Sunday, December 17, 2006

Struggling for democracy

I wasn't able to hand in my application to demonstrate at the Simulataneous Lone Mass Demo on Wednesday 20th December with Santa and the elves last week, so I went with a mate to hand it in at the local nick last week instead. (You have to hand in your form to get permission to stand in Parliament Square and peacefully protest 6 days before you turn up.)
Going to the police station to hand in a form was a very surreal experience. I've been to that police station before to report stolen phones/snatched handbags etc, and I expected to queue, probably for up to an hour, but this was something else.

My friend, who is a writer, hadn't been to this station before. She has written the whole thing up here. We arrived at the station at 16:50. We left at 19:20. The actual handing in of the form took less than 3 minutes. It was the other stuff that surprised us. (Timeline here. )

The incredible difficulty of finding a police officer who would come to the desk, for starters. I'm British, I'm used to queueing. But over two hours standing in a cold, bleak, graffitied room with distressed and anxious people who just want to hand in a form/sign something/pick up a dead man's effects/collect lost property...and for long, long periods there is nobody at the reception desk who will help you is soul-destroyingly frustrating.

Especially when you can see police officers through the reception desk shatter-proof glass standing about talking and photocopying things in the office . You can call to them, you can huff, you can wave, but they look past you and they will not come. Sometimes an officer would come to the reception desk to get something, or pop out of a door and they would not meet anyone's eyes, even though we - a room full of queuing, getting-upset people who'd been waiting for hours - were a few feet away.

It's odd, being so comprehensively officially ignored by uniformed officers who simply pretend you are not there. You feel like a wraith. A pissed-off, hungry, invisible wraith. You feel like scum, in fact. You start to hate the police. And I don't hate the police, I have been treated brilliantly by the police I have come into contact with and am enormously grateful to the Operation Sapphire detectives who have helped me in the past with the stranger-attack in 2002, and to the Met police who are helping me now with a case of harrassment. But if a wussy liberal like me can get to the point of considering inciting a riot in a crappy North London police station out of sheer headbanging frustration then I am not surprised that ''community relations'' get a tad tense at times...

Still we all made the best of it, we angry ghosts waiting under the flourescent, flickering striplights. It would have been a lot worse if we'd all been having a go at each other while we were queueing. As it was, we all got on quite well. There was a cameraderie found which made me think that if I do end up in hell for all eternity, at least I'll get on with people.

At one point my friend, me, the Irish Man, Nice Sex Offender Who Needed to Sign Form, ASBO-Boys on Bail, Swedish Lost Property Girl and Woman with Clipboard had a perfectly serious conversation about whether we should pretend to have a mass brawl to get the police officers we could see through the glass of the untended reception desk to stop photocopying/drinking tea and come to the window and take some notice of the people waiting to talk to an empty desk.

The police officer manning the desk had gone, you see. We could still see her, through the glass. She was taking a detailed, handwritten statement off a man who had come in to complain of harrassment. His stalker had accompanied him to the police station, and continued to circle the reception area whilst we all queued. Occasionally she would rap on the door and gaze hungrily at the object of her desires through the glass as he talked to the (once) desk officer.

We all abandoned the fake riot idea in the end though, as one of the AsBoys had another suggestion...

'18.40AsBoy, who more closely resembles the Artful Dodger (the 60s film version) by the minute, hangs around the inner door. “If you kick it, they will come out,” he explains to us in matter-of-fact voice of experience. “But they *will* arrest you.” Start to weigh up pros and cons of this option.'

It's almost as if the police don't want you, surely not.

An officer came to the desk in the end, a sweet-faced dark-haired young woman who apologised for the delay when it was our turn at the window. She didn't know what to do with the SOCPA forms. We told her how to fill them in; she thanked us. We left. Then we looked at the forms. They hadn't been filled in, just photo-copied. We went back. We explained. She filled them in. Wrongly. 'Shall I stamp them?' she asked. We said, yes, please, it proves that we were here. That we exist and the station exists and we saw you and it wasn't all a dream.

Anyway, it takes more than a two+ hour wait to put me off legitimate political protest, and if that is the future - an interminable limbo of bureaucratic form-filling and waiting endlessly to be seen, heard, validated by an unsympathetic, chaotic State Machine - then I'm even more determined to make my point about why that's a bollocks way to carry on. Whilst I still can.


Blogger jailhouselawyer said...

It's called the waiting game, Rachel. I recall that prisoners would be placed in sweat boxes in the Reception Area of prisons at 6am, to await the transport to court at 9am.

The Criminal Justice System has adopted the paperwork model from the States. It is supposed to make the work more efficient, but all it does is detract from the work and bogs everyone down in paperwork. All those poor trees!

One of my favourite songs is Time is on my side, by the Rolling Stones. Rocky has just come to let me know that it is time for his afternoon walk. Must go...

December 17, 2006 1:59 pm  
Blogger Davide Simonetti said...

How awful! What a contrast to the good-humoured and efficient way they deal with SOCPA protesters at Charing Cross police station which can be nearly as much of a laugh as the actual protest.

I loved Rabbit Strike's post. As I commented over there, it's a perfect snapshot of 21st Century Britain.

Anyway I'm looking forward to December 20th, it should be fun.

December 17, 2006 3:00 pm  
Blogger Rachel said...

I know it was only a few hours, and as Jailhouse Lawyer says, people have to go through much worse.

It was just so depressingly inefficient and hopeless. YOu can see why people get exasperated with it. To make people go through that whole process just to have a peaceful demo is ridiculous.

I wish I had gone to Charing Cross. We considered giving up and going there at 6pm, but we thought, nah, won't be much longer...

December 17, 2006 3:17 pm  
Blogger Leighton Cooke said...

What a nightmare! Blair's Britain live.

December 17, 2006 5:54 pm  
Blogger Woffle said...

I'm lazy, and probably too apathetic too stand in the cold protesting about the right to protest in the middle of December. But every time I read about these protests it sounds like something I should be doing. Keep it up people. And one day maybe I'll have the guts/energy to join you.

December 17, 2006 8:23 pm  
Anonymous Graham O'Mara said...

Now a question.... I was not originally planning to visit this... single protester on Wed, but now find myself free.

Can I come and look, as long as I do not join in? :)

Thank you

December 18, 2006 2:15 am  
Blogger janinsanfran said...

This experience sounds exactly like going to a hospital emergency room in the States with any malady except a gushing wound. The personnel seem extremely practiced at looking through you.

December 18, 2006 7:15 am  

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