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Panic on the streets of Shoreditch

Last Friday night, my husband and I had a rare night out – a proper one with a babysitter and everything. We left Kentish Town for once and went over to fashionable East London to see Luke Haines’s new film Art Will Save the World. If you are a fan of Luke Haines (which I am) or just feel nosttalgic for the 90s (which I do), the film is great fun. Go and see it. You will enjoy it. Afterwards we went for dinner – again, how nice, how middle class. It was a lovely evening and we strolled towards Old Street Roundabout to pick up our bus back to Kentish Town. Then the mood of our evening suddenly changed from one of pleasure to total paranoia.
Outside a building which I know as The Foundry, just across the road from Old Street Fire Station, a rather nasty incident was taking place. I now learn that this building is a squat – one of the outposts of the Occupy Movement and this makes perfect sense. Some scruffy and totally harmless looking characters – a bit hippyish and studenty – had painted this slogan on the wall:

This is obviously not a slogan that would make our chums in the Met very happy and by the look of it they were very unhappy indeed. One young guy was pinned to the floor and another young girl – who looked incredibly small and harmless – was bundled away into a van. A very aggressive but strangely glamorous female plain clothes officer seemed to be in charge and within what seemed to be a couple of minutes the street corner outside the building was swarming with police.

It seemed totally out of proportion and made me very angry indeed. It took literally hours for the police to arrive when we were burgled last year (and the other times before) and surely the police had better things to be doing on a Friday night? Like catching criminals or just keeping the city safe for its citizens. The behaviour seemed excessive – like it was politically motivated – and obviously since it was an  Occupy site it was exactly this.

I felt very frightened after witnessing it – I’m afraid I lost my cool and yelled a couple of naughty things (from a safe distance because I am very bourgeois at heart). I felt shaken and disturbed by the aggression and the vicious clampdown on someone just expressing their point of view. It all felt very 1984, which I am re-reading at the moment.

The incident also made me think back to last summer’s riots – where many saw the police as holding back – and forward to the Olympics at the end of the month, when it feels like London will be on some kind of security lockdown. Was this some kind of weird prelude for what we can expect this summer; even the mildest of protest stamped out within minutes?

Our cuddly Mayor Mr Boris Johnson has said there will be no riots this summer although I have heard strange rumours that more will be allowed to happen in the aftermath of the Olympics to justify the maintenance of a huge security presence in London. Maybe this is an urban myth but I guess what I’m saying is that the aggression I witnessed in the police towards the squatters doesn’t bode well. I normally laugh at people who say that we live in a fascist state but that’s exactly what I felt on Friday night.

The other thing that interested me was the total media silence on this specific incident and also the way in which news of the Occupy movement in general seems to have almost totally disappeared from the mainstream media. I only know that this place is an Occupy site because one of the mums at school told me – Kentish Town is full of activists! She was incredibly upset by my descriptions as she said there are some very vulnerable people living in the squat, with bad medical and mental health problems.  They are people who need support, not a kicking from the authorities.

However, I guess that despite their vulnerability, the message that they are giving out is dangerous and powerful, especially since PC Simon Harwood is currently in court, charged with the manslaughter of newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson.

By simply writing a slogan on a wall, the squatters are reminding us that those who uphold the law are fallible and not always to be trusted, itself an incredibly radical message.

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