It’s Friday 27th March 2020, a week since BJ shut the pubs, and four days since the country went into official lockdown, and he’s got the virus himself. Too bad his health advisors didn’t tell him a few weeks ago how this virus is transferred, while he was boasting about shaking hands with everyone. It’s now forbidden to be outside the house except to shop for essentials, exercise or go to work if it’s essential, like delivering takeaways and other critical public services. It’s still sunny like god is playing an elaborate joke on Brexit island and I’m still confused about what time of year it is. My friend sends a joke: ‘those born in the 1980s have now lived through six decades: 80s, 90s, 00s, 10s, 20s, march.’ Was there a winter this year? Was it cold? Did we still hug each other back then? I don my Deliveroo backpack and cycle down Stapleton Road to town. Although the corona-virus emergency legislation came into force on Tuesday I haven’t seen loads of cops out until last night and today. I saw cop cars all over town last night staking out public spots like college green and the city centre, but the only place I see them out of their cars stopping and questioning people is the bottom of Stapleton Road near the Subway. Huh, weird, I wonder why that is? Cos on my first order I go to a pizza shop in Clifton and there are quite a few people out enjoying a delightful evening stroll as the sun sets on Regent Street but no police in sight.
We woke on Wednesday living with the harshest law Britain has ever know. I have a look at this blog diary of policing the corona state and through that find comprehensive legal guides on the new legislation here and here. In sum, the police can stop anyone outside their home and ask what they’re doing, and have the power to direct you back home by force if necessary, and break up gatherings of more than two people. They can also issue fines of £30 for breach of these laws. I think we all accept the reasoning behind these emergency powers but we should be thinking about their long term consequences. The law was passed on Tuesday under existing public health legislation and has to be approved by Parliament within 28 days. Providing that happens, these powers will be in force for 6 months. As the lawyer cited above at the Law and Policy blog points out, the legislation has ambiguities and relies on the discretion of the police to act proportionately to the public health risk: “Just as it takes one person being idiotic to spread this disease, it takes only one police officer being idiotic to discredit this emergency public health regime.” As a tweet by one police force indicates, we can’t rely on the police to be proportionate, transparent and non-discriminatory:
Despite the emergency powers, the cops still have no power to ask for identification (which by UK law you do not have to carry except if you’re driving) or to ask about your immigration status without a warrant. Follow Bristol Anti-Raids for more info about how to resist immigration raids/questioning or how to support others. You do not have to give your name or address, just a ‘reasonable excuse’ for being outside your house (exercise alone or with members of your household, essential shopping, volunteering for vulnerable people, work). Always ask ‘under what powers’? This means they have to provide the specific grounds for questioning you. From what I saw on Stapleton Road last night and all reasonable knowledge/evidence about the police ever, there’s a risk the police and immigration enforcement will use the over-reaching powers disproportionately to target ethnic minorities and make sweeping migration status checks. They’re also checking Deliveroo riders going to work and making deliveries. When this happens to me I’ll say: ‘just delivering burgers mate what are you doing out’ and go about my lawful business.
But these powers are surely justified by the massive public health emergency of a global and deadly pandemic right? There’s a necessary trade-off between safeguarding human life and sacrificing basic civil liberties in a limited and clearly delineated period of emergency. Yet ever the party-pooper, Ed Snowden warns that states rarely roll-back massive powers of surveillance introduced through emergency powers. There is a clearly documented transfer of technologies from authoritarian systems or military occupation to the corporate private sector to democratic states and back. While China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia use AI surveillance technology to control and track their own populations, software is often developed in liberal democracies like Israel and Germany An Israeli company developed software to help authoritarian regimes hack into Whatsapp, perhaps helping Saudi Arabia track and then murder journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year. The Gaddafi regime in pre-2011 Libya used a French company to help spy on and torture, its citizens, and after the NATO takedown now does the same in Egypt. And as Snowden showed, democracies like the UK and US are not reluctant to use mass surveillance on domestic populations, corporations, foreign leaders or basically anyone within their reach. The authoritarian and democratic parts of the world are united in what this paper calls ‘surveillance capitalism’, and it’s hard to push back on. And let’s not forget that the sweeping clandestine extension of the security services began in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks, while originally covert and illegal/unconstitutional, have since been acknowledged, legalised, and extended with little public outcry or resistance. The USA Patriot Act, passed in 2001 as a direct response to the ’emergency’ of 9/11 gave the security state in the US extensive powers of surveillance, arrest and detention without the usual constitutional checks and balances. It remains in place nineteen years later. The techniques of surveillance now deployed to tackle the coronavirus were not developed to safeguard public health they were used to run military occupations and target political dissidents. For example, Israel has for some time used facial-recognition software to identify people moving through military checkpoints in the West Bank, now being deployed in Russia to arrest people breaking quarantine. Palestinians know all too well that states of emergency can drag on for years and decades, living under military law for fifty years. At least Microsoft has now bowed to BDS pressure and sold its stake in the software firm that was helping Israel sustain its military checkpoint surveillance system, a small victory for this week. From military occupation to policing public health quarantine we can see how the technology bleeds from one emergency to another.
Friday night’s kind of like a normal Friday at least as far as the app goes, though there’s no evidence of human life in the streets except police cars and Deliveroo riders. The pizza goes from Clifton to Hotwells and can I cycle no-handed down Clifton Vale while also watching the sunset? Curry from Hotwells to Bedminster, and back to the waterfront to get burritos. ‘Are you Abdullah from Uber Eats?’ the burrito guy asks me. No, I’m Deliveroo, I say. I mean, I’m not Deliveroo, I just work for them. I mean, I’m an independent contractor performing services in partnership with them. And, I don’t want to reverse profile, but do I look like an Abdullah? Seconds later Abdullah turns up and gets his burrito. There’s long waits at restaurants these days but I don’t huff and puff and reject the order like I would have done before cos restaurants are in the shit just like everyone else. I’m glad someone’s still got a job even if it does mean they’re taking their sweet time to make burritos. I try and focus on other positives. Maybe if everyone shared one thing that they learned each day then by the end of the lockdown we’ll have virtual home schooled each other and enriched our lives. Today while I was doing my Arabic homework I learned that scorpion is aqrab (اقرب). Each week me and my Arabic teacher read a surreal fairytale that are kind of like the English versions but with bizzare differences. Like the story of Rapunzel had three weird women, one with a giant finger, one with a giant foot and one with a giant mouth, and together they helped Rapunzel spin the yarn to make beautiful clothes and turn her into a princess somehow, and she’s not called Rapunzel she’s called Lubna. My teacher doesn’t speak English, and this week she was trying to explain what an aqrab is: ‘it’s like a bug, and it has these two things here (shows me with two fingers) and it’s scary and poisonous’, and I just thought, ok, some kind of dangerous bug, could be anything. And now I know, it’s a scorpion. She and my Palestinian friends are checking up on me when they hear about coronavirus in Europe. When I had food poisoning last week and had a fever she said I should go to the doctors and I told her it wasn’t allowed right now. ‘What? Why not? You’re ill, go to the doctor!’ I said, I can’t, it’s forbidden. ‘Why, that’s crazy?!’ I couldn’t think of a reasonable explanation in Arabic so I kept saying ‘it’s forbidden’ and she was confused. Everything seems a bit more simple in Jordan right now (it’s under military lockdown) until I remember the authoritarian rule, the corrupt police and the absence of a welfare state, human rights and civil liberties. What about money and rent? I ask her. You don’t pay rent or pay the bank anything until it’s over, she says. What about homeless people? There aren’t many, or the government feeds them like in a refugee camp. It sure does sound simple but I miss the nuances with my basic Arabic.
You can donate to this mutual aid group in the Jordan Valley, Palestine (Jordan Valley is one of the most vulnerable parts of the West Bank). While Europeans are contending with coronavirus in well-functioning states with public healthcare, Palestinians like in the Jordan Valley are continuing to face arbitrary arrests, night raids and home demolitions in the midst of a global health crisis: