Shooting a copper



Anti-terrorism legislation | Photography | Armed police | Testeria



It’s now illegal to shoot a copper. With a camera that is. At least, it can be illegal depending on how said copper wishes to interpret the law—which, like all fresh legislation, is vague and subject to (expensive) judicial clarification.


You have to look back to the Counter Terrorism Act 2008 to see where this one came in; in particular, Section 76 which makes it an offence to elicit, publish or otherwise communicate personal/sensitive information about members of the police or armed forces which is likely to be useful to anyone planning to commit an act of terrorism.


Which sounds pretty clear.

And reasonable enough.


It means that if you snap a picture of a copper or a squaddie and send it together with his name and address to Osama bin Laden, c/o Afghanistan, you’re in trouble. Only, you could also be in trouble for standing at the side of the road innocently snapping pictures of your bike if there happens to be a copper in your line of sight, because coppers are predisposed to interpret the laws in whatever way best suits their purpose at any given moment.


But then, coppers are a curious breed, a significant number of whom are simply not fit for the job. Which is perhaps true of most people in most jobs. The ideal soldier, for instance, is not a born killer, but a born pacifist; someone who really doesn’t want to shoot/bomb/maim or kill anyone (least of all innocent Iraqi villagers) but is prepared to do the dirty deeds only when there is no other option.


The ideal politician isn’t someone who really wants to be in the opportunistic, self-serving, push-and-shove and corruption of Westminster (or Brussels), but one who enters those hallowed portals only when compelled to do so for reasons of genuine moral conviction—and wants to get back out into the real world a.s.a.p.


And the ideal copper isn’t one who wants to, for instance, beat to the ground an innocent 47-year old newspaper seller at a legitimate, if extremely rowdy, public protest against the manifold things people came to protest about at the recent G20 meeting in London.


But just a few days ago some copper did exactly that and, one way or another, set in a motion a chain of events that ended with a man (Ian Tomlinson) lying dead on a slab.


It’s not the first time something like that has happened, and it won’t be the last. On 23 April 1979, at another London demonstration, a Kiwi teacher named Blair Peach was beaten to death by not one copper, but by numerous members of the infamous Special Patrol Group. Sorry, that’s allegedly beaten to death by one or more of the aforementioned members of Her Majesty’s finest because although the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of death by misadventure, there’s compelling evidence that there’s still a lot to be accounted for on that fateful day.


On the 15th June the following year, Kevin Gately, also at a demo, was clobbered by what is claimed/alleged/etc to have been a Metropolitan Mounted Police Officer’s truncheon (or possibly a Metropolitan Mounted Police Officer’s horse) and died of his injuries.


Of course, you don’t have to be participating in a demo to get creamed by the Met. You can be sitting quietly on an underground train (Jean Charles de Menezes, 22 July 2005), or sitting in your Mini and minding your own business at a set of traffic lights (Stephen Waldorf, 14 January 1983), or carrying a freshly repaired chair leg in a plastic bag and going home to your wife (Harry Stanley, 22 September 1999), or doing any number of otherwise innocent, or at least not illegal, things.


And now, with this latest round of anti-terrorism legislation, the increasingly gung-ho British police have yet another reason to thump first and ask questions later. Or even not bother asking questions at all, because when the peelers thump people, said people typically remain unconscious for some time after, if not stay permanently out to lunch.


"Moreover, your mugshot can now be used in a virtual line-up without your consent or knowledge—and all because you snapped an image of your Triumph Bonneville parked on a road where a few boys in blue were out on the prowl looking for trouble—and subsequently making it up when it wasn’t otherwise to be had."


This kind of extreme police behaviour has recently been called testeria. Like hysteria. But it might be more apt to call it Metsteria, because the Met have a baton batting, death-by-misadventure average higher than any other police force in the country.


They’ll bat you for waving a Tibetan flag at a protest march against a visit from the Chinese Premier (apparently to stop him from turning further red than he already is). They’ll bat you (and corral you for hours) for protesting about nuclear weapons. They’ll bat you for protesting about the invasion of Iraq. They’ll bat you for just about anything, except if and when you decide to come out in support of a police wage rise.


And now they can bat you for taking snapshots, which is a problem and a new occupational hazard for a professional photographer (of sorts) such as yours truly.


Of course, after half a dozen officers have trampled your equipment, thumped you a few times, bundled you into a van, taken you to the nick and processed you in due accordance with the law, you’ll probably get released (if you survive) without charge. But by then, your mugshot and fingerprints will be on the computer, your DNA will have been taken (mouth swab, you’ll have been interrogated for hours, generally abused, and you’ll be permanently on file as someone who has “come into the contact before with the police”.


Moreover, regardless of whether or not you are subsequently convicted, your mugshot can now be used in a virtual line-up without your consent or knowledge—and all because you snapped an image of your Triumph Bonneville parked on a road where a few boys in blue were out on the prowl looking for trouble—and subsequently making it up when it wasn’t otherwise to
be had.


So this is all just a big anti-police whinge, huh? Hardly. It’s more of a big pro-police whinge, but a whinge against the increasing powers levied against us in what has in recent years become little short of a police state; a state in which pretty much anyone, anywhere, anytime can be arrested (with optional beating) under the dubious and draconian umbrella of our modern anti-terrorism legislation that has not merely distorted the truth with regard to the threats currently facing us here in the UK, but has all but obliterated the truth.


If you get caught carrying a nail file onto an aircraft, you’re in trouble. If you search the internet for instructions on how to make an atom bomb, you’re in trouble (never mind that you’re a fourteen year old schoolboy with an IQ of 23-and-a-bit and, like any other schoolboy, harbour normal enough fantasies about blowing your bullying classmates to pieces in a thermonuclear exchange).


If, without due notice and approval, you raise a single protest banner in Parliament Square (the one place in the country where protest banners ought to be sold wholesale), you’ll be arrested under various acts of nonsense and held for the longest amount of time while the police raid your mobile phone, your home—and any body cavity they feel like raiding—whilst deciding what other action they can take against you and anyone you know, have known, or might know in the future.


Think it can’t happen?


Well think again, because it happens day in and day out all over the country that is becoming increasingly Metrified. The inexorable (and wholly disproportionate) militarization of the British police is such that they are hardly recognisable as police officers anymore.


Go and stand on a corner at Parliament Square or at Heathrow Airport (no, leave the camera at home, dummy) and take a look. But not too long a look, and make sure you smile harmlessly while you’re gawping. What you’ll see are two or more figures strutting up and down looking not unlike members of Mosley’s blackshirts, possibly swaddled in balaclavas, chewing gum, and toting H&K machine guns with 9mm Glocks on their hips and spoiling for a punch up.


Twenty or thirty years ago, we would have been shocked to see something like that on a British street. Yet there were terrorists thirty years ago too, weren’t there? Even during the darkest days of the blitz, you could pretty much walk up to 10 Downing Street and hand deliver a letter.


Or bomb.


But today, we seem to hardly take any notice that Sergeant Bloody Rock and “A” Company is out on the street bristling with firepower and looking for the next moving target. Instead, sixty-odd years after we supposedly fought off the last Nazi threat, we accept it as just another part of life in Blighty.


So all coppers are Nazis now?


Nope. Maybe not even most. Maybe we're looking at only one in a hundred. But even at that rate, that’s 280 armed and dangerous individuals walking the streets of London smiling (if you're lucky) like PC Plod, but acting like Johnny Rambo. And working on the premise that birds of a feather flock together, there’s a pretty good chance that a good number of those officers will find themselves sooner or later hustled together in a group, truncheons at the ready, while Joe Public is innocently (if naively) wandering around with a pocket camera snapping pictures of Central London that may, or may not, include buildings such as Parliament, the Ministry or Defence, Scotland Yard and Downing Street.


Or not even in London.


Recently, a man was “questioned at length” by the police about photographing ships; not at the Navy yards at Portsmouth or Plymouth, but in Cleveland; that well known harbour of … well, spies and unemployment. Elsewhere, people have been stopped and questioned for taking pictures of passing trains, planes, trucks and the odd Canary Wharf.


And it’s well known that Osama bin Laden (now the late Osama Bin Laden - Ed) needs your images to plan his next raid on the capital. Why, after all, should he go to all the trouble of switching on his laptop and downloading Google Earth when he can despatch half a dozen photographers armed with camera phones c/w instructions to snap all London landmarks?


It just doesn’t make any sense.


But you can’t tell that to the government or the police—or any of the new age army of council and private security guards poking into your rubbish bins, your mail, your email, your back gardens, your cars, your bikes, your entire life.


You can’t tell them that the real threat to life, liberty and happiness here in the UK is Metsteria, be it from the Met itself, or as as secondary infection from the regional forces of the UKor any of the other national security agencies (or whoever else the government sends to enforce its will on the less-than-entirely-willing).


Yeah, yeah, yeah. But what’s all this got to do with classic bikes? Not a lot, except that for most people with classic motorcycles, the subtext is the thrill/experience/fantasy of enjoying a low-tech life as it used to be, when men were men, and women did the washing up, and when you could chug free and easy around the highways and byways of the nation safe in the knowledge that Dixon of Dock Green was on his beat and that by the end of the show good would have triumphed over evil.


But it’s galling to come plonking along on your BSA WM20 over Westminster Bridge with the majestic vista of the Houses of Parliament ahead (and all that it stands for; correction, stood for—Ed), only to turn into Parliament Square and pause to take a couple of shots of your classic hack and then come face to face with two latterday stormtroopers cradling weapons (that would make even John Wayne throw up his hands in surrender) and ask you what the hell you think you're doing?


And some of these coppers really want to get some killing done. Or, at the very least, a little hurting. It’s their job, after all, to maintain order and take control, and how satisfying would your job be if you were unable to do the one thing you’re hired to do? Which, in the final analysis, when you refine and distil the wider police PR mission statement, is to break some heads for the government.


Yes, some heads need a little breaking. This piece certainly isn't an apology for all those footballs hooligans and sundry morons at demos who have no other agenda other than chaos, destruction and violence.


However, the body-count of innocents is rising.


It wasn’t that long ago that I stopped to take some shots of my ancient BSA parked outside Jack Barclay’s—the Rolls Royce and Bentley dealer in Berkeley Square, W1—when a police van pulled up, asked what I was doing, and told me that I need permission.


“I’m a tourist,” I said.

“Sling it,” came the reply.


It’s the same everywhere. Suspicion, doubt, and mistrust, which breeds nothing but more suspicion, doubt and mistrust. Today, with police cars routinely killing people as they hack along at 94mph in a 30mph limit, with police officers cracking the skulls of legitimate (if rowdy) protesters and murdering the odd tube train passenger, you’re as likely to get your cards marked by your own team as by the other side. Which means that for all practical purposes, the rosy, golden, glorious classic age is dead. It’s over. Finished. Kaput.


On a rare day, you might yet find a strip of road somewhere in Britain where you can bimble along and pretend you’re riding straight into (or out of) a Triumph/BSA/Norton/Ariel/other-classic-bike-advert (delete as applicable). But at the time of writing (April 2009), you’ll be hard pushed to find that classic experience on an average day in any major British town, city or village. And don’t even think about visiting Central London, armed with your camera or otherwise, because not all the natives around here are friendly.


And if you do foolishly sally forth into what is laughably called “the greatest city on earth”, for God’s sake don’t walk (or ride) past a government building with anything resembling a flag or a banner, don’t look at a copper in a funny way, correction: don’t look at a copper in any way, watch where you park, watch where you point that camera, don’t smoke, don’t drop litter (I’m actually in favour of that one), don’t loiter with intent, don’t loiter without intent, make sure the security cameras can see your face and number plate clearly, carry a new style biometric passport wherever you go plus at least three other forms of ID, pocket enough cash for an extended stay, don’t carry a chair leg, don’t sit in your Mini at a set of traffic lights, don’t ride a tube train unless you’re white Anglo Saxon (preferably wearing a crucifix), and generally don’t do anything that in any way, shape or form could be construed in the broadest possible terms as dodgy—never mind that when the fuzzy-wuzzies come, they’ll be toting Kalashnikovs, not Pentaxes.


This new anti-terrorist legislation has little, or nothing, to do with terrorism. It’s just about government control of the populace. That’s all. It’s about gathering data. It’s about being on top. It’s about identifying any possible threat to the status quo, be that threat from within or without. And the first instinct of government, remember, is not to run the country in a decent, moral, law abiding, God-fearing way, but to stay in power. And it can do that only while the police are 100% onside and have got oiks like thee and me firmly under the thumb.


Luckily, someone managed to “shoot” the coppers who recently helped put Ian Tomlinson in his grave thereby capturing that criminal act and putting it squarely into the public domain. It just may not be quite so easy to do so in the future.



—Danny DeFazio





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