Riots are no reason to surrender our rights

As the Met considers using rubber bullets and water cannon, we mustn't forget Britain's history of e

When I left the tube station on Monday night, I found my bus service cancelled. 'EMERGENCY' read the makeshift sign, 'bus cancelled due to assaults on bus drivers.' As I walked through the eerily quiet streets, I noticed three young men eyeing me. They whispered between themselves and sloped off. I realised I was totally alone: if anyone wanted to attack me, they could, and nobody would come to help. I ended up staying at a friend's house. The rioting made us housebound; so we watched, aghast and afraid, as rioters tore into familiar streets that had seemed tranquil only days before.

Orwell once wrote, 'Of pain you could wish only one thing: that it should stop. Nothing in the world was so bad as physical pain.' And to me, that's how the riots felt. It was like watching my home being injured, as well as watching people being injured of course. In those moments, I felt paralysed and desperate: I wasn't thinking about politics, I just wanted it to stop.

Maybe other people felt the same as I did, and maybe that's why now polls show the vast majority of us are happy for the government to end the riots using rubber bullets, which killed 17 people - 8 of them children - during the late 1970s in Northern Ireland. Maybe that's why most of us now support water cannons, despite their long history of misuse, including the blinding of a man during a protest in Stuttgart.

As I type this, the Prime Minister is triumphantly announcing staggering measures to 'restore law and order,' including restrictions on social media use, removal of face coverings, curfews and baton rounds. I find it difficult to believe that these measures won't eventually be used in contradiction to the European Convention of Human Rights, and yet all three parties are currently waving them in, putting their 'phoney human rights concerns' to one side.

It's understandable that highfalutin concepts like civil liberties aren't at the top of the agenda during desperate times: when we're suffering from Orwell's physical pain, asking whether our society is civil seems outmoded - indulgent, even. Besides, we know we are civil when we see those 'feral' looters. We're not criminals, we're good people who clean up our communities; why should we care our rights being trampled on?

The problem is, the rules don't work like that. Once ministers 'draw up plans' for water cannons and rubber bullets, they set a precedent from which it is difficult to row back. And unfortunately, Britain has a rich and shaming history of making decisions ostensibly for the public good, and then abusing them for political ends later.

The best modern example of this is probably the Terrorism Act 2000, particularly Section 44. Section 44 gives the police extraordinary powers to stop and search anyone without 'reasonable suspicion' if they are in a designated 'at risk' area. At times, the whole of London has been given blanket designation under Section 44, which might explain why stop and search figures under the act quadrupled between 2001-2004. People stopped under Section 44 powers are eight times more likely to be arrested for non-terrorist offences, despite government assurances that the law would only be used when there is 'a good reason to believe that there is genuinely a terrorist threat.'

Go further back in history and you'll find the Public Order Act of 1937, originally established after the legendary Battle of Cable Street. Despite being touted as a response to Oswald Moseley's Blackshirts, the act was used against pro-Irish Republican demos in the 1970s. In the 1980s, it was used against flying pickets during the miners' strike. As author Owen Jones puts it, 'this shows what happens when you start asking the state to use its power against those who could be deemed undesirables. If you set a precedent, how do you know it won't end up being used against you next time?'

It is naturally tempting to fall back on unquestioning trust of the establishment during times of crisis. After all, we have contracted them to keep us safe. But surrendering our hard-won rights won't keep us safe, any more than doe-eyed 'our boys' rhetoric about the police will. A participating democracy keeps us safe and civilised, because nobody wants to destroy a society in which they have a stake. The alternative is allowing the authorities to aggressively oppose anyone they deem to be dangerous. And if there's one thing we've learned from a police officer dragging protester Jody McIntyre out of his wheelchair, it's that what the state and the public perceive as dangerous can be very different thing indeed.

Ellie Mae O'Hagan is a freelance writer living in North London, contributing mainly to the Guardian. You can follow her at @MissEllieMae

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.