The inert, black-shrouded body lies in the middle of the road. The two uniformed men each take a shoulder, drag it out of the way of traffic, and let it slump unceremoniously on the curb. They josh with their mates – “This one don’t weigh much!” – before returning to resume their work – moving more bodies.
Behind them the abandoned body sits up, gets to its feet, and rushes back to re-take its place with five hundred and ninety-nine others in the middle of Whitehall. The protest – against a nuclear waste reprocessing plant – continues in that vein for the rest of the day.
The white-haired woman at the front of the crowd by the Compound’s gate waves her county’s flag on a long bamboo pole, shouting as the leader of her party – a legitimate political party with representatives in her country’s Parliament, no less – is dragged past her through mud. She hears an intercom from the policeman behind her, giving instructions to move everybody, no matter what. Her flag is snatched from her hands and thrown in a ditch. She digs in her heals – I’m not moving anywhere without my white rose! – and only relents when a sheepish policeman retrieves the flag from the ditch and hands it her.
Tea-time, and there’s a loud knock at the door. She answers it, to two policemen. They are holding her husband’s jacket – it has been retrieved from the local Gym. He left it there, complete with a large penknife in the pocket. He’s delighted to be re-united with both, but the knife isn’t quite street-legal. He gets a solemn warning, but nothing more.
There are unwritten rules underpinning all these encounters – rules that don’t even have to be mentioned in a country’s laws (and in England’s case simply aren’t – we have no written constitution). Rules I stand upon whether I’m being picked-up and moved bodily about, having my stuff manhandled, or having my husband temporarily mistaken for a criminal. Rules, now I come to think about it, that exist not out there in the land, but in my head. Rules in which I have confidence.
- I am physically safe – no-one will injure me or worse
- even if it takes some time – sometimes years – if I haven’t broken the law my name will be cleared, and if I have done so I am not due to suffer anything I’m incapable of bearing.
Now I have to imagine going through life without the protection of these unwritten rules – without that confidence – the confidence that anyone in law enforcement would always give me the benefit of the doubt. How would I feel about protesting against something – pollution, for example – that was doing the country genuine harm, when I know that to do so might put me in real danger? Would I still get out there and do what’s necessary?
And in ordinary life, what if you got mistaken for a criminal? What if, heaven forbid, you were the victim of a crime but daren’t report it for fear of being, in your turn, criminalised and placed in danger? What if you witnessed a crime? What incentive would you have to report what you saw if to do so put you in the firing line?
What if, in other words, the nearest ‘mental model’ you had of your country’s law-enforcement was not the mostly-benign one I’ve encountered through the years – a force of inertia which, though it often gets in the way of progress, does at least prevent chaos – but one that more resembled an occupying army?
And then one of them, on camera, literally smiles as he is killing somebody.
So you set out to protest against this. Peacefully.
And then what happens?