I suppose it all started for me late last year at a small hall in Lewisham, SE London. I was at a meeting entitled “Where now after Seattle?”. The meeting itself was interesting enough, but it was organised by the Socialist Workers Party, and Socialism is something I’ve never really subscribed to. So I found myself rather overwhelmed by all the talk of new worlds and new orders, plus I was new to the “alternative politics” game and was more than a little nonplussed with some of the subjects being banded about. I needed something I could understand, something which appealed to me, something I could get my teeth into.
Then someone handed me a leaflet. It was a small silver leaflet with the words “Stop the Terrorism Bill, London — April 30th” emblazoned upon the cover, inside was a short paragraph outlining what the Bill was about, then detailing the A30 event, and a little contact information. The leaflet itself was vague and didn’t tell me that much apart from about the planned event, but it started me off on some fanciful ideas about a big three-piece article….
Part one : the lead up to the event; part two : at the event; part three : the aftermath.
In the coming months I discovered that perhaps the campaign wasn’t as big as I had fantasised about, but for the time being I kept dreaming. After the meeting I went home and pondered my next move.
My next move took a few months to happen. When I finally got round to it I rang and emailed some of the contacts on the leaflet, there was a number in Manchester, but despite numerous attempts to get an answer I never did; I also emailed the same people and again no response. However there was another phone number, lurking away at the bottom of the page, a number in Brighton, so I rang it and after a few attempts I got a reply, a reasonably positive one at that. They were a small group of individuals including the people behind Schnews (an alternative culture and activist politics newsletter) who were currently squatting in an old motorbike shop which they had converted into an anti Terrorism-bill community centre. This to me seemed like an excellent idea, it gave people the chance to go along, read the official government documents, read a few articles opposing the Bill, read some of the items that had appeared in the press, and make their own minds up. This was to be my next move.
Brighton’s a funny old place; I suppose the two things it is remembered most for are being a pleasant little seaside resort and the Mods & Rockers. Well, in recent years it’s developed a fair sized population of what used to be called “Crusties”, but I don’t know what they’re referred to as now; basically people with an interest in lifestyles different to what we’ve all become accustomed to. After a quick stop at the arcades, I made my way to the community centre. When I arrived at the centre there were few people around the bar — the organisers, who were quite willing to just let me peruse a few documents and make notes.
Now I was realising what the Terrorism Bill was all about, I read a copy of the government document and although it was typically vague I started to understand what all the fuss was about; for those who don’t know already let me just outline a few “features”….
The most immediate is the re-definition of “terrorism” :
The use or threat, for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause, of action which —
a) Involves serious violence against any person or property.
b) Endangers the life of any person, or
c) creates a serious risk to the Health or Safety of the public.
I did, however, read an official document replacing “Health or Safety” with “Putting the Public in fear”, which is a little more vague; the same document put international terrorists and animal-rights activists on the same level though, which was a little extreme. This new definition is apparently needed “To respond to a changing threat from whatever source” (Jack Straw), and rather typically of this Government the definition has been borrowed heavily from — surprise, surprise — the Americans (FBI). It seems to me and many others that the more serious forms of terrorism are already dealt with quite adequately by existing laws, and that this new definition is for some other reason.
Also there’s the section that says you don’t even have to be actively involved to be counted as a terrorist, just being present at a meeting or possessing a flyer or even wearing a badge is enough for a conviction. Perhaps more worryingly for people like myself is that even being in possession of “terrorist” information in a “professional capacity” is an offence; I regularly promote activist events, and that will make me a terrorist. It comes down to the fact that “terrorists” aren’t entitled to as many legal rights as other criminals, meaning they’re through the judicial system nice and quickly….
Anyway, there’s plenty of articles and places to read the details; back to the community centre. Apart from the legal document itself there were various articles pinned to the walls from assorted publications, each offering different angles and opinions on the story but most, I must add, against the Bill. They all made interesting reading and offered everyone who dropped in a fair view of what was going on. I decided to return a little later and interview some of the “regulars”. In between time I took the chance to gauge the opinion of Joe Public and found a distinct lack of knowledge about the Bill; however, when I explained the Bill to those I interviewed their attitudes towards it were far from positive. It seems that people are becoming more and more sceptical of the current Government, finding their policies and methods too extreme in some cases and the Terrorist Bill is a classic example. In a press release which accompanied the Bill, the government state that they “…would welcome views on whether its proposed definition succeeds in striking that balance…” (that balance meaning between a definition too wide or too narrow). So far though, the views of the public and of experts have gone unheard.
I returned to the community centre a little later to find it slowly filling with people, so I took the opportunity to gauge a few opinions. The thing that surprised me most was, again, a lack of knowledge about the Bill, I though this was meant to be a place for people to come and discuss ideas about the Bill! I suppose it was called a “community centre” for people to do what they wish…. I was just expecting a little more “activity”, and I felt rather upset with their animosity towards the press. Despite this, interesting things were said, rumours and theories were banded about and it was at the very least an “interesting” experience, and left me with a mixed bag of negative and positive attitudes towards my experiences so far.
In the time until the A30 event nothing much in particular happened. I spent the time mulling over ideas and gathering as much paraphernalia regarding the Terrorist Bill as possible. Perhaps most interestingly I took the time to gather opinions of some fellow “journos”. I found them to be as worried about it as the activists, especially the National Union of Journalists; it’s a shame there’s such a high level of animosity between the two groups. I also tried contacting the Home Office. My questions were answered (sort of…) by a representative of the “Terrorism Bill team”, which struck me as strange — obviously they’re anticipating a lot of “enquiries”.
Things were then quiet until a sunny, muddy April the 30th. I was a little nervous about the event, not quite sure what to expect, leaflets and web promotions had said that there would be some sort of photo taken, but to “Come dressed as you would for direct action and dissent”. This worried me a little, my fear being that a peaceful gathering would turn into something more ugly. Fortunately and gladly it was a very enjoyable event, very friendly and all worked out.
The basic plan was this : People turn up in assorted costumes representing various activist factions, then we all pose for a Sergeant Pepper style photo complete with cardboard cut-outs of famous historical figures who would be classed as Terrorists under the new legislation (Jesus, Nelson Mandela, Emily Pankhurst…) and then everyone sings “We all live in a failed democracy” to the tune of “Yellow Submarine . It was an excellent idea, it attracted people’s attention, perhaps made them inquisitive and hopefully sympathetic to the cause. The organisers claim that they weren’t pandering to the press, but I couldn’t help feeling that such a media-friendly event wasn’t designed that way. The Police presence was heavy handed and unnecessary to say the least, I even spotted a group playing football at one point, I’ve since found out that the Police were intelligence gathering for Mayday (Maybe I shouldn’t have waved at their video camera?).
The one thing that disappointed me was the attitude of the press. They gathered in a huddle, didn’t really mix with anyone and were plain irritating; I can now understand peoples’ negative feelings, it’s just a shame we’re all tarnished with the same brush. However the press the event received was on the whole positive, the exception being the Daily Mails’ coverage…. it was reported on by the Crime correspondent who referred to us as a “hooded mob” who “goaded” the Police. Its writer has not replied to any of my comments (on the positive/negative side I can be clearly seen in the photo in the Mail). I decided to not announce my own Press status, as I felt it would give me a better insight of the event by mixing in and getting involved. I also feel that it shouldn’t matter who or what I am, we’re all affected. After it was over I left for home with a good feeling inside wondering what we’d possibly achieved.
Well, the Bill marches on, the third reading is taking place in July and the Bill should receive Royal Assent shortly (I don’t suppose they’ll have any qualms); the provisions it contains for Northern Ireland will be put in place almost immediately, and by early 2001 it will be in full effect. A few amendments have been made but they’re all minor and unless there are any major objections soon (I’m talking full-scale riots or mass petitions) the Bill will become law. Very few MPs have opposed the Bill becoming law, and despite umpteen organisations objecting to its several infringements of Human Rights, it seems that Labour will continue pressing their sanitised, regulated version of Truth and Justice. Now with the announcement of £25 million of funding for a “spy centre” to monitor mobile phone calls and intercept e-mails, and the proposed “Freedom of Information” act, it’s just another nail in the coffin.
As a prologue of sorts I received an e-mail containing answers to several questions I put to the Terrorism bill team at the home Office. It was addressed to my moniker, “Chris Chinchilla”, and amusingly had the slogan “Building a safe, just and tolerant society” tacked on the bottom. The e-mail confirmed that the bill will indeed be law in early 2001 after various stages of commons approval which are currently ongoing. In answer to the criticism of not listening to oppositions from various groups, I was told that “The Government has considered opposition to the Bill and has had meetings with various official groups when Ministers have been able to answer questions and explain the provisions in the Bill”, so basically that means they’re not listening. Finally, they continued to hammer in the fact (not in those words, obviously!) that the government are trying their hardest to get the balance right, and to not keep slagging them off….