For the second time this year, I arrived at Coventry airport on Friday evening to find Special Branch officers at my reception [see first time]. Again, I was the last passenger to leave the airport, having been searched and questioned for over 45 minutes under the Terrorism Act. But it was so obvious this time that it had nothing to do with 'terrorism', but more with my being an activist, or "an anarchist", as they put it.
Behind the Passport Check barrier, beside a little desk with a "Terrorism Act 2000" notice stuck on one side, stood officers 878 and 115 of Warwick Police in blue suits. Their task, allegedly, is to occasionally stop 'suspicious' Travel Document holders, or refugees, to search and ask them "a few questions." This was done "randomly", they claimed. Somehow, however, they seemed to know about me beforehand. "Weren't you supposed to come back yesterday, Mr so-and-so?" one of them asked me. It was the same officer who had stopped me last August here, at the same airport. Indeed, I had missed my flight the day before and had to buy a new ticket at Salzburg airport. "Was there a good reason to change your flight?" the other asked. "Yes, to confuse you a bit," I said with a sarcastic smile.
Terrorism and Terrorisation
After collecting my heavy baggage, they lead me to the Customs room. "It won't take long," they said. I asked them if I could just tell me friend, who was waiting outside with his car, that I would be delayed a little, but they said I was not allowed to use my phone. "It'll only be 2 minutes," they reassured me.
After thoroughly checking my passport again and filling in a yellow Landing Card, one of them started to unpack my bags, while the other was trying to figure out how to get into my laptop. Special Branch officers apparently need some training on Linux. I asked them very firmly whether they had the right to go through my stuff and the answer was "Yes, of course. We wouldn't be doing it if we didn't, would we?" Oh yeah, tell me about that. And did they have any reasonable grounds for their suspicions, I asked. Well, my "unfriendly attitude" apparently.
At one point, after all those supposedly tricky questions, they asked why I was being so "hostile" to the authorities. "You're just giving me another reason with what you're doing now," I said. They said something about duty and safety and terrorism, so I couldn't help saying, "Look, I think this's all rubbish; you're just using that as an excuse to terrorise people and control them."
To make things worse, the younger officer asks me, with a tone I know very well, "Why did you choose to come to Britain?" "It's none of your fucking business" would have been the obvious answer, but somehow it came out as "You can ask the immigration authorities." Apparently these people also need some training on the racism implied in such questions.
The older officer, my old friend, was the one messing with the weird Linux files and directories. He did find some stuff 'of interest', but I had already told him it wasn't a secret that I was doing some work on Islamic mosques in Western Europe. "I know your reply,” he said very sweetly, "but perhaps you would still like to talk to some of our colleagues who are interested in this kind of stuff." He got the answer he was expecting.
When I gave a seminar about my work in Vienna a couple of weeks ago, I did get two 'undercover' Austrian policemen among the audience. Fair enough; Western governments are facing a 'great', 'new' challenge called 'Islamic terrorism'. But neither there nor anywhere else did I get intelligence services trying to recruit me or spying on my work to get some useful information they can't probably get themselves. I don't think, however, that this is enough to explain all this interest in me.
They seemed to be much more interested in the other stuff I was carrying. Having been to Germany, which will host the next G8 summit, a couple of times lately, I had quite a lot of anti-G8 literature and documentaries on me, not to mention all those Indymedia stickers covering the laptops (I had the old, broken one with me, too). There was also a letter from the solicitor defending the guys who were being tried for the confrontations at last year's Anarchist Bookfair, in which I was supposed to be a witness [all five have been acquitted recently]. "So you're an anarchist," the one who was looking through the papers asked. "Yeah, I am funnily enough," I said laughing. He asked me again what I thought of the authorities and I can't remember how 'diplomatic' or confrontational my answer was.
With almost every paper, I asked him whether he really had the right to look at it or had a good excuse to do so. To be honest, though, that was more to irritate them. But when he took the CD's inside (I guessed he wanted to copy them), I was seriously concerned to the extend that I began to shout that he couldn't do that. I don't think, however, there was enough time to copy the CD's; I think he just photocopied their covers or something.
It is well known that each Special Branch division is expected to provide the names and profiles of activists expected to participate in major actions. And that's why Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT) filming protesters has become a common scene at all protests and demonstrations nowadays. What is less know is that the Special Branch, dubbed as 'political police', conducts surveillance operations for the MI5, the British Security Service.
See you next time
By now, I was really fed up with their 'clever' questions and 'friendly' comments, and my phone kept ringing all the time. It was my worried friend wondering why I hadn't come out when everyone had left the airport. Fuck knows how many "fuck"s I poured on them in my heart while re-packing all that stuff. I asked them for their names and numbers and Officer 115 wrote them down, along with their headquarters' address, on the last page of my notebook. "Thank you for your time" and "Sorry for any inconvenience," they finally said. "Yeah, whatever," I think was what I said.