Friday, April 17, 2009

Rampart Collective, "Life After the G20"

On the Thursday following the G20 protests, two squatted social centres in East London were raided by riot police, apparently looking for instigators of the attacks on the Royal Bank of Scotland. RampART Social Centre, which has existed for more than four years, and a newly opened Convergence Centre in Earl Street were both being used to house and feed protesters throughout the period of the G20 summit. In both cases, the police acted illegally but, other than a brief report in the Independent which referred to unwarranted violence, the raids remained largely unreported.

In both buildings, people were subjected to physical violence and verbal abuse and those that were arrested were later 'de-arrested' for lack of any supporting evidence. Our only 'crime', it seems, is that we are political activists and squatters and thus deemed to be suitable targets. If only we had kept our heads down and stayed away from these kinds of activities, the logic goes, we would not deserve what we had coming.

It is right and proper that the events leading up to the death of Ian Tomlinson should be the subject of a criminal investigation but the danger, as we see it, is that it will be seen as an isolated incident and will be dealt with simply by disciplining individual officers, only serving to further obscure the role of the police in perpetuating a climate of fear. Under the terms of the global surveillance state, citizenship has become an exercise in evading a charge of deviance. In fact, the proliferation of forms of deviance is the flip side of the supposed 'lifestyle choices' available under the terms of consumer citizenship. You can 'choose' to spend your money on home improvements, high fashion and high-tech gadgets and are applauded for making the 'right' choices. But if you choose to occupy an unused building for the purposes of providing space for political discussion, self-education and creative activities without the intrusion of CCTV cameras, health and safety monitoring or access restrictions, and particularly if you refuse to levy a charge which situates these activities in terms of market forces, then you effectively become outlaw.. And, if you choose to express your outrage at a system that produces inequalities and then condemns those that become unemployed and homeless, you become a target for repression. The differences between Tomlinson and the people who went to the Bank of England to demonstrate against the iniquitous excesses of neoliberal capitalism are marginal, despite attempts to distinguish between 'innocent' bystanders and 'guilty' protesters. Tomlinson was on his way home from work. The demonstrators were exercising their lawful right to protest. Both were exercising their right to the city as citizens of a supposed democracy

When RampART social centre was raided on the Thursday, members of the volunteer collective were sitting down to a cup of coffee and biscuits. Other members were elsewhere in the building speaking to some guests who had come to stay for the duration of the protests. We were aware of the massing of officers outside the building but were used to the presence of a Forward Intelligence Team, the police paparazzi,who had been frequent visitors to Rampart Street in the weeks leading up to the G20, photographing and scrutinising anyone entering the building. And so, for us, it was business as usual.

At the Convergence Centre, the police seemed to be employing a new tactic whereby people being searched before entering the building had their mobile phones confiscated and were threatened with arrest unless they could 'prove ownership'. Essentially, this amounted to an attempt to illegally secure personal details.

The raid itself was surreal. Or rather, it was hyperreal, in the sense that, as some of us commented later, it was like being on the wrong side of a 'first person shooter' video game. Some of us thought the men and women in balaclavas, padded uniforms, helmets and carrying riot shields were pointing toy guns at us. In fact, as we discovered later, they were tasers, which are designed to stun but are occasionally known to kill.

It's tempting to say that the violence that we experienced was out of all proportion to the level of resistance which was, in fact, zero. But to even speak of proportionality is a mistake, because it implies that there is something in our actions that warrants a violent response. One member of the collective was punched in the face, another was pushed downstairs, had his head smashed against the wall and was met with looks of disbelief when he pleaded with officers to protect his glasses. One of the residents of the building was punched and kicked, narrowly avoided taser fire and was arrested in his pyjamas.

We would stress again that this happened to people who, like Ian Tomlinson, were simply exercising their most basic civil rights: to congregate peacefully with friends and to walk the streets unmolested. Some might think that we are opportunistically linking what happened to us with Tomlinson, and would want to make a clear distinction. After all, he was a regular bloke in the wrong place at the wrong time, and we were deliberately taking part in political activism. But to continue in this vein is lose all semblance of what it means to live with even a modicum of freedom and self-respect.

The press reported that four (and, in some reports, six) arrests had been made during the raids on RampART and the Convergence Space. Two known to us personally were held in police cells for up to ten hours, had their clothes confiscated and were sent home in Guantanamo Bay style boiler suits. News of arrests functions to assuage anxiety and to justify the cost of police operations that amount to little more than exercises in public relations. The public can rest assured that the dangerous anarchists have been infiltrated and detained and that 'scroungers' and 'cheats' have been brought to book.

Comparisons have inevitably been made between Tomlinson's death and the death of Blair Peach during an Anti-Nazi League demonstration in April, 1979, widely speculated to be as a result of assault by the police. Although Peach's brother reached an out-of-court settlement with the Metropolitan Police in 1989, no officer was ever charged in connection with the death. Thirty years later, the same police force has been granted unprecedented powers in the name of 'security' and justified on the basis that London is under threat from elements in the population that threaten 'our' way of life. The result is the proliferation of deviant identities which function as a focus for collective anxiety and paranoia ('terrorists', 'anarchists', 'squatters', 'foreign workers' etc.).

Since the incidents on the 1st and 2nd of April, voices have been raised in condemnation of police actions, particularly the tactic of “kettling” which herds protesters like cattle and allows the police to punish those who attempt to escape. Back at RampART on the Wednesday evening we saw the resulting head injuries and beaten bodies If we are to avoid more deaths and injury, then we need to think seriously, not only about the powers granted to a police force that seems dangerously out of control but about the ideology that sanctions violence in the name of respectability. We need to think about what it means to be a citizen in 21st century global culture and about the treatment of those that effectively have their human rights revoked because they refuse, or are unable to conform to the dictates of consumer citizenship. We need, in short, to be aware that, as the global downturn deprives people of their homes and livelihoods, any one of us could end up on the wrong side of the divide that separates 'us' from 'them'. Any one of us could become a scapegoat for the unfocused anger which results when people relinquish responsibility for their own lives and then find themselves deprived of their freedom and dignity. Places like RampART exist because some of us believe that we can reclaim our freedoms but only if we work together in a spirit of mutual respect and toleration.

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