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Just doing your job, officer

Helen Anderson | 24.09.2007 19:38 | No Border Camp 2007 | Migration | Repression | Social Struggles | London | South Coast

Taking part in the NoBorders camp near Gatwick, this short piece reflects on two assaults, one robbery and a security alert all witnessed within the space of two short, but exciting hours as a trainee Legal Observer for the camp's action in Crawley town centre, raising awareness. Forget being a special copper, try legal observing. It's far better, and you get to choose your own notebook.

Making friends
It is 20 September, 7 p.m. and for Russell and me it is the end of the camp for today at least. He is heading back to Brighton, and I'll join the NoBorders camp in East Croyden the next day. We take the train together, and he gets off at Three Bridges. I am going on to Horley. Russell, like me, has never been in a camp before. Well we've been camping, but not to protest against injustice. We compare notes. The camp was not like a Green Gathering, he said, much more serious, less hippyish in feel. The people were really serious (but not earnest) and everyone was really good to one another, mostly. Russell got to know about asylum issues through teaching English as a second language. Earlier today he led us through the town centre to where we were supposed to be. We followed him - a bit disobediently - like naughty children of Hamelin, or rats who complained about the music "I didn't intend to lead anyone" he said later. As only he knew the way, it was obvious he should also lead the way. We got quite a reception in Crawley. The onion and garlic seller immediately made friends with a French protestor, and chatted about detention in UK and France. A lot of people took the invented Indymedia NoBorders paper, the 'Gatwick Express'. Soon with the sound system set up, the whole thing took on a kind of festive air. Jo behind the mike patiently repeated: "Get your Gatwick Express. Read the news the other papers leave out. Hear the other side of the story about asylum and detention, the bits they don't want you to know".

Gathering Evidence
We engage with police almost as much as we do with the public. They follow us, shoot at us with cameras, huge zooms pointing and winking like paparazzi. You get the feeling if they could shoot us for real, they would do so. But that impression shifts pretty soon. Five young schoolgirls look at the 'Free Movement' sign and start to frolic around "I can move freely, look at me, I'm free and I'm moving" shouts one happily. They talk to the two Evidence Gathering 6 squad police-men snapping at us. They are CC735 and CC775. "Well," says CC775, chatting with the girls very affably, "If you want to know what it's all about, why not go and ask that nice lady over there for a copy of the paper". Two minutes later, the girls are sat reading the paper, when a mate comes along, a boy. "D'you wanna paper, then?" asks one of the girls. "Nah" drawls the boy. "Not good 'nuff for you, izzit?" says the girl back, and we all laugh. I note down that four policemen are hanging round Anne Summers on Queen's Square. They must be looking for clues.

A Few Minor Incidents
As Legal Observer I have to note down everything that happens, just in case it needs to be used in court again someone. Someone in uniform, for instance. Here were just a few of the things I noted in Crawley town Centre between around 4.30 to 7 p.m. on 20 September. In this short time, I witnessed a bomb scare, a robbery, and a couple of assaults. Phew, so I know the police really have their work cut out for them. Let's see what happened.

First some background. Val and her friends have been spying on police spies: see their website on A wonderful woman, full of life, Val seems strangely unloved by the police in Queen's Square this evening. As she places a poster in front of several police, looking like the lollipop lady of protest, I note that it is a big "FIT" with a red stripe drawn through it. FIT stands for "Forward Intelligence Team", and apparently they are the ones filming us at the camp, peering over the camp hedges, looking for ways to overstep the mark. They may be pretty disappointed that preventing us camping in Salfords did not prevent us from having a camp. If anything, the second site they forced the organisers to find, is better than the first. With 150 people in the camp on Thursday, more are expected tomorrow. Let the police misbehave or try to nip our ankles, and we will lower our legal horns.

Two inspectors that I see quite a bit of this afternoon are from EG6. There are also at least two riot squad police, and lots of others from the Met, from Scotland Yard and from the local squad. At one point we count fifteen in the Square, about one for every two or three protestors. One protestor points to Steve Discombe, explaining that he spent three hours in a van with him. One of the inspectors, with a huge lens in front of him, looks like Inspector Gadget. As watch one another, police and protestors, and an incident occurs.

The Town Centre Manager is getting shirty with Russell, who led the way here, and says we should not just come into town like this, it is 'socially unacceptable', in his opinion. Just two people would have been enough. "How ridiculous" says someone from Crawley when they hear this remark: "It's alright for drunken thugs to come rampaging through Crawley town centre every Friday and Saturday night, but not for you to come and exercise your rights". The Town Centre Manager got quite het up with Russell. He was then interviewed by a local journalist. I note that at around 4.50 in Queen's Square, Crawley, the Town Centre Manager lurched forward and tried to rip some pages out of the journalist's notebook, including his notes with the protestors. There is a bit of a physical tussle over the notebook, which leaves the journalist visibly shaken. The Town Centre Manager relents, sheepishly apologises, and then promptly disappears from the scene. But he comes back later, I am told, to apologise again. "Did you see that?" comments one passer-by "He completely lost it didn't he?!"

A few minutes later, at around 5.15, three senior police, two intelligence inspectors and a senior local policeman, are taking photos of us walking up a road leading off Queen's Square. They point and click at us, apparently obsessed with capturing our images, dozens of times, apparently. We are either very beautiful, rich or dangerous. It is really intimidating. As a joke I look behind me, pretending to look for who it is they are photographing. Out of the corner of my eye I see some commotion outside a shop. An alarm starts bleeping, and a man runs, fast as anything, away from the shop. In his hand he carries a mobile phone. It's nicked. A crime. He runs, turns the corner right in front of the three policemen, about five feet away from them. They do not see him. A couple of hours later, I tell them what happened at 5.15. The policemen don't believe me. The bloke's mates won't believe him either, when he tells them what he did, and how he got away with it. There were more than fifteen police in the vicinity altogether. But they were all much too busy staring us out and snapping us, major security threats that we are, to do their job.

And as well as a robbery and one assault, there was a security alert. At approximately 5.55 Val is again placing her No FIT lollipop sign a foot or so in from of a number of inspectors and other police. A lady policewoman asks Val to move away, and Val refuses. "You need to stand over there", insists the policewoman, pointing at the bag Val has left lying nearby. "Your bag is a security risk". I note down that the policewoman adds "And we don't even know if there's anything stolen in your bag!" "Why would there be anything stolen in it?" asks Val. And so it goes; the policewoman insists that Val stand by her bag, or take it people will keep an eye on it. Val refuses to do either. "Kindly stand next to your bag, which poses a security risk", repeats the policewoman. Eventually a deal is done. I agree to stand by Val's bag, and watch it, whilst also observing the police. Everyone is happy. Security alert over.

Later the second assault. Val is photographing two police. They have been photographing us all for days, after all. But they don't like it, it seems, and start to grab her arms. When I look, Val appears to be the hotdog in a roll made up of two police, one on either side of her. There were photos taken of Val being grabbed and squashed. And it was done quite aggressively. Well it's all in a day's work.

Helen Anderson