Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Saturday, April 08, 2006

  Tea Parties: Serious Organised Crime, mind you

Those of us who are worried about the erosion of civil liberties on this side of the Atlantic ought to keep one eye cast on Britain. Parallel outrages are being perpetrated through Tony Blair's own ministry of fear. During Blair's war on terra, Brits have given ground rather precipitously across a range of freedoms that they'd guarded jealously for a long time.

So far the infringement on liberties in the UK has been less pernicious than in the U.S., but no less gaudy. If you don't think so, just try drinking tea outdoors in the center of London. As a British tour guide found out, tea parties are now illegal under the "Serious Organised Crime" law. A testament to Tony Blair's statesmanship. Some Londoners wonder when they'll be rid of his legacy.

Blair has been behaving like a man possessed, trampling every civil liberty unlucky enough to cross his path. He just pushed through what is tantamount to a compulsory national ID card. Anybody renewing a passport in the UK has to buy a national ID as well. The House of Lords tried to stop this beast, but crumbled in the end. Then, there's the new bill allowing the government to detain suspects for months without charge. Again a rebellion in Blair's Labour Party fell short of blocking it.

As if new legislation chipping away at liberties were not enough, there was the obscene spectacle last June when London police slaughtered an innocent man.

You remember the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, whose head was blown apart after the subway bombing merely because an anti-terrorism unit suspected on the thinnest of evidence that he might be a terrorist. As the British public subsequently learned, their police forces had secretly ratified a "shoot-to-kill" policy, by which they awarded themselves the roles of judge, jury, and executioner whenever things got really tense.

At the time, a shocking number of Brits celebrated the killing and rallied to the defense of the Metropolitan Police, though no evidence ever was produced that would even appear to tie de Menezes to any terrorist group. Even while the police account of what occurred fell apart as a web of deception, many continued to express both supreme faith in the police actions and contempt for those who dared to challenge the execution of an unarmed man as unlawful.

That is how a terrified public is liable to react to a government's demands for excessive and unchecked power to fight terrorism. We need only compare this event to the reaction in the US to the killing of an innocent airline passenger, Rigoberto Alpizar, last December by air marshals operating under their own shoot-to-kill policy.

In Britain, nine months of investigation of the de Menezes shooting have exposed all manner of police incompetence, dishonesty, and arrogance. Yet the heads of police forces all around the country pronounced themselves thoroughly satisfied with the shoot-to-kill policy as such. They're damned determined to carry on shooting anybody at sight who seems to merit such treatment. So much for a nation's ability to step back from the brink, once the precipice has been pointed out.

What happened to the tea party? Well, it was arrested, that's what happened to it. The best account is in The Independent, so let's have it tell the tale.

A peace activist who organised an anti-war tea party that took place opposite the House of Commons faces prison.

Mark Barrett, a tour guide, was convicted under recent legislation banning demonstrations near Parliament and was fined £500 including costs.

He is one of a group of activists who meet every week to drink tea and eat cake on Parliament Square in protest at "an attack on freedom of expression"....

[Barrett said] "I don't believe peaceful protesters who have a disagreement with the way the state operates should ask permission to make their views known, particularly in this location." Mr Barrett, 36, was arrested in August under section 132 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, which requires protesters to obtain police permission before demonstrating within a kilometre of Parliament.

He said: "We were sitting down, sharing food, and a police inspector told us he believed we were having an unauthorised protest and if we didn't break up we would be arrested. When I refused to go away, I was picked up and bundled into a police van."

Now some have said they can see why a policeman might object to an exotic, eastern drink like tea and fear the worst, in terms of potential terrorism. But in fact, tea parties used to be a staple of British life as late as the nineteenth century, and they are not unknown today in far flung places like Cornwall and Lancashire. There does seem to be some sort of food "angle" to the strict enforcement of the Serious Organized Crime and Police Act. The Independent says that Christmas carolers were not arrested for congregating in the same spot near Parliament last winter. Yet earlier, a chef was nabbed:

Maya Evans, 25, a chef, became the first person to be convicted under the legislation last year. She received a conditional discharge with costs of £200....she was arrested at the Cenotaph in Whitehall reading out the names of British soldiers killed in Iraq.

I can't imagine what it was about her cooking that set the police on edge. Perhaps it was something other than the food per se. I don't suppose the actual list she was reading was found to be too long and tiresome?

I'd like to think that tea parties are not slowly being outlawed in Britain behind the cloak of anti-terrorism. I hasten to add that these revelers were not sitting there watching for the houses of Parliament to be blown up, nor had they deliberately abandoned their tellies. The arrests date to last summer, before that movie, when nobody had much thought of resisting the government.


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