I was watching a slug move slowly across the pavement, hoping that the sun wouldn’t dry it out after all the excitement of the afternoon’s thunderstorms, when the police came back.
I had been waiting outside for my housemates for all of about 30 seconds before I started looking at the slug. And then I looked up, saw a police van and followed its path up the road for as long as I would have the 484 bus or any other vehicle that was passing at that point. I thought nothing of it and then resumed my idle watch of the bushes, wall and pavement outside the property I rent.
The officer on the driver-side rolled down the window and asked me how I was doing. I started to tremble. This has happened before, yet I was still surprised when the side door slid open and two more officers hopped quickly out and stood uncomfortably and imposingly close to me, cutting off what they must have assumed would be my escape route.
In all honesty, part of me did want to run, probably for the same reason I was trembling: an automatic, human reaction to fear. I was scared.
A few years back I had been overexcited to see a friend of mine play a gig with his brilliant band. I turned up an hour early and after speaking to the bouncers for a while thought it would be nice to watch the city pass me by, so I did. A few minutes in and it became clear to one local police patrol that I might well be a drug dealer. Similar to yesterday, a van rolled up and an officer jumped out, followed by five of his colleagues. I can’t remember exactly what shape they formed around me, but with my back against the wall it felt like a semi-circle. I felt trapped, and the adrenaline surged.
This happened during one of the peaks of the anti-terror laws. I had been stopped and searched a number of times previously. The first time, at London Liverpool Street station, I had been politely cooperative.
Absurdly, it had not occurred to me until shortly after I had been allowed to go on my way that it was not fine for a police officer to ask me whether or not I had any religious materials in my bag. At the time I was reading the Quran and the Bible and I was promoting the New Internationalist magazine, which contained a fair amount of religious commentary. This was all noted. The reason for being stopped and searched that time- according to the scribbled form I was given- was that I had been circling the station. I had stopped, once to look at a fruit stand and then, yes, I had circled the station once to look for my colleague who I was waiting for. Many other people in the station were doing similar things.
The next time, as I was running for a train at Blackheath station, a policeman asked me whether I had a moment. ‘Sorry, I really don’t, that’s my train.’ I was on my way to work, running late. ‘You do,’ he said, angrily. ‘I’m not asking.’ I missed my train.
I had been stopped and searched previously, but these two times were under anti-terrorism pretences. Both experiences left me feeling uncomfortable, violated and confused. Angry, too.
So as the officers semi-circled me against the wall, I immediately felt uncomfortable. I would be calm, I told myself. And then the officer asked me, jovially, ‘Do you have any drugs on you?’
‘No, I don’t’. I was trying to be calm but I was offended. I half laughed.
‘Are you sure?’
‘I’m sure.’ I laughed, fully. This was funny, right?
‘Well, I’m going to need to check.’
Inside something dropped, which I find hard to describe. Something attached to my soul and related to a sense of liberty. It dropped away, to where I don’t know.
‘Please don’ t do this.’ I said.
‘I’m sorry, but we need to search you.’
‘Why? On what grounds? Please don’t do this.’
He explained to me what I knew he would: that under anti-terrorism laws he was able to stop and search me, without any reason, because permission had been granted from on high. I cannot remember the words he used. His colleagues stood silently. People on the street were watching this unfold, watching me- presumably a criminal being brought, presumably, to justice.
I relented, releasing what little dignity remained. I lifted my arms, spread my legs, turned my pockets, explained why I was carrying so many tissues (I was ill, my nose running fairly constantly). I turned around, took off my shoes, let them search my bag and leaf through the pages of my personal journal. I asked him why he was doing this. He didn’t answer. He was looking for something, anything. I felt like a chest of drawers or an old filing cabinet. I felt like something that was in the way, a pile of old paperwork which had been accidentally kept and was now just in the way of whatever it was that needed finding. He didn’t find it. It wasn’t there.
After they had finished searching me I stood, with my hands in my pockets, feeling like he had in fact found something and had taken it from me.
I asked again why he had searched me. I honestly did not understand.
‘Take your hands out of your pockets.’ He said to me.
‘Take your hands, out of your pockets.’
‘No. These are my hands and my pockets.’ They had already searched them.
At this point, the officer pulled one of my hands from my pocket, so quickly that I was still holding all of the coins in my closed fist by the time he had turned me around, pushed my face against the wall and shackled one of my wrists to the other.
I panicked, I shouted for him to get off, get off me you dirty prick! Fuck OFF! PLEASE! HELP ME! SOMEBODY PLEASE!
I’d imagine people were still watching this happen. Clearly I was insane, or drunk, or high. Surely I deserved it. No reason to intervene.
His colleagues were helping him now.
This was too much. I snapped, I struggled.
‘WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?! GET OFF OF ME! FUCK YOU YOU DIRTY PRICK!’
‘Calm down! Stop struggling.’ Typing those words has reduced me to tears, years later.
By now I was somehow facing forwards again, coins in my hand. My nose had started to run so I asked that they allow me to get a tissue.
‘Then please can you take one from my pocket?’
I spat at the ground.
‘Then fuck you.’
‘Do not spit at me.’
‘I spat on the floor.’
‘Do not spit at me. And don’t swear at me.’
I did not know how to express myself. I was shackled and being held at each arm by police officers. I spat at the ground.
‘You are disgusting,’ I said. ‘You sicken me.’
‘If you spit at us or swear again you will be arrested.’
‘I’m not spitting at you, I’m spitting on the ground. You are disgusting. You disgust me.’ I spat at the ground and they bundled me into the back of the van, reciting that filmic mantra. Did I understand? No I didn’t.
In the van on the way to the police station I cried. I leant my head against the side of the van and wept.
‘Oh come on mate, don’t cry.’
At the police station they booked me in and asked me the usual questions. They asked me if I was on any medication.
‘I’m taking sertraline. Do you know what that’s for?’
I was one week into my first ever attempt at taking medication for my recently diagnosed depression. I had weeks before found it difficult to leave the flat I was living in because I thought that everyone was looking at me and talking about me wherever I went. I had phoned my sister, bewildered, in tears, and told her that I wished that none of our family cared about me because that would be easier. I had learned to tie a noose from a tie but had decided that I wanted to be alive and that I wanted to regain what I had had before. I decided to go to the doctors and this time I decided to take medication and I decided to get in touch with old friends and not be so scared of making new friends. That was part of the reason I was finally going to see my friend’s band, after letting him down so many times before.
They took my belt, my shoelaces and designated an officer to watch me in case I killed myself.
The duty sergeant decided they had done enough and that they should put me in a cell. At this point, the officer who had searched me originally told the duty sergeant that he believed there were grounds to search me further.
‘What does that mean?’
Minutes later I was in a cold, windowless room. It wasn’t quite how I’d imagined it. The two officers- who had already searched me on the street- sat at the far wall. They instructed me to take off my top half of clothing so that I was bare-chested, and to turn slowly around, to lift my arms. Thank you. Great. I was instructed to put my shirt back on and then to remove my trousers, my underwear and my socks. Turn around for us, please. Thank you. Now please lift up your testicles. Thank you. And now squat for us. Spread your cheeks, please. Great, thank you. Okay, you can put your clothes back on now.
Sat in the cell, I had a calm conversation with one of the officers who had helped to arrest me earlier. He was on suicide watch- or rather I was. Absurdly, I apologised for my actions. He told me they were worried when I was spitting because I might give them AIDS.
A couple of hours later they gave me back my belongings in a clear plastic bag, served me an £80 fine for a public order offence and sent me on my way. The officer who started this all, just before he opened the door to the outside and with no one else around said to me, ‘I hope you’ve learned something.’
He let me go without saying anything. It was beyond midnight. The night busses were rammed full. I sat silently amongst the merriment, desperate not to cry in front of so many people. My flatmate was away. Eventually I got home and wept bitterly for a long time, in the dark. It was too late to call anyone. I thought about killing myself.
On the paperwork for the fine it reads: Spat at officers. The rest of the reason is illegible.
I was dirt broke at the time and couldn’t afford to pay the fine. I would have to go to court. My wonderful friend insisted she pay the fine on the condition that next time I just let them search me. According to her, they had the right to do so and I was stupid to cause trouble. Other people I know- friends, family, acquaintances, Facebook “friends” agreed with her. I was silly to make such a big deal of it. There are terrorists. The police are keeping us safe. You shouldn’t have reacted how you did.
Of course many people I know were appalled and supportive. I am forever thankful to you all and you know who you are.
To those of you who think I was in the wrong to resist, please know that I often struggle to recall the finer details of the happier days of my life. Yet, I can remember so vividly so much of these experiences. Let that tell you something about indelibility.
Yesterday, the first thing the officers said was that I had given their van a good look, hadn’t I?
‘Yes I suppose I did.’ My tone was one of resignation.
The first question the officers asked me was whether I had been arrested before. I had. When I was a youth (legally, that is), I had committed a number of crimes. They are long since spent and I have tried to move on from them.
I felt like a criminal, listing out loud the offences for which I’d been arrested as a child.
I tried to calm myself. I would do anything not to be searched. I begged nothing , anything , any god, that my housemates would follow me out soon. I had been waiting for them for probably less than two minutes now, yet this had happened.
‘What’s your name? Do you have any ID? Where are you going?’
‘To a friend’s house.’
‘How are you getting there?’
I answered their questions. Inside I was boiling, bubbling over with a mix of emotions. But I would stay strong this time.
‘Why have you stopped me?’
The officer explained that there was a lot of street crime in this area, lots of houses burgled. Drug dealers.
I laughed, sort of, through my nose, a short burst of breath. Please don’t let them search me. I didn’t know who was watching of my neighbours, who had heard me list my private past, who would tell who what.
‘What’s your address?’
I pointed at the house I was standing outside.
‘So you’ve stopped me because I looked at you?’
‘Well, we don’t know until we check. You might be a drug dealer.’
I thought about Emma and Catherine, my housemates, and reasoned that this wouldn’t be happening if I’d waited inside with them, or if either of them were waiting outside, with me. How could I forget?
Their colleague came from the back of the van, took my details from their pad and went to check me out.
My criminal record was wiped when I became an adult. Since then, the only crime I’ve committed is the public order offence for which my friend paid the £80 fine before reprimanding me. For that, I am ‘known’.
Emma and Catherine came out. They will have seen me quietly looking at the floor. I was watching the slug between a piece of uprooted tarmac and the pavement whilst the police officers tried to make idle chit-chat about the Olympics. I could tell they felt awkward.
Emma and Catherine spoke to them. I’m not sure what was said. That thing was being taken from me again. I was trying to hold onto it, to just let this all pass.
‘Can we go?’ Catherine said.
‘Well, you can, but he can’t. We just need to check.’
There it was. They had found it and taken it. I continued to watch the slug. I imagined pouring salt on it. I’d heard what might happen. But I would never do that. It’s not my place to, and I wonder what my nephew is up to and how their puppy is. It’s okay, man, you’ll be at Weng’s soon.
At this point, the officer who had gone to check my details came out waving his colleague's notepad:
‘Known but not wanted!’ he said, loudly.
The rest of them seemed to come alive then.
‘Known but not wanted.’ I heard some of them repeat, like they had found something, but not quite what they wanted.
I walked away with my head down and began to cry.
Emma and Catherine apologised to me, as if they were the ones who had done something wrong.
‘I thought this was gone from my life.’ I told them.
All of the anger and upset, the degradation and fear of the previous experiences rushed back. The night when I had thought about killing myself. Unlike the adrenaline, this has not worn out and I still feel it today. I felt sick as we walked to Weng’s house. I felt sick and angry and wished I hadn’t told them anything about myself. I felt small and I felt like a criminal. My body is aching and I have a pain in my face, below my eye, which I cannot account for. I have been working hard to get through a depressive episode and I feel like that work has been undone.
I couldn’t explain to Emma- my love- what I was feeling. I couldn’t articulate it and I’m still not sure I can.
I have had to relive what I thought was done with and I feel shame. Even though I’m lucid enough to write all of this, I feel shame and confusion.
For those of you who think that the police should be able to stop people, and to search people, at their whim, please know that this has fucked me up. It has left me stranded and sad and without something.
If I didn’t have tanned skin and a beard, I’d imagine that the police officer at Liverpool Street station would not have stopped and searched me and asked whether I had any religious material. Nor, I’d imagine, would I have been pulled aside at Blackheath had I been with my light-skinned sister. Maybe if I shaved and had cut my hair I would not have been challenged as a drug-dealer. But then again, I can’t change the colour of my skin. For those of you that doubt racial motivation, spend a few minutes researching the statistics available to you online. Have you ever been stopped by the police for simply looking at them, or for standing where you are, in the street or outside your own home? If so, you are one of the few. The many look like me, they look Asian, or African. They look like they read the Quran and want to blow up your country or steal your laptop. They look safer on the other side of the road, or surrounded by police. Are you really so disgusted to see people in orange jump-suits?
I happen to dislike the capitalist way of life, to despise David Cameron and to think that our way of life directly contributes to the misery of many. But that doesn’t mean that I want to destroy people and buildings, or that I deserve to have that rich person’s belongings.
I am leaving this country for some time to try and live the way of life I want to, because I believe in living an example. I do not believe in murder and hate. But what will happen if or when I return and I have a longer beard and "alarming" stamps in my passport? What can I expect?
What would have happened yesterday if I’d been in a more vulnerable state of mind and Emma and Catherine weren’t there? What if I’d fallen into a suicidal meltdown? I feel no shame writing this. I’d imagine a fair portion of those who are routinely accosted by the police suffer from mental health issues and I’d imagine that some of them are triggered into relapse too, like I have been.
Please do not forget that you do you have liberty and that you might well not realise this until it is taken from you. Please do not let it get to that point before you realise that this is true.
Do not calm down and do not stop struggling.