Mum always told me:
“Police are there to be trusted”.
Their boots on the beat
around provincial high streets
all sparkling brass that would never rust
and every bust they made
was a must and utterly correct.
So whenever I forgot my watch
I wouldn't hesitate to ask them the time.
Wouldn't think twice about stepping out of line,
wouldn't even so much as dodge a train,
take the wrong change in a club
or fill up my pint glass with a can in the toilets of a pub.
And yet I'd still get
a reddening, itching, burning guilt
every time a police car seeped past
but I figured unarticulated fear
and respect is due to those who protect.
A few years later,
hanging in one of my friend's bedrooms
killer punk tunes rebounded
with the sound of the speakers screamed:
“All coppers are bastards!”
through stolen cigarette clouds,
fitting perfectly with my out of tune fury.
Armed with only a degree
and confused ideas
I wander the streets
while others march for things
I'm still chewing things over.
It all seems so abstract -
this protesting against war in far off lands.
hands balled up into tight collective fists.
I'm drip fed edited images
of clashes with police
their faces strained with mysterious
rage and fear and pride.
I feel the tingle of skin memory
wrap around all the punk gigs:
so much sweat and so much bruising.
So much singing and so much boozing.
There was so much unity and collective purpose
that my heart untightened
and for a few hours I became a little bit less frightened
as I shouted along to someone else shouting:
“All coppers are bastards”.
But this is still all second hand,
Electrician Jean Charles De Menezes
is shot seven times in the back of the head
by the police at Stockwell tube station.
The poet Angry Sam takes a lift
from the words of Linton Kwesi Johnson
at the time:
“First they said he was running
Then they said he was not
First they said he had a backpack
Then they said he did not
They said he was a drug addict
Although he never was
And then they said someone went for a piss at the wrong time
And now nobody talks about that time anymore.”
All my grins and tears
of the past four years
are bound up in Londontown.
And the G20 are here.
They're not in Ottowa.
They're not in Beijing.
and sometimes I might fuss about the buses
or the soul draining towers
but I burningly know this is mine,
this is ours,
and I'll be damned if the powers
are going to warp our future
within our sight
without us putting up a fight.
The city centre is tense,
stretched, fragile and read to break
and I break into a run
I feel the twinge of a stitch
I frantically text my friends
but they're kettled
behind a faceless wall of helmets and shields.
I glimpse the people flickering and flitting behind it,
lost, angry and panicked,
and I can smell the piss and the sweat.
Eventually, my friends turn up.
They lift up trouser legs
and show me truncheoned bruises.
They display them with a weird kind of pride
and I stare with a weird kind of jealousy.
This is made real by red dents on the shins
and I can see now, for the first time,
what we're voting in:
something swollen and bruised
on something of natural use.
I flick through digital snapshots
that'll document this forever,
tethering it to our histories:
Frozen faces caught mid-shout.
Bandanas covering faces.
Smashed glass tinkled on the road.
Traffic lights that've ceased their civilian use
and become lookout posts.
Treasured moments of pure visceral emotion.
Blank eyes police security camera.
I look up from the camera
and I realise
we're in the middle
of one of the world's most important cities
Hippies rolling joints from split open fags,
soundsystems got on the blag pump out
earth shatteringly heavy dub.
The streets vibrate with joy and feet and bass.
We crack open cans,
feeling like nothing can touch us,
feeling like we're grinning,
feeling like we're winning
a game we don't know yet the rules of.
Then a long shadow of riot cops slowly line up
even though there's no riot
and we try to tie it
to logic but can't
and so bond hopelessly,
despairingly as the shadow creeps closer.
I get home late,
my head spinning
and find out later that someone died.
A newspaper vendor named Ian Tomlinson.
His final moments immortalised
in a looped, shaky video of a policeman
smacking him in the back of the legs
causing his last tumble.
They terminated one life short
but it could've been any of us.
Real lives are at risk here.
However, some faith still remained,
still retained by my concrete conditioning,
still occasionally reminiscing
on childhood ideologies
now slowly hazing away.
Wandering with a semi-stagger
back from the pub with a friend
we take a short cut through a council estate.
Through the dim orange orbish streetlights
cut blue lights and hear shouts
bounce off the dark edged walls around us.
We turn a corner and see the source:
two police vans
and ten white police shoving
around few black guys.
Faces to the wall,
the twist of wrists,
and the click of cuffs
and dull slams are coming from
inside one of the vans.
Now I don't want to judge why they were there:
could've been drugs, guns...
maybe just bored uniforms looking for kicks
but the force they were using -
sticks waving, chests puffed out,
challenging all on-comers -
was out of line.
We stand on the fringe and cringe,
feel the sudden violence singe our skin
and I get flashes of the movie Do The Right Thing.
We ask what's up,
and immediately we have a plainclothes officer
screaming in our faces:
“BACK OFF! BACK OFF! BACK OFF!”
I ask him to calm down and explain
but we get nothing but the same refrain.
Just aggression and orders.
I look down, slightly scared,
then glance across and to say something to my friend
but she's not there.
She's not there
because another officer
(who has at least a foot and half on her)
has shoved her down some steps
Scared, meekly, soundlessly protesting
I help her up.
We move back, still watching.
The violence continues in a flurrying strobe
of black and white and blue.
My friend edges a touch closer.
I'm about to join her...
and then I remember the hash I've got in my pocket.
I'm about to say “shall we go?”
when a bearlike policeman storms up to me,
grabs me by the scruff of the neck,
marches me round a corner,
spins me round,
and shouts in my face:
“What part of fuck off don't you understand?”
and then threatens me with arrest.
I try to mutter some calming words
but realise that he probably isn't in the mood
for an anger management session.
A policewoman comes into view
frogmarching my friend next to me.
the rage steaming our faces,
the rants choking our throats.
And it was that evening
my faith in them finally died
because I realised
for every one of em that smiles
and gives you the time
in another situation will be on a different side,
and prejudice burning their face.
For all they claim to be serve the public
it's nothing but a cheap trick
and when it comes down to it
they don't pay much attention to laws they impose.
If I thought, wrongly, someone was a terrorist
and gave chase
and emptied my chamber into their face
I'd be a murderer.
If I smashed someone in the legs
and they cracked their skull on the pavement
and if that meant they died
I'd be done for manslaughter.
For Jean Charles De Menesez, no police officer was found guilty.
For Ian Tomlinson, no police officer was found guilty.
And for my lack of faith in them?
They're all guilty.
Because if I were in a job
where my colleagues were found innocent of killing
due to their blood over-thrilling
I'd walk the whole world with a shameful stalk
making sure I couldn't be complicit
in any of their talk.
But police don't often do that.
They look after their own
in a taped-off zone.
And if you haven't had trouble with them yet:
your time is on loan.
And police can help with a lot of stuff
but when you get to the crunch
and something's a threat to their boss
you know which side they're on.
I've seen them prioritise government windows over people.
And yes, of course they're people too
with families, husbands, wives and friends.
Police are not exempt from society,
but it's not about good cops v bad cops.
and the right to use violence following orders
make anyone lose their humanity.
But we have the chance to keep ours
and feel empowered.
Individually we may cower
but collectively we can face them
with eyes of raw steel
and we can battle back.
Learn from my personal history
and the history of the people
stretching back a millenia
and with the past as a foundation
we can stand and we can fight.
Then ring your Mum,
explain why you did it
and make her proud.