Police State UK was created in April 2009, in the immediate aftermath of the G20 protests; specifically the disproportionate and systematic violence of the police response. Denny and I lost a lot of sleep in the days and weeks immediately following these events, blogging about them, talking to friends, writing to anyone we could think of, and attending demonstrations against police brutality. Trying to write one of the first articles for this site, I couldn't seem to escape from the shadow of these recent events. Which was frustrating, because police brutality really isn't what this site is about.
Denny first registered the domain name policestate.co.uk in 2006. His original intention was to build a site which logged new activity and legislation that tipped the balance from democratic government towards police state. Far too ambitious a project for one person; it inevitably ended up sitting dormant.
A couple of weeks ago we were talking about the policing of the G20 protests, swapping thoughts and analysis. I couldn't help thinking that most of the conversations I'd had in the last week, even with sympathetic lefties, seemed frustratingly narrow in focus. I was furious (I still am) with the way the press has behaved during this whole saga, not only for the initial campaign of misinformation, but for persistently setting up red herrings to distract attention and culpability as the facts started to be revealed. Now that the papers were admitting the issue of police misconduct existed at all, all their attention seemed to be focussed on Ian Tomlinson (and Nicola Fisher, unsurprising since she sold her story to Max Clifford) as if they were the only innocent victims of violence that day, and no-one except the Guardian was talking about the assault on Climate Camp. Even now, the Beeb's coverage favours praise for the police, defence of their actions and fussy articles about how the IPCC shouldn't be so hasty. Hardly an "unbalanced orgy of cop bashing". The level of shameless propaganda coming out of the BBC lately is reminiscent of near-future dystopian fiction such as V for Vendetta. Or have they always been this bad?
Righteous indignation oozes out of sensationalistic stories about individual coppers saying stupid things online, but hardly anyone seems to want to admit that these individuals had been trained and briefed in their attitudes by policy-makers who knew exactly what they were doing. Only the liberal blogosphere exhibited an awareness that what happened was symptomatic of a mode of government and law enforcement that goes far, far deeper than these specific people or events.
More than that, while some writers have linked the policing of the G20 to the history of policing and political dissent, even the independent media have mostly failed to situate this connection in a wider context.
How about this for context: The last couple of years has seen a stream of increasingly repressive legislation, denying the conscience of the individual moral agency and responsibility, and curtailing the rights of the many to protect the few. (So the excuse goes; but do we, the public, really need legal protection from people who look at kinky porn or photograph policemen?) Scare-mongering propaganda urging people to report suspicious behaviour among their neighbours. Ubiquitous surveillance enhanced by new technology; endless strategies designed to make it easier to keep tabs on people, such as centralised databases; internet surveillance; making Oyster cards the cheapest way of using the Tube. Exaggerating the threat of an illusory enemy as an excuse to treat the general public as guilty until proven innocent. Terrorism is less dangerous than bird flu or sunbathing; and yet Section 44 uses it as the excuse to grant the Met stop and search powers which intimidate and inconvenience countless members of the general public.
Call me paranoid, but there's a pattern here. And it's getting worse.
The police have always had special powers to use violent force on criminals; as of a few months ago, private firms can openly do the same. And the police are increasingly using violence to suppress public dissent as well as crime. As if Sections 132-8 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 wasn't bad enough, making it illegal to protest in the place most likely to achieve the attention of MPs (and notice how that Act neatly conflates demos with "serious organised crime"?) now they're bullying, intimidating, threatening, illegally detaining and beating protesters who have the audacity to go ahead and exercise their democratic rights anyway.
See? Try as I might to talk about the big picture, I keep coming back to Climate Camp.
The reason is that it's hit me pretty hard. I mean, okay. This country has never been perfect, but I've grown up in a generation believing that improvement is only a matter of time. Women have equal rights now in law; all we need is for a generation of old chauvinists to die and we can start to bring up our sons and daughters in a world where true social egalitarianism is a fact of life. Queer and trans people have more rights than ever before; racism is far less acceptable than when my parents were my age. Socially, at the grassroots level, our society is becoming more progressive. Legally, as governmental power becomes increasingly centralised and paranoid, the opposite is happening.
I was born in 1984; by the time I was old enough to really start paying attention to politics, New Labour had gained power, the Thatcher years were over and everyone was full of hope. (Yes, I know this makes me sound young and naive; that's okay, I don't mind. I probably am.) The first shock to our youthful optimism was the Iraq War, with which the impassioned protests of over a million people were ignored. Six years later we aren't only being ignored, we're being punished into the bargain. It's not the first time it's happened, but it's the first time it's happened to the iPhone generation. It's the first time we've seen it happen to the good guys, in cold blood; not criminals or anarchists or thugs, but peace-loving hippies holding a seated vigil to raise awareness about environmental issues. I mean, come on. Can you get any fluffier than that?
One way of reading this is as the desperate, flailing grasp of a government that's losing its grip. New Labour is on the way out and it knows it. Secure governments do not feel the need to beat up political dissenters. If they do, it's a sure sign of political instability.
But, again, that analysis has too narrow a lens. This didn't start with Blair. It didn't really start with Thatcher, but that's a slightly better timescale to be thinking with. We've been subtly and steadily losing our civil liberties even as capitalism proclaims us freer and wealthier than ever - as if consumerism and liberty were equivalent.
When Denny and I sat down to design this site, we started out with dynamic, imposing photos of riot police, Spartanesque behind their shield walls or raising their batons in a blow, hollering and red-faced. We even got permission to use a couple of images before we decided that such a design would give the wrong impression about the aim of this site. It's not specifically about London or surveillance either, but I think they're better symbols for what we're about than a line of riot shields. We aren't only interested in talking about Operation Glencoe or even policing in general. Rather, we are interested in bringing together data on a multitude of issues, and connecting the dots. How do these disparate things link up? If you look at them all together, do you get a different picture from looking at them all individually?
Philip Pullman made a famously impassioned speech at the Convention on Civil Liberties two months ago. His closing paragraph listed a series of repressive bills and statutes:
"It is inconceivable to me that a waking nation in the full consciousness of its freedom would have allowed its government to pass such laws as the Protection from Harassment Act (1997), the Crime and Disorder Act (1998), the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000), the Terrorism Act (2000), the Criminal Justice and Police Act (2001), the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act (2001), the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Extension Act (2002), the Criminal Justice Act (2003), the Extradition Act (2003), the Anti-Social Behaviour Act (2003), the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act (2004), the Civil Contingencies Act (2004), the Prevention of Terrorism Act (2005), the Inquiries Act (2005), the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (2005), not to mention a host of pending legislation such as the Identity Cards Bill, the Coroners and Justice Bill, and the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill. Inconceivable."
People made a fuss about each and every one of these new laws, but the debates and demonstrations had no effect. Taken one at a time, they might not seem like the end of the world. But when you look at them all at once like that, it suddenly seems like a rather bigger deal than you thought.
That, for me, is the goal of this site. Putting it all together and looking at the big picture.
One last thing. The name of this site is not a sensationalistic headline. It's not a claim, an accusation or a paranoid conspiracy theory. It's a question. If you agree that it's a question worth asking, we'd be honoured if you'd help us answer it.