Sunday, February 05, 2006

A loss of moral equilibrium

Plod Blair, aka, Sir Ian, Commissioner of the 31,000-strong Metropolitan Police Service, may not have thought it necessary to arrest the Muslim demonstrators last Friday. But it is good to know that other officers, including some of his own, have a much sterner view of the law, and are considerably more diligent in upholding it.

In June 2005, for instance, Oxford student Sam Brown was taken to court by the police for making "homophobic comments", whence he was fined £80.

His precise offence was “insulting a police horse”, calling it “gay” after he had left a night club in Oxford with a group of friends, where he had been celebrating his finals. The police had radioed for backup and then proceeded to pursue him at a trot. Two squad cars arrived at the scene and six policemen surrounded the student, who was handcuffed and taken to a police station, where he was kept in the cells overnight until charged.

But if horses are so sensitive, what price the motorist whom made V-signs at a speed camera. He was unwise enough to take both hands off the wheel to do so and was convicted of dangerous driving and banned for a year by a Scottish court - even though it was acknowledged that he was not speeding and did not lose control.

The man who used his middle finger to express his opinion of another one of these mobile cash machines fared better with only an £80 fine, despite also driving within the speed limit. He was stunned to find two plods at his doorstep half an hour after he had made his views known and even more so when they handed him a fixed-penalty ticket under the Public Order Act for making offensive gestures.

In October last year, John Banda, a 74-year old Zambian accountant, devout Christian and formerly treasurer of the United Church of Zambia, found another way or attracting the ire of the plods.

To demonstrate his faith, he sometimes carries a placard containing two quotations from the New Testament: "Jesus Christ is Lord. Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out." On 26 October, he was stopped near London Bridge by three policemen, who said that the wording was in breach of the Public Order Act 1986.

The plods had decided it was a criminal offence to display written material which is "threatening, abusive or insulting" and intended to "stir up racial hatred". The policemen told him in no uncertain fashion that, if he continued to display his placard, he would be arrested.

This month, however, a campaigner against ID cards, who had been filmed outside the Labour Party conference in the autumn, and stopped under counter-terror laws while collecting signatures for a petition, was told by police that his details will be kept on file indefinitely.

Mark Wallace, campaign manager for the Freedom Association, was outside the Labour Party conference in Brighton last autumn when he was detained under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. The measure gives officers wide powers to stop anyone in a designated area, whether or not they are acting suspiciously.

"One minute I was peacefully collecting signatures,” he says, “and the next I had five policemen around me, one with a video camera recording my every move and another taking my personal details, address and so on."

During the Labour conference, 426 people were stopped under section 44 of the Terrorism Act. None was charged or convicted. Official figures show that nationally 119,000 people were stopped under the powers between 2001 and early 2005, and only 1,515 of these were arrested.

Wallace shared the same fate as heckler Walter Wolfgang, an 82-year-old activist, who was summarily ejected from the conference hall after he had dared called foreign secretary Jack Straw a liar.

At first Sussex police denied that Mr Wolfgang had been detained or searched but a spokesman later admitted that he had been issued with a section 44 stop and search form under the Terrorism Act. Mr Wolfgang said: "We have reached a situation where freedom of expression has been threatened. I am not surprised, because the Labour Party has been taken over by a gang of adventurers who are on their way out."

Then there was the famous case of the vegan cook, Maya Anne Evans. Police might have been forgiven for arresting her on sight in view of her profession, but instead they arrested her for reading out names of soldiers killed in Iraq at central London's Cenotaph. She was found guilty of breaching Section 132 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, after a three-hour trial.

Ever watchful guardians of public morals that they are, the police also moved in to arrest a 20-year-old gamekeeper for wearing a "Bollocks to Blair" T-shirt at the Midlands Game Fair. Charlotte Denis, 20, a gamekeeper from Gloucestershire, was stopped by police as she left the Countryside Alliance stand because of the "offensive" slogan.

She was marched towards a police car. "They grabbed me as if I was a football hooligan," she says. When she asked the officers how they could arrest someone for wearing a T-shirt, she was told that “it was because it would offend a 70-80-year-old woman."

Finally, there was the case of Nicky Samengo-Turner, formerly an investment banker, now works in the Formula 1 motor-racing industry. His car was searched during a random "anti-terror" search, when the police found Victorinox Swiss multi-tool a small collapsible baton, locked in his briefcase.

He was arrested, fingerprinted, verbally abused and then detained in a cell, finally to be assaulted by the arresting officer before being charged and released on bail, only to find his car had been given a parking ticket.

These are the cases that have been highly publicised, but any number of people can tell you similar tales where the police have totally over-reacted, not least myself. They broke into my house at 11.30 on a Saturday night to arrest me for non-payment of Council Tax, withheld in protest after police inaction following a rash of burglaries, keeping me locked up until the Monday when my wife could finally draw the money from a bank.

When these actions are contrasted with the stunning inactivity of the plods to the Muslim protestors and their banners, you begin to realise that there is something seriously wrong with the state of this nation. One explanation given by a former senior policeman on Sky TV this afternoon was that the police were worried about how it might look on Al Jazeera if there was violence between the police and the protesters.

But, when there is no prospect of Al Jazeera filming, it seems anything goes. Nothing is too small or too slight to escape the attention of the long arm of the law. Small wonder, people are becoming increasingly resentful at the way they are being treated.


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