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