Following the recent publicity surrounding anti-monarchy protest arrests, Netpol is publishing this guest piece from Hannah Chutzpah who was arrested during the royal wedding in 2011. As the post highlights, while this type of repression is appalling, it is nothing new, and the consequences for those targeted can be long-lasting.
I sometimes think of my arrest as a moment in my life when the points switched under me. One minute I was ordering a coffee, the next I was an anti-royalist threat to the state.
Along with the media coverage of the Queen’s death and the related pageantry, queues and the rest, people have been arrested across the UK for peaceful protest against the monarchy. This is shit, obviously, but it’s also nothing new.
Though the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act is terrifying, the reality is that the recent arrests weren’t under that legislation (which doesn’t apply in Scotland, anyway). What we’re seeing is the police treating dissent as a crime – and this is what they’ve always done.
My own arrest was in 2011, on the day of William and Kate’s royal wedding. I had gone to Soho Square to ‘report’ on a Royal Zombie Flashmob I’d heard about, for a friend’s blog. (I was 25, had an extra day of bank holiday, and it sounded fun.) I wore a flower crown, misapplied some makeup for dark circles under my eyes & a gory mouth, & went into town with my camera and notebook to interview some ‘zombies’.
There were only five of us eejits in fancy dress, maybe 20 press people and countless police. When the police seemed to be forming a kettle, me and my four new friends left Soho Square, using the one road which was still open, and went into a Starbucks. We were still getting our drinks when two police vans turned up, sirens on, and around 20 cops came out. We were stopped and searched, held against the Starbucks window for ages, then eventually arrested and handcuffed for a ‘breach of the peace’.
The long-term chilling effect
Having experienced that powerlessness at the hands of the police – even for just one day – I now move along slightly different tracks. I feel fundamentally less safe,and can’t forget what it’s like to be seen through the lens of hostile strangers who can arrest you. These days, when I go to demos, I always picture the custody desk. If an officer went through every single pocket and section of my bag and wallet today, looking for something incriminating, or at least something which could be spun as incriminating, would they be able to find it?
These days, when I see police officers, I see a threat to safety. I can’t help but clock what equipment they are carrying. Earlier this year family wanted to go to a community event for the Platinum Jubilee. The smiling police officers ‘engaging with the public’ at the event had tasers, CS spray, batons, handcuffs.
My experience has also eroded what protection I feel is available. I have seriously considered not calling the police when I needed them – when a drunk stranger grabbed my chest as I walked home one night, or when I heard violence happening in a neighbouring home. I don’t trust the police to act with integrity or justice – so am I creating more harm and injustice by calling them?
For many, especially those from marginalised communities, this perceived protection has never existed due to the daily discriminatory, racist policing so many experience on our streets.
A group of us arrested on the day of the royal wedding took the police to court, with incredible activist lawyers and legal aid. In the course of our Judicial Review, we found out that it was a category 2 breach of the peace: apparently the police were acting to prevent harm from occurring to us, the protestors. The argument – which the High Court upheld – was that royalists would have been so offended by some zombie fancy dress that they would have hurt us, and the police were just helping avoid that inevitable violence. (Others arrested on the day had marker pens ‘which could be used to cause criminal damage’, etc),
The reasoning is laughable, but – as I’ve learned from my case and many others – it basically doesn’t matter. The police will do what they want to do on the day, come up with a justification later, and the state machinery of courts and judges tends to agree with police arguments. Power protects power, and regressive institutions protect regressive institutions.
My arrest was clearly goofy and arbitrary, but that’s sort of the point. If something as ridiculous as fancy dress/badly applied makeup is an arrestable offence, it would probably be quicker to list what isn’t potentially arrest-worthy. I’m glad there is public outcry over the latest anti-monarchist arrests, but it’s worth pointing out there have been whole demonstrations mass arrested on other occasions with far less mainstream media coverage or outrage.
In 2011 the police seemed to be testing their own procedures, and what they could legally get away with, ahead of the 2012 Olympics. I see some parallels with the strongarm policing this year, as the UK braces for inevitable mass strikes, mass protests, and other civil disobedience over the cost of living and climate emergencies.
I do see a some positives, though, and that is in the sea change happening in attitudes and understandings. Eleven years ago, the majority of people still assumed the police were trustworthy, and so, on the flip side, anyone they took against must be guilty of something.
Over recent years the tireless work of activist organisations and movements has finally dragged the Overton Window a bit closer to reality. More people have learned, or finally started hearing, what many others have known and been saying for decades: don’t trust the police.
Hannah Chutzpah has been described as ‘fine’ by three therapists and as ‘of good character’ by a high court judge. She works in charity communications, and has been performing poetry for over a decade – at venues ranging from protests to the Royal Albert Hall. Her third collection, Permeable, is available from Burning Eye Books. She spends the rest of her time creating stuff in any medium she can, treasure-hunting, and trying to make the world a slightly better place.
@Hannah_Chutzpah for Instagram & Twitter