Aaron & I chat with two members of Wu Ming about literature, politics, myth and history. It’s a good one, have a listen.
“If you have a truth but you always tell it in an identical way, it becomes a lie. It loses its meaning.”
Above, a speech delivered by a member of ‘EDL LGBT’, which is grotesque, but worth watching because it gives very clear insight into how the EDL is positioning itself. In between the rhetorical colour of ‘left fascists’ and the various evils of UAF, there’s selective misinformation, outright falsehood, and the heavy beating of a drum for ‘cultural’ war – a kind of racism where skin colour is displaced on to nebulous claims about immiscible cultures. This is heavily seasoned with lots of blether about human rights, though presumably only for humans of a paler variety.
Of course, a lot of the outright lies fall apart on casual inspection: a quick trudge through East London will tell you that LGBT people are very far from being driven out of it. The claim that the speaker (‘Tommy English’, which sounds closer to a dodgy nom-de-porn than anything else) can’t see any homophobes among the EDL crowd would be easily disproved if he read their various forums and Facebook discussions. That’s quite important: many members of the EDL will quite happily say in semi-privacy that the rainbow flags on their demos exist solely to goad ‘the other side.’ That might be partly self-delusion – as EDL LGBT does, as above, actually exist – but it’s a common argument among the support base.
But the thing is, these factoids don’t rely on their truth to work their effect: even when disproven, or contextualised, they take on the status of little myths to fan up the flames of the culture war. They remain in circulation. That East London story has a long history: it was also the basis for organising an East London Pride with organisers linked to the EDL. (An event that fevered the culture-clash fantasies of innumerable gay journalists, especially noted plagiarist Johann Hari.)
Surprising as it might seem, there’s a venerable tradition of far-right, even neo-Nazi, gay people – Nicky Crane being the most famous, double life and all – and outside of that, there’s ongoing racism of extraordinary dimensions within the mainstream gay community itself. I’d argue, of course, that a gay liberation politics that got lost from its systemic roots was always liable to reproduce other prejudices in newly ‘liberated’ spaces, and thereby fail to bring about the genuinely emancipatory dreams of early gay radicals – which were of total social transformation, rather than just pink pound cocktails and a wider selection of high-price niche sex toys.
But, that to one side, we ought to be strengthening our opposition to racism – yes, including culturalised racism, and yes, even when it means calling out your friends – in LGBT spaces, while giving no ground on homophobia and transphobia. That seems obvious, but one LGBT space – Halfway to Heaven, off Trafalgar Square – merrily served EDL all through their demonstration on Monday. That has got to be resisted, actively.
And perhaps, here, it’s worth also noting that David Copeland, who planted nail bombs in Brixton, Brick Lane and in the Admiral Duncan Pub in Soho, a gay bar, would find much to agree with in the politics of the EDL. He was also a member of the BNP, which is calling a march from Woolwich to Lewisham this Saturday. South London Antifascists are organising to oppose them – and LGBT people should consider joining us on Saturday, and rejecting these racists from our social spaces, our communities, and our beds.
Nigel Falange riding to Westminster in a sedan chair carried by the sweating, gurning, clueless shower of BBC journalists for whom he exerts such a fascination. He daintily extends a boot – British leather, of course – for Nick Robinson to lick. Across the country, moustachioed & spittle-flecked colonels (retd.) blimp their way through shabby primary school halls to cast their vote for a man (and, really, politics should be left to the men, none of this trendy degenerate feminonsense) who’ll sort out the ravening hordes of ‘asylum’ seekers who probably hide round corners so we never quite see them. Each of them ambles home to a long-suffering wife, who briefly contemplates how much rat poison she could get away with putting in the mashed potato, before settling down to another choleric divagation on the evils of hijabi marxism. At the end of the evening, each sleeps the sleep of the damned, which is restful, and dreams of a silvered wall, three miles high, keeping this forever England.
Certain of our esteemed betters who scrape their living together in disreputable papers telling us all what we should think have of late become obsessed – haunted – by the spectre of the mob, which has emerged from the shadowy recesses of the internet to disagree with them. A certain distressed moaning about civility and manners follows shortly on the heels of a great and low groan about people having the temerity to answer back. Mob! Mob! A great and unwieldy mass of disagreement and incivility which lends some joy to an inspection of the torrent of daily published pabulum – a grim and low gruel in whose greasy depths float lumps of fourth-hand opinion, undigested chunks of theory and slimy clumps of gratuitous offence.
Mob! You have broken the silent contract in which your gratitude is expected! Grovel in gratitude to those who condescend to write about you! Mob! Do you not know that you are supposed to sit still with lips sewn shut? Mob! Mob! Do not question! Do not speak!
It is a curious term for those who polish their left-wing halos to use. Some citations:
- Arch-reactionary and sentimentalist-in-chief Edmund Burke: ‘Lord George Gordon..having..raised a mob (excuse the term, it is still in use here) which pulled down all our prisons.’ (Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790)
- Affronted 19th century Liberal M.E. Grant Duff: ‘The mob of the great cities..is hostile to us.’ (A Political Survey, 1868)
- Joseph Addison, littéraire, with a manicured sneer into a thronging crowd: ‘A cluster of mob, who were making themselves merry with their betters.’ (… Freeholder, 1716)
- Indignant Lord Chancellor, Lord Brougham, in horror of the people: ‘I do not mean the populace—the mob: I never have bowed to them.’ (Speeches, 1838)
- A wheezing nightmare in the bastion of bourgeois taste, Harper’s Magazine, in this our contemporary age: ’One ghost is terror of a self-aware, politicized proletariat—the age-old mugwumpish fear that the mob may organize to destroy the last fragile vestiges of civilized life.’ (Dec., 1993)
Of course, the word itself means simply, or historically, people in movement – people (who are inconvenient and have tongues in their mouths, and who, worse, use them to answer) risen from passivity. An imperfect audience. Mobile. Indeed:
- The snorting fear of a 1697 aristocrat: ‘Ye mobele was very rud to ye Dutch Imbasidor & his wife.’ (Memoirs of the Verney family from the Restoration to the Revolution 1660-1696, )
- In 1714, an issue of the Spectator tantalises with ambiguity, but our fervent hope is that they were the sort of clubs one goes armed with: ‘ The Mobile were very sarcastick with their Clubs.’ (Nov., 1714)
- Chambers in 1857 looks down its nose to tell us, thus: ‘In these agitations, the populace of London was particularly active; and it was at this period that the term mob was first used. The word was an abbreviation of mobile vulgus, a phrase signifying ‘the unsteady vulgar’.’
Ah, the UNSTEADY VULGAR. And this is their name for the speaking crowd: unpossessed of the clear light of steady reason, the celestial eyrie of the columnist, giddy in vulgarity! Ungrateful!
To leave the best word till last, and spoken with the tremulous fear and jowled outrage only a lawyer can muster:
- Roger North flushes from the page in distemper: ‘This Mob-assembly was drawn together for the Purpose of Terror.’ (Examen, 1740)
How much of my style comes from reading this stuff.
How do you know a cop is lying?
His mouth moves.
I started thinking about police logbooks during the recent trial of Alfie Meadows and Zak King. Now that trial is over, and the two defendants are finally acquitted and free, I thought I’d note some of the things I was thinking about as police gave evidence. What is missing below is the vertiginous sense of contempt and disgust I felt as I watched each officer gurn, squirm and smarm their way through evidence. It is difficult precisely to capture in words that loathing, but it has something to do with the sense of oozing complicity, violent braggadocio and sheer estrangement from truth that came from each of them.
During major public order events, police officers record the events of the day, the decisions they make and the actions they take in logbooks; these logbooks, taken together, form the primary record of police actions on the day. They are laid out as a series of facing pages: on the left-hand side is a record of the events as they happened, with a note of the time, on the right-hand side is a space for later recording the rationale for decisions taken, written up after the event. They form the basis for later statements; in court they are placed alongside surveillance material and form the basis for oral testimony.
A claim for the importance of these notebooks might run thus: they provide the only contemporaneous account not just of the day, but of the mind of the officers recording them, and the reasoning behind their responses. In other words, the notebooks are little memory machines, and all officers using them are engaged in an augmented practice of memory. They are assumed to be accurate mirrors of the truth, with the right-hand page glossing the subsurface processes of reason, drawing together the disparate facts of the day into a series of reasoned policing decisions.
Naive advocates of transparency – people who believe the solution to everything lies in generating endless documentation – might rejoice at these notebooks. The thoughts of police officers as they happen! Right there on the page! The obvious objection to this is, of course, even at the immediate level there is a complex process of selection and filtering going on – as is the case whenever anyone writes something down. The more important officers have their own loggists, at one remove. But the other assumption is that the logbook is like a personal diary, or testament, where the writer tries to accurately capture something of the traffic between internal thought and external event; this is our current dominant way of thinking about writing. Perhaps the logbook shares some common features with the ancient hypomnema: a personal log on a theme, event, series of examples which, while having some relation to the individual, is hardly intimate in the same way.
But this isn’t a satisfactory way of thinking about them either: they are a unique form of police writing. As police documents of public order, they are written as observations of a crowd to which the author is hostile and which – in the police imagination – is always on the brink of disorder. (For the police imagination, disorder is a latent fact of crowds, and the very act of being in a crowd is suspicious.) The document is written always with one eye to justification, with multiple gaps and silences. Here are some salient features of these documents:
TIME: While the left-hand page records events more-or-less as they happened, the right-hand page is full of later glosses on those events and the decisions made because of them. In other words, we’re presented with a document written at two different points in time, the second column presenting a series of post-facto justifications extracted from the multiplicity of events in the first. From these logs, too, later statements might be constructed. So, we have a series of intervals in time, of varying lengths, in which it’s inescapable that conversation and conferral will occur. Indeed, non-command police witnesses will often happily disclose that their later statements are written in canteens, with others; from one synthetic document to a statement written in the presence of, and after conversation with, other officers – ample cause for suspicion, you might think.
WHO’S WHO: The left-hand column, recording events of the day, features a series of characters popping up and disappearing into the ether; every so often a line will record a rumour, a misobservation, or apparent significant fact that disappears unremarked. So a rumour of armed men in the crowd might be recorded, or a cryptic remark about ‘known troublemakers’, or a violent crowd unevidenced in video of the same moment. This shouldn’t really be a surprise in subjective documents: misapprehension, rumour, and misreading of a crowd will be structuring features of a document written by an adrenal officer with a hostile eye. But, again, these documents are not simply private reflections, but also lay claim to be the observations of trained and (as far as possible) objective observers; they straddle the divide between private and public, and make the claim that the private sentiment of officers *is* public truth.
Entries that turn out to be untrue aren’t noted as such afterwards in the log; they sit side-by-side with & undistinguished from other uncontroversial jottings. It is by some miraculous luck, therefore, that those statements which do turn out to be untrue play little apparent role in the decision-making process recorded opposite. This might simply be the natural habit of weighting as important those events known (retrospectively) to be true when coming to explain one’s decisions later, and discarding those one later realises are untrue (though not marking them as such). But: what fortune no stupid decisions were made based on hostile observation! An ungenerous mind might suggest that either these entries were not really believed at the time, or that they ought to afford some embarrassment and demand explanation in the aftermath. For instance, if one really believed there were armed and dangerous people in a containment, would you choose to violently contain them with thousands of other people you claim to believe are innocent?
JUSTIFICATION: Police officers tend to make much of their training in appropriate conduct in public order and containment, especially when called to explain their conduct in court. This means that their explanations for decisions logged in the books tend to read like rote phrases culled from training manuals: invoking a particular phrase justifies a particular decision. If – as I’m suggesting – these notes are written with one attentive eye to their later examination, then these phrases also stand as means of exculpation and explanation. What disappears in between these two pages is the process of interpretation itself: between the recorded events (already slanted) on the left-hand page, and the explanation on the right, stands a process of interpretation on the part of the decision-maker, not present in the standard benchmarks to justify containment, horse-charges, use of force and so on. What is implicit is the claim that police interpretation is always correct interpretation. The question of time slips in again here, where written explanations are subject to filtering through the framework officers know needs to be applied as justification for a decision.
The training given to officers also extends to ‘duty of care’ for ‘vulnerable persons’, especially in containment, something each officer is primed to respond with whenever asked. (The question of who’s not vulnerable in an hours-long containment lined with riot-suited, baton-wielding cops in zero-degree weather goes curiously unasked here.) They will even record allowing vulnerable people through a cordon, or rescuing them from the containment. This is the sine qua non of ‘humane’ policing: it has to be noted, because it is the ethical and political defence of kettling itself. Of course, the number of vulnerable people actually finding and successfully using an exit is unsurprisingly low; a video of a young woman being dragged out and screaming for a cop to unhand her adduced in evidence might suggest that the police concept of ‘care’ is rather different to yours and mine.
UNSEEN: It’s unsurprising that, where a log (or statement) mentions police use of force, it’s never excessive; in fact, show them a video of baton strikes across the face of someone with their hands up in surrender, and they’ll cast around for all sorts of fantasy justification. The logic is: the police are right, therefore there must have been reason. Even with the warped perspective of police notes, you might think that it’s still easy to reconstruct – via critical reading – some coherent picture of the lines of communication and decision-making on the day. Instead, officers make clear that, alongside the radio conversations and log notes, command officers are connected with encrypted telephones, on which they confer regularly. There are no records of these calls, nor what was discussed in them, even in most general terms. The fact that they occur at all is inconsistently noted in logs. It seems, therefore, there is a semi-public formal record – with the potential to be examined in court, and written with all the awareness that this requires – alongside a backchannel process of conferral and decision-making which remains purely private and inaccessible to anyone else, with all the gaps and unanswered questions you might expect from such a system. Where are the real decisions made?
What I’m suggesting, then, is something that will come as little surprise to most people reading this: that police logbooks are partial documents, shot through with hostility to the crowd, and possessed of a particular paranoid style; further, that they are documents full of gaps and holes, and that in the slippages and inconsistencies, one can sometimes see a wholly different picture of policing slip through. I am suggesting, also, that these logs and statements are also records of a particular practice of police memory: which synthesises and collects disparate data into an official form, minimising and sidelining inconvenient notes, and presenting a post-facto rationale alongside the often sketchy and displaced contemporaneous record. They are without doubt written from an internalised lexis of force and justification, and with one eye towards their utility as evidence in court.
But these documents also escape from their authors: they contain discrepancies, and a careful attention to them – when they are available at all – can paint a fuller picture than their authors expect, especially where multiple logs don’t match. They also record stories that police might subsequently want to minimise: we wouldn’t know, for instance, that a commander on the ground called for rubber bullets to shoot at students on December 9th. Doubtless the police know this – and this may well be why it’s rarely easy for defence teams to actually access these logs themselves.
In short, if the documents are the particular record of a paranoid and hostile observer, then sufficient intelligent disentangling of the logs and cross-comparison can reveal more than they ever realised they were writing down and bring about the profoundly dislocating moment when you lay bare the sinister logic behind them. The next question that comes from them is this: they lay bare what’s not recorded, not noted… I wonder what was said in those encrypted phone calls?
I wrote about the forthcoming Alfie Meadows & Zak King trial, about justice, violence and solidarity:
On Monday, the third iteration of the trial of Alfie Meadows and Zak King begins at Woolwich Crown Court. It is now over two years since the student demonstration in Parliament Square, in which Meadows was near-fatally injured. It is possible, over the extended period of time in which this laughterless farce has played out, to become inured to its central scandal: after the police beat a demonstrator so badly he requires three hours of brain surgery, they decide to arrest him for ‘violent disorder’; having subjected him to the unrefined punishment of the baton strike, they decide to subject him to the refined and bureaucratic punishment of the courtroom. I reproduce the image above – which often heads articles, posters and campaign leaflets – because it is a reminder that every manicured expression of outrage that comes from the prosecution is intended to occlude this violence. It is a reminder that there are real people, and real bodies, at the centre of this struggle. It ought to shock, scandalise and anger us.
You may read the rest here, and if you’re in London, please come to the solidarity demonstration outside Woolwich Crown Court, this Monday (11th) at 9am