With the next five years looking set to be defined by public spending cuts, curbs on our civil liberties and attacks on the most vulnerable in society, “Kathryn”, a seasoned activist, tells me about her 25 years on the frontline of protesting, from the poll tax, to fracking, via G8 summits and encounters with the police – in an honest and fascinating story, that will resonate with many of us today.
*Kathryn’s details have been changed to protect her identity.
PART ONE: The post-poll tax years.
My first bit of real activism came when the Poll Tax came in to being. Although it halved my bill I couldn’t stand the injustice of it all so I started to be involved a bit with campaigning. All sorts of brilliant ideas were implemented as a means to fight it. Paying a penny at a time and demanding a receipt so manpower expenditure exceeded income! I went to court over non-payment. Everyone in the waiting room was also there for Poll Tax it was like one big party, people standing on a table reciting poetry, it was a great atmosphere, weird really considering we were all up in court!!
I remember standing in front of the magistrate and at the end of my spiel, I had no solicitor and looking back I was really naive but I just spoke from the heart, he gave his verdict. He was amazing at the end of it he just said you can pay 50p a week it’s the minimum I can do and let’s hope by the time you finish paying we have a much more caring Government in power – case dismissed! It’s burned into my memory; I suppose the first time you’re in court always is.
We had no mobile phones in those days (says she sounding a hundred years old), people just managed to communicate somehow. The events of Trafalgar Square were amazing. I’ve been on hundreds of marches in London but that was different, you could feel the anger cutting through air, people had just had enough. Scotland, as usual had led the way, and there was only a few thousand there at the time but we United, not as a mob bent on wilful destruction but as angry, hurt citizens uniting against the monster that was Thatcher and her Cabinet.
Years later I became friends with someone who had also been there that day and witnessed one of the famous “pole through a car window” scenes. 3 people were brought up in court, my friend stood witness for the first (none of them were there he could confirm that), he got off. They refused to let my friend stand for the other 2 and they got sent down.
The aftermath of the Poll Tax was quite a quiet time for me; I continue to read lots of what I suppose is classed as left-wing propaganda material but nothing that I would have considered radical. I also had a time when I visited the odd (no pun intended here) SWP meeting but during that time I had one event that (at the time) I suppose didn’t even register as unusual.
I was at work one day when 2 uniformed officers came into the office and arrested me on suspicion of possessing cannabis. Despite a search of my possessions, no rights were ever read out to me, and in spite of finding no trace of any illicit substances I was duly taken to the Police station. During the journey there was only 1 Police Officer with me in the car and I was told to sit in the front seat. I was aware of both Police Officers and also knew the one driving me had a wife and children.
On the journey to the Police Station the officer put his hand on my knee and started rubbing my leg. He then told me that if I would have an affair with him all charges against me would be dropped (bearing in mind they had not found anything on me) and the incident would not be mentioned again or my company informed of the arrest.
I removed his hand from my leg and informed him that I would rather go to prison than comply with his request. I was taken to the Police Station, never interviewed, never booked in but after about 10 minutes informed I could go back to work; I had to make my own way back!
The second, more out of the ordinary experience I had, was slightly more concerning. I had been suspicious for a while that my phone was being listened in to but thought it more laughable than serious. Also during his time, again more irritating than me taking it seriously, was the fact I was regularly being stopped on my way to and from work, although no misdemeanour charges were ever brought, as frequently as up to 10 times a week.
I had been to London a few times to demonstrate against the Iraq War, demonstrated against Trident and the BNP but nothing I would consider to be worthy of the intensive level of Police attention I seemed to be receiving.
During this time I was also taking a friend to an alternate Saturday monthly Quaker Prayer meeting at an RAF base. A small group of us would sit in silence for an hour, waiting for our friend. I had borrowed a friend’s company car on one occasion as mine had got some problems, they were fully aware of where I was going and why, and we attended the meeting as usual. We had arrived early so drove a little way away from the base, and were just sitting having a sandwiches and a drink when who should arrive but the local Plod, he asked a lot of questions and duly went on his way.
The Monday following the Saturday I received a phone call at work from my friend who had loaned me the car and they informed me that his boss had just taken a phone call from the East Midlands Anti-Terror Squad and they wished to inform the company that their car had been seen being driven by me in the area of the base, that they were investigating me and were the Company aware that their car was being used for such nefarious purposes? Fortunately all parties involved were shall we say sympathetic to the cause and told the Anti-Terror Squad to mind their own business and that it was absolutely nothing to do with them who used their car!
The duplicity of the Police can be seen during a period when I was being harassed by a member of the British Peoples Party (BPP), an offshoot of the British National Party (BNP). Eventually following a day when this person, who was a totally fanatical nationalist with access to shotguns, had sat outside my office window staring in at me all day I could stand no more and so I reported the incident to the Police; they made an appointment to come and see me at 09:30 about 3 days later.
I arrived at work and waited and waited, and waited; eventually at about 11:30 the female officer I had spoken to on the telephone arrived at the office. She apologised for being late and we both sat down. She then went on to inform me that the reason she was late was because it had taken so long to read the information on me and the number of recorded incidents against my name cataloguing the activities / incidents of the BNP and BPP involving me. She openly admitted that it was over 40 pages long, which I found quite odd as this was the only time I had ever reported anything to the Police.
When I asked her why on earth they would have so much information on me and protests I had been involved with against right-wing fascists she declined to reply. Notwithstanding the volume of information they had accrued, the fact that the BPP were openly publishing and distributing leaflets slandering and discrediting me, and the high level of intimidation I was receiving from the individual, the Police informed me that I had no case to bring and that they would not investigate any further complaints from me regarding this matter.
What very miniscule amount of faith I had left in the British Justice System and the Police dissolved in that instant. It was such blatant discrimination. There are probably other words I could use to describe it but I will keep this polite…
Read the second part of Kathryn’s story tomorrow.