An automatic voice came over the tannoy: “This bus is now on diversion”. We were on my old school bus route, I knew it like the back of my hand. It was going to be a close run thing.
I walked down a long, very familiar, slightly oppressive corridor. Magnolia walls, artificial lighting, children’s art on the wall, the smell of school dinners and floor polish.
My body turned automatically into what had been the library where I had avidly read geography magazines as a sixth-former. I hardly noticed the dishevelled room was in the process of being dismantled as I glanced over a class of around 30 teenage girls who were mostly from ethnic minorities.
They listened to the teacher introduce me: “Now Maya is a local girl who went to Skinners’ and came here to do her geography ‘A’ level.” I stepped up and briefly introduced myself, half expecting them to be hostile because I’d gone to the rival girls’ school across the way.
I felt completely comfortable and at home. I knew and understood these young people, they were the girls I had gone to school with. They were me 12 years ago.
I immediately launched into an exercise to stimulate discussion and thought around the issue of civil liberties. Some of the comments made me feel everything from admiration to horror, fear and laughter:
“It’s cos the government want to control us as it’s in its interest to have power and make us feel like we have none so they can do what they want.”
“Yeah, I got stopped and searched just cos I look like a hoodie girl, I gave the police all my details but they refused to give me the piece of paper, they said they didn’t have to. It’s pointless complaining as they don’t listen to people like me.”
“The law’s there for our protection. I’d prefer to be stopped and searched everyday if that means not being killed by a terrorist.”
“I heard something about some woman who held a candle or something opposite Downing Street and got arrested.”
I gave a brief presentation about the restrictions on protest around parliament under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (2005), known as SOCPA. Then I fully explained to a slightly disbelieving audience my arrest and conviction for standing in Whitehall in October 2005 and (without police permission) reading out the names of British soldiers who had died in Iraq.
I also touched upon why people become terrorists and argued that the best way to stop terrorism is to look at the reasons lying behind it, and trying to resolve genuine grievances. I could see their minds working and getting fired up about the issue.
A young black girl raised her hand: “But, miss, the law’s the law, you can’t break the law”.
I immediately thought about the suffragettes whom I’d recently been reading about, and reminded the all-female audience that the law once disallowed women the vote and also considered black people inferior and without rights.
I felt slightly guilty and hesitant about being so calculating. I knew which points which would provoke them – I hoped into thought.
Some of the girls came up to me at the end: “I had no idea the police could just stop and search you, this has really made me think”.
It felt rewarding to clearly make an impact on someone’s thinking within just an hour. However it also felt quite worrying and upsetting that these young people, who are a likely target for police, were in the main quite unaware and unconcerned about state control.
It seemed that they were wholeheartedly buying into the tabloid attitude of “us and them”. On the other hand, it wasn’t surprising as I know I was the same as them at that age. I could sense that many of them had an inkling of reality though no facts to base those feelings on, again a state I could empathise with.