From David Maughan Brown in York: At the end of the line?

The end of the line.

April 5th

Last week saw country-wide protests against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill currently making its way through the Committee Stage in Parliament that I wrote about on 19th March.   That’s the one that envisages a ten-year penalty for causing ‘serious annoyance or inconvenience’ during a protest, which has been described by lawyers as ‘an existential attack on the right to protest.’   The Bill hasn’t been passed yet, but even so it would appear to have given the Metropolitan Police the confidence to feel that they now have free rein where protests are concerned.  On Saturday night two legal observers from Black Protest Legal Support, who were observing a protest in London, were detained by the police who were, it is reported, perfectly happy to acknowledge their status as observers: ‘Both people arrested were acting as legal observers at the protest.’*

All through the last thirty-five years of apartheid in South Africa, starting in 1956, the Black Sash – described by Nelson Mandela on his eventual release from prison as ‘the conscience of white South Africa’– held protest stands and marches to protest against the vicious cruelties of apartheid.   Protest stands were held on Saturday mornings in Pietermaritzburg through the 1970s and 1980s during which the members of the Sash, wearing their black sashes to symbolise the death of the constitution, would stand on the pavement of the main street holding their placards, having to stand well apart from each other to avoid infringing one or another of apartheid’s draconian anti-protest laws, most notably the Riotous Assemblies Act.   Isolated as they were, the women were easy targets for Security Branch intimidation as well as for abuse from apartheid-supporting white passers-by, so two or three men, of which I was sometimes one, were always asked to monitor the protests.   The police knew who we were, and knew we were monitoring their behaviour at the protests, but no one was ever arrested merely for observing one of the protests.

A Black Sash stand before the Riotous Assemblies Act came into force

Saturday’s arrests of two observers followed the arrests of four others from the same organisation on March 16thwhich had already prompted Liberty to bring legal action against the Metropolitan Police.  Sam Grant, head of policy and campaigns at Liberty responded to Saturday’s arrests by saying: ‘Liberty is already taking legal action against the Met for previous unlawful arrests of legal observers. Continuing to arrest independent monitors is a scandalous attack on the right to protest, and demonstrates exactly why people are taking to the streets against the government’s plans to give the police even more powers.’  

The same week saw our Home Office issuing a press release in which our honourable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, is quoted, according to a Microsoft News report, as stating that modern slavery safeguards are being ‘rampantly abused’.  The press release, we are told, claims that there have been ‘major increases’ in ‘child rapists, people who threaten national security and failed asylum seekers […] taking advantage of modern slavery safeguards’ in order to prevent their removal and enable them to stay in the UK.**  No evidence of these ‘major increases’, let alone any evidence of an increase in failed asylum applications, is given.  A group of barristers is reported to have submitted a complaint to the Home Office accusing it of misleading the public on immigration issues in the UK in breach of the civil service code by, among other things, equating ‘child rapists’ with ‘failed asylum seekers’, and in the process of contravening core values in the civil service code: integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality.  No surprise there where Patel is concerned. 

The coordinator of the barristers’ complaint, Rudolph Spurling, said Patel’s gratuitous attacks against the asylum system were particularly concerning in view of the new immigration plan she launched a few days later.  He added: ‘Lumping in failed asylum seekers with “child rapists” and “people who pose a threat to our national security and serious criminals” was an egregious attempt to demonise people who’ve not been shown to pose any danger to the public. Furthermore, there was no attempt to justify the rhetoric with relevant statistics.’  One of the more striking features of the new immigration plan is its prioritising of the way in which asylum seekers arrive in the UK over the merit or otherwise of their claims for asylum.

Last week also saw a report in The Independent revealing that the Home Office is intending to carry on until September keeping to the same high-density concentration of asylum seekers at Napier Barracks in Kent that resulted in almost 200 people being infected with Covid-19 in January.***  This is in spite of a report by Kent and Medway Clinical Commissioning Group on 20 January that stated that there were ‘too many people housed in each block to allow adequate social distancing and to prevent the risk of spread of infection’, and in spite of, to quote May Bulman’s report, ‘an assessment of the site by the government’s immigration watchdog last month [which] found that opening multi-occupancy dormitory-style accommodation at Napier had not complied with official health and safety guidance and that a large-scale outbreak had been “virtually inevitable.”’  A representative of the Kent Refugee Action Network is quoted as saying that it is ‘horrific’ that vulnerable asylum seekers are being ‘packed into entirely inappropriate communal living situations against the advice of PHE [Public Health England].’  Given their vulnerability, it is almost certain that some of the asylum-seekers will have died as a result of contracting Covid at the Barracks.  I haven’t been able to establish how many, but it is all too painfully obvious that the Home Office wouldn’t care how many, and assumes that the rest of us won’t care either.

Outlaw the democratic right to protest; arrest those who are charged with monitoring police behaviour; demonise and ‘other’ particular groups in society who are too weak and vulnerable to resist; create a climate in which the general population doesn’t care what happens to those who are being demonised.  That is the line at the end of which, if people allow it to be built, the concentration camps lie in wait.**


** https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/uknews/home-office-presenting-opinion-as-fact-on-immigration-issues-lawyers-warn/ar-BB1f5ObO

*** https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/napier-barracks-asylum-seekers-home-office-covid-b1824899.html


* https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/police-bill-protest-arrest-liberty-b1826590.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’

Blow winds and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!

February 6th

So our inimitable Home Secretary, Pretti Patel, the darling of the political dinosaurs of the Conservative Party, has finally found her ideal solution to the irritating problems posed by pesky foreigners misguided enough to seek asylum in the UK.  If you can’t create giant waves along the length of the English Channel to swamp their overcrowded dinghies and drown them, and you can’t pack them off to St Helena in the South Atlantic as soon as they arrive, the best thing to do is to make the lives of those who don’t die of disease so unutterably miserable and dangerous at the Covid-19 plagued Napier Barracks in Kent that they will be desperate enough to risk those lives once again by crossing the channel to get back to France.  

Yesterday’s Independent carried an article by May Bulman whose title says it all:  ‘”Inhumane” conditions are forcing asylum seekers to risk their lives to leave UK.’[1]   As one Kurdish asylum seeker intent of making the return journey put it: ‘I am not being treated like a human being here.  The Home Office is making an effort to make people hate asylum seekers…. The journey back is totally dangerous.… But in the UK I am losing my dignity.’   A Syrian man who managed to reach UK after five years of trying, but who is now also intent on leaving, said: ‘I want to feel that I am a human being.  I want dignity and freedom.  I am looking for safety.  I came here because I thought there was no racism in the UK and that it was a country that protects people’s human rights.’  This is obviously deeply shameful, a desperately depressing indictment of this country as represented by its 2021 Conservative government, but what on earth is the point, one might well ask, of writing a blog entry on Covid2020diary about it? 

One normally thinks of a diary as a daily record of the events of the day, which makes the writing of diary entries somewhat problematic when day follows day follows day, with very few of those indistinguishable days being able to boast anything resembling an event.  One can go out for an occasional bike ride when the weather permits, but usually around the same traffic-avoiding circuit, now keeping well clear of the Ouse which is still in flood.  One has the very occasional fleeting non-contact with family, friends or neighbours, and the very welcome but very distanced ‘contact’ via FaceTime, Zoom or Whattsapp chats.  But there is an overriding sense of stasis. The result being that much of what a diary or blog entry is left to record in the absence of noteworthy events in one’s own life is the thoughts, emotions and reactions stirred by external events.  

In our present context this can all too often feel like raging against the dying of the light.  Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ is, of course, about old age, which should in his view ‘burn and rave at close of day.’  That may well be applicable in my case, although it is probably fair to say that ‘old age’ isn’t quite what it used to be, even as relatively recently as 1947 when Thomas wrote the poem.   But I recall having a very strong sense of raging against the dying of the light, to broaden the scope of the metaphor, when lecturing, speaking on public platforms and at funerals, and writing articles for, and letters to, the newspapers raging against apartheid in South African between 1970 and 1990.   In those years, unpleasant as it was, 3am death threats, loads of chicken manure being sent to be dumped on our lawn, workers arriving to cut down all the trees in our garden (both of the last two fortunately being intercepted) and so on, at least made it clear that, if nothing else, what I was doing and saying was getting under the skin of the apartheid Security Branch.  It won’t have contributed to the demise of the National Party and the formal ending of apartheid, but it was clearly making an impression on somebody.

Here the light is not, at least not yet, dying as comprehensively as it was in South Africa under apartheid, but one just has to look across the Atlantic to see how Biden’s arrival in the Oval Office has dispelled so much of the darkness of the Trump era to recognize the extent to which, by contrast, the light is still dying in the darker corners of our own polity.   By way of illustration one could point to Biden’s immediate executive order to reunite the children of asylum seeking immigrants with their parents, by way of contrast to our government’s illegal detention of immigrant children, which is reported in today’s Independent to have been condemned by Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, as ‘wilfully ignoring the plight of vulnerable children’.  But is there much point in the UK of 2021 in raging against the dying of the light by writing letters to newspapers; making blog entries; signing petitions organized by Avaaz, 38 Degrees, Change.org etc.; responding to surveys, publishing human rights themed novels, and making whatever peripheral contribution I can, to the excellent work of the Centre for Applied Human Rights?

Beyond the few reassuring ‘likes’ that indicate that a handful of people are reading the blogs, raging feels about as effective as King Lear’s raging against the storm.  The storm can’t hear King Lear and, even if it could, it is controlled by forces far stronger than even a Shakespearean king has the power to control.  I know, to refer back to Dylan Thomas’s villanelle, that my words are forking no lightning, but I also know that, unlike his ‘wise men’ who ‘at their end know dark is right’, I remain convinced that raging against the dying of the light is better than subsiding into frustrated silence.  Lightning is destructive, contributing to Covid2020diary, while not necessarily creative, has provided a necessary outlet for otherwise impotent frustration over the past year.   Readers who don’t want to read what they might well regard as yet another rant about Johnson, or Priti Patel, or the Home Office, don’t need to.  It is possible that I lived under apartheid for so long that I can’t shake off the now ingrained compulsion to rage against what I perceive to be the dying of the light.  I’m just grateful to those responsible for setting Covid2020diary up for providing a vehicle.


[1] https://www.pressreader.com/uk/the-independent-1029/20210205/281672552628016