Almost immediately, a police officer appeared on foot in response to a call from Cricket, entered the shop, came out, asked for a copy of our leaflet, read and returned it and left. Hard on his heels, a large police van (registration Y758 XRN) arrived and parked close to the shop front, blocking its entrance and impeding pedestrians and customers alike. People (including those pushing buggies) had to navigate their way either side of the van and through the exhaust fumes from its engine. This was left running for the hour or so the van was there (The officer vehemently refused a polite request to turn it off, given the health hazard and environmental pollution it presented in what is a narrow street).
The officer’s first target was a young man in a rabbit costume holding a poster and standing to one side of the shop front away from the actual entrance. The officer was from the outset hostile, verbally aggressive and abusive, shouting and stabbing his index finger towards the face of the human ‘rabbit’ through the window of his van. When I went over to ask what was the problem, he turned on me, shouting aggressively ‘SHUT UP’, and referring to us as ‘YOU PEOPLE’ in a manner which clearly identified us as ‘scum’ on the street.
In addition to using insulting language and name-calling (recognised bullying tactics; ‘muppet’ was how he addressed the young man), his body language was classically macho and dominant: physical proximity was meant to be too close for comfort, and he had a hands-on approach, physically brawling with one of the other men, as he tried to grab his phone from him. His behaviour was obviously meant to frighten, as well as incite us to react and provide a reason for arrest.
Given the larger picture of what’s going on in society, how did a small, low-key action about animal cruelty and abuse, and how we shouldn’t kill or violate animals in order to dress ourselves, attract this kind of policing? We could all quote examples of individuals in real danger, who have rung for assistance and failed to attract any response, never mind one so speedy. (I think for example, of a lone woman householder faced with physical intimidation and actual attack from male strangers at night outside her home in Waterloo several years ago.) By contrast, the speed and intensity of the police response outside this shop suggests that there is a police hotline to provide rapid response, private security to local businesses.
As justification, the officer mentioned the shop as a tax payer, as if we weren’t, and with his thumbs tucked into his flack jacket, he bellowed repeatedly about ‘the law of the land’. It was clear he felt he could do or say anything and get away with it. He had arrived in a fever of hostility, and at no point was he calm or respectful towards us. His sole aim was to frighten us off the street, away from the shop. He threatened us with the fact that we would be filmed for the rest of the afternoon and reiterated the likelihood of arrest. It was like being treated as vandals or terrorists, rather than citizens with legal rights, going about a peaceable action.
One of the women protesters was later verbally abused by an older white male, who called her a ‘cunt’ with some venom, as he walked off. Somehow I can’t imagine Officer 8008 stepping in to arrest a man for aggressive, sexist abuse. In their macho posturing and (gendered) verbal aggressivity, on this occasion I was only aware of how much these two different men had in common. And if the woman protester had hit out at the male pedestrian in reaction, she would no doubt have been the one arrested for affray.
Given the wider demands on the City to best deploy its officers and equipment to maintain safety on the streets, to protect people at risk, to obstruct and prevent crime and catch those responsible for violence and criminal activity, this kind of over-the-top response to legal behaviour by ‘ordinary people’, which poses no threat whatsoever to anybody, is highly questionable. Actions and events such as these are part of the legitimate, necessary and desirable social dialogue about what kind of society and City we are and what kind of society and City we want to be (a process now being promoted by our new Prime Minister). As we know from the many high-profile cases reported in the media, thugs in uniform cause as much trouble for that civic process as ‘thugs in shell suits’ or ‘hoodies’.
On joining Merseyside Police in 1997, you had responsibility for Community Affairs, prior to your appointment as Chief Constable in 2004. You have demonstrated an awareness of and a certain commitment to the idea of civic process and social responsibility. The policing I describe here is not only wasteful of your resources; it is also destructive of the trust you need to do your real job effectively in and for the community. It was the behaviour of the officer on this occasion, which drew a small crowd of onlookers who, when I approached them to explain what was going on, while the confrontation and scuffling continued, seemed sympathetic, aware of the issues and prepared to comment.
This whole incident would suggest Liverpool’s ‘community’ is being carved up into business and ‘Other’: the former ‘clean’, the latter ‘dirty’. Is this what being European Capital of Culture holds in store for its people, as City centre streets are cleared of everyone except affluent shoppers and tourists? Lifestyle frenzy protected, activism criminalized.
The prospect of such a social and cultural meltdown in Liverpool is grim and real and needs resisting. I don’t pay taxes to see my local police become part of such a corruption of civic society. I would like to know what steps you are taking or will take in future, in terms of the training of your officers, to prevent such a deterioration. A public conversation would be helpful.
V. A. Walsh