Northern Irish police use water cannon on an Orangeman marcher in July 2013. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on anti-protest equipment: In London, the only choice the poor and discontented get is this: water cannon or rubber bullets

The Met wants the weapon ready for use this summer. But the question should not be why now but why at all.

London is a city that resists anno­tation. Graffiti, especially the political sort, gets scrubbed away as quickly as it appears. But in the boroughs where the Metropolitan Police’s controversial “stop-and-search” policy has made a generation of black and Asian youths feel unwelcome in their own city, one tag – “ACAB” – keeps getting scrawled in angry capitals on walls and hoardings in the margins of urban space. You can even see the letters faintly on Google Maps, badly erased from the wall of Tottenham Police Station.

If you associate with a lot of anarchists, squatters or people under the age of 25, you will probably know that “ACAB” stands for “All Cops Are Bastards”. Whether or not you agree with the statement, it is hard to disagree that relations between civilians and the police, always a better barometer of the public mood than any poll, are not friendly.

The Met and the Mayor of London want water cannon ready for use this summer. Although these have been used for decades in Northern Ireland, they have not yet been part of the machinery of riot control on the so-called British mainland. The mayor will soon decide whether to spend £200,000, at a
time of drastic budget cuts, on high-pressure water jets designed to clear rioters from the streets. At the public consultation I attended on 17 February at City Hall, the police officers tasked with making the case for water cannon in London had profoundly misjudged the mood in the room.

The audience was full of middle-aged academics, journalists, teachers and charity workers, the sorts of people who go to anti-war protests with foil-wrapped sandwiches and a flask of tea. These, technically, are the kinds of “peaceful protesters” the Metropolitan Police are supposed to be protecting from the “pure criminality” of young rioters – but the unrest of the austerity years and the savage response of law enforcement have made the precarious middle classes feel a new sense of solidarity with the urban poor. Several members of the audience stood up to tell the assembled officers how they or their children had been assaulted while attending public demonstrations.

What had been intended as a genteel, perfunctory public presentation descended into chaos and shouting: at several points I wondered if the deputy mayor Stephen Greenhalgh would get out the water jets then and there. “It is the responsibility of the police to preserve life,” barked Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley. At this, there was uproar. The name of Mark Duggan, the Tottenham man whose death at the hands of the Met sparked the 2011 riots, rang out. Footage of those riots failed to provoke the intended outrage. “That was a reaction to the police murdering someone!” yelled a student at the side of the hall.

Then an elderly man, Dietrich Wagner, stood up in the front row clutching his cane. He spoke quietly, in German; a polite young lady in a dark coat translated for him and steered him so he was facing the right direction. Wagner is blind. The pensioner’s eyes were destroyed by water cannon four years ago during a protest in Stuttgart.

Wagner told the officers present that he had travelled to London to “stop this nonsense”. If he had been outraged, weeping, taking off his thick spectacles to show the ruined pits where his eyes used to be, the officers might have been able to brush it off as a publicity stunt. But he was soft-spoken as he described how the water weapons had been turned on a screaming crowd with nowhere to go, how the jets had got stronger and stronger and the high-pressure hosing had shattered the bone behind his eyes.

“Why isn’t Boris here to hear this?” yelled a voice from the crowd. Neither the mayor nor the police commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, had shown up. The deputy commissioners sat grimly under a Power­Point demonstration plastered with the Met’s Orwellian new slogan: “Total policing”. Well, it was certainly total something.

The police want to convince the public that water cannon are no more dangerous than mounted officers, batons or rubber bullets in a situation of civil unrest. But concerned Londoners want to convince the police that officers should not be using any lethal weaponry against citizens who are exercising their democratic right to protest. The question is not whether water cannon will be used, or whether or not they are dangerous – doubtless the answer is yes, they will and yes, they are. The question is how it has come to this.

Why does the Metropolitan Police want water cannon right now? It was impossible to get a straight answer from Mark Rowley on why precisely city officials are so anxious to have the weaponry ready in time for the summer. He fell silent when asked if he predicted further riots this year. We were reassured that water weapons would be “rarely used and rarely seen”.

Water cannon are the sexy designer underwear of the modern police arsenal. It’s not whether you do anything with them that counts, but the way they make you feel. If you’re packing that sort of specialist gear, you feel cheeky and confident and just a little bit daring, and yes, it’s pretty expensive for something you’ll probably never use, though you secretly hope that some day you might get the chance. It’s even better if you make people know you’ve got them – for example, if you hold a high-profile public consultation about the brutal anti-riot kit you’re about to buy.

Stephen Reid, one of the organisers of the campaign against water cannon, was also a founding member of the anti-austerity protest group UK Uncut. He is very clear about why this is happening: at a time of austerity and increasing inequality, the only choice being offered to the young and poor of the capital is whether we would prefer the water cannon or rubber bullets. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.