometimes I was followed so closely my friend couldn’t walk next to me, one on either side, escorting me through the demo, their black uniforms contrasting against the fluorescent jackets the rest of the police would wear. At the end of the protest they would follow me to the pub, or onto public transport if I left to meet non activist friends.
They became a constant sinister shadow: eventually they followed me into my dreams, where there was no escape.
In 2002, the arrests were averaging once a week. Altogether I’ve been arrested around 75 times. Charges ranged from the petty: ‘littering’, for throwing blood money at an arms fair dinner, to the serious: ‘violent disorder’ for an action at the Israeli Tourism Office. Sometimes I deliberately risked arrest: painting slogans at military bases, obstructing arms fairs and occupying offices.
But alongside this were the arbitrary arrests, face down on cold concrete, the sharp pinch of handcuffs and the inevitable hours in police cells, often followed by bullshit charges, harsh bail conditions, and months of the stress of fighting court cases and the threat of imprisonment. I have never been convicted of any public order or assault offence.
My bail conditions ranged from having to live at certain addresses, to not going to certain areas, not seeing certain people, curfews. The charges rarely lead to trials. More often they were dropped by the prosecution, and the ones which did, I invariably won.
I regularly found comfort in the bottom of a whiskey bottle, or several bottles of tequilla. On one occasion I ended up in hospital vomiting blood. It was easy to slip into the bravado afforded by drinking culture, easier to adopt the “fuck you” mentality needed to face another day, another battle, another front-line.
And whilst my hospitalisation and ensuing first breakdown may have been precipitated by alcohol, there was no denying the policing element. I hallucinated cops in the place of the paramedics trying to help me. Only the patient words of kind friends saved me from being labelled as psychotic.
This was towards the end of 2002. By the time I’d found a modicum of strength following my hospitalisation, it was the run up to the Iraq war. Fighting against that war seemed so much more important than my mental health.
I was referred by my GP to mental health services in East London, but was at best listened to by perplexed therapists who had no concept of what was happening, and at worst, told I was raging against the state because of issues with my father.<
Against the backdrop of the war, and organising a mass protest against Defence Systems Equipment International (DSEi), the world’s largest arms fair, I became pregnant.
But the harassment and the violence continued. During a protest at the Greek Embassy, I was sitting in the park opposite with some friends, when we were surrounded by cops. They told us we were committing a breach of the peace, and had to join the main protest. I argued with them, told them I was pregnant and just sitting to have a rest, but they grabbed me, and dragged me across the road without giving me a chance to co-operate.
During the DSEi protests, I was followed until 3am and regularly tracked home. I was pushed in the stomach and threatened with arrest for legal observing. The London Met police liked to joke my son had a police file before he was born.
This continued to happen for years, until in 2007 a small group of activists formed Fitwatch. Responding to the harassment from Forward Intelligence Teams (Fits), we blocked police cameras on protests and outside meetings, published details about who they were, and critiqued public order and political surveillance on our blog.
At the time, the police were beginning to have the same effect on a close friend. With numbers dwindling on protests and a number of people withdrawing explicitly because they couldn’t cope with police tactics, I felt I couldn’t watch yet another friend become ill.
In the original Fitwatch call to action, I wrote: “If we were being systematically tortured by the state, we would protest. Mental abuse is just as important and it is vital to the strength of our actions that we challenge this.”
We were remarkably successful, with fitwatchng becoming common on protests. There was a feeling that their tactics were being regularly challenged. Several of us were arrested on numerous occasions for obstructing police, and we were able to use the court cases to gather more information on the databases they were holding, arguing that their actions weren’t lawful.
But challenging the police directly had a price, and my second breakdown was far more serious than my first, partly because I never sufficiently recovered from the first, but mostly because the traumas kept getting worse.
There were too many occasions when I was released from police custody battered and bruised, but been the one charged with assault (yet never convicted). There were the never ending revelations about undercover cops; facing the gut wrenching pain of utter betrayal, knowing there will be more revelations to come, whether in the next week or the next ten years.
It’s now been two years since I attended a protest, and it’s only been in the last six months I’ve been able to attend radical gatherings again. Yet as support group Activist Trauma Support have said: “trauma work is part of the resistance”. This is where I’ve focused my energies., helping to found Counselling for Social Change in 2012 as a means for activists to receive free and sympathetic therapeutic support.
The impact of policing tactics on mental health is still largely ignored. The police are only supposed to use force that is reasonable and proportionate to the situation, what they call “reasonable force”. Though this concept is in itself flawed, we also only ever look at whether the force can be justified in terms of physical injury, not mental injury.
It is time to break down the terms used in policing dissent, and ask what is meant by terms such as “harassment” and “disruptive” policing, or policing used as a deterrent. If their intention is to harass and/or deter people away from protests, what is the state sanctioning in terms of the attack on our mental health?
If we ever want to build sustainable movements or communities, we need to take mental injury seriously, and address and condemn the psychological impact of policing tactics.
Emily Apple is a writer, activist and mother, living in Cornwall. She co-founded Fitwatch, is a former Netpol worker and is currently involved with Counselling for Social Change. Photo: Demotix/Alex Milan Tracy.