We’d almost reached Chester when I got cold feet, and we argued again. I didn’t want to take the car in – I decided I wanted to hide it ten miles out, in case we needed it again. Sue said she couldn’t walk that far, and it’d kill Sarah. Sarah had gone to gather blackberries, or no doubt she would’ve protested any implication of weakness on her part, but it wasn’t really about how far we can walk – it was about me stalling the plan. I dropped them on the outskirts of Chester, just out of sight of the checkpoint, then took the car out a couple of miles further. The plan is that I’ll walk in from here and join them. We’ve agreed to meet back at the caravan if something goes wrong. We’ve hidden a handset and a solar charger, wrapped in plastic bags – all cautions I’ve insisted on, despite accusations of paranoia. Sue can’t understand why I have such a strong aversion to the plan. Chester’s thought to be one of the better quarantines, according to some blogs from inside, and we’ll at least get food, which is the most urgent of our concerns. I couldn’t explain then, so I’m going to try now, in case I don’t get another chance.
I keep thinking back to my ‘Storm in a Kettle’ arrest in 2015. The student demonstrations and the summer riots that year had merged together into that infamous press soundbite, the Autumn of Rage. Up until that day I felt like there was some point in fighting, some chance of winning. I was brought up to believe that revolution was possible, if dangerously volatile. I’d been involved in the Anti-cuts, No Borders and Free Palestine movements for a few years, I’d seen the Arab spring and the Indignados and Occupy burst out of nowhere, and it really did seem that we might have our turn at re-making the world. The politicians, the police and the press said that we were mindless thugs, intent on wanton destruction, and we said the same of them. Even if some of those caught in that kettle didn’t consider themselves part of a demonstration, let alone a revolution, even if they didn’t quote Marx or Bakunin in graffiti planted on police stations and shop fronts, they took what they couldn’t afford from those who had too much to care, and they threw bottles of fire at those who would stop them, and these are not apolitical acts; they were, perhaps, more political than the un-proofread papers, the home-made placards and the poorly-rhymed slogans of the socialists and anarchists I marched with to Parliament Square. But once the barriers went up, and the batons came out, it didn’t matter why we’d been there. We were forced into a clear alliance, and we became an army. Despite all the conspiracy theories, nobody really knows who threw that explosive, but whether they were terrorists, revolutionaries or agent provocateurs, the result was the same. The dead are still dead, the scarred are still scarred, the Terror and Radicalism Act was passed and the world was changed.
Nobody got out of that kettle without a beating and a permanent record under the new act. I almost came out a lot worse. They kept me for two days, laughing when I asked for a phone call or a lawyer, asking me about terrorist groups and my beliefs, by which they meant religion. I told them I was an atheist, which was and is true, but I felt compromised saying it. I grew up with Islam, and I’d never denied it before. They wouldn’t believe me, anyhow, not with my parents, my associations with Free Palestine. They had already made up their minds; I should have stayed silent, but I felt compelled to justify myself. They thought they knew everything about my ideals, my identity, my politics, my motivations, so that anything I said either corroborated their assumptions or was a lie. I was amongst those who escaped the Conspiracy of Silence charge by a whisper. Our lawyers pointed out that this was prior to the Act coming into force, so even if we had conspired to remain silent, it was not yet a crime when we did so. Still, I know that the names I confirmed at the prompting and threats of the police were the real reason I never faced that charge. Everybody told me I had no choice, that it wouldn’t have helped those who were convicted for me to be another name on the list. Nobody blamed me, everybody said it was an impossible situation, and they probably would have done the same, or wouldn’t have knownwhat to do in my place. Such carefully chosen words. Everybody agreed, I was only thinking of my family, and it made sense for me to avoid a prison sentence. I didn’t really have to make any excuses, my friends were so willing to make them for me. But nothing could justify it. It was betrayal, and surrender, and that was the sentence I lived with.
It wasn’t the only sentence, though. For years afterwards I’d find myself wondering how many of the stop and searches were routine, how many of the patrols that passed a building just as I entered or left were coincidental. Friends accused me of paranoia, and at one point I even believed I was delusional. For years afterwards my blood ran cold when a car pulled away from the kerb after I passed, or somebody got up from a café just after I did.
Sue thought that I gave up on activism after that because of the violence I’d been subjected to, or that I was afraid of further arrests putting her and Sarah at risk, and that too was true, so I left it at that. But what I never really explained was the effect the questioning had had on me, the way they twisted everything, took my identity, my own self-knowledge away from me. I could be a fanatical Islamic terrorist, or I could be the naive dupe of a soon-to-be-outlawed anarchist organisation, depending on the associates I named. I could not act independently on secular or rational thought, that didn’t fit my profile. Everything that would justify my actions to myself would incriminate me to them. I had to be who they wanted me to be. I had to be nobody, to deny my agency, my beliefs and my friends, or lose my job, my family, my freedom.
Now, my greatest fear is walking into that quarantine camp where they will isolate me and question me about where I have been, why I didn’t give myself up sooner, what my intentions were in evading quarantine, what I believe and what means I would be prepared to take to defend that belief, and if it doesn’t fit in with what they’ve already decided, they’ll keep asking until it does. I told myself, back then, that I wouldn’t have given in so easily if it wasn’t for my responsibility to Sue and Sarah, that it was their presence forcing me to put pragmatism above principle. I blamed them for my fear and my retreat, even as I refused their support and encouragement to keep going, persuaded Sue we should get married and put Sarah in school, be a respectable family, so that we’d be safe. These last few months, since we lost everything, it’s the first time that I’ve felt we were ourselves again, no pretences or conventions to appease, a rebel family against the world. This feels like surrender. Sue says to be pragmatic. That’s always been the appeal to surrender.
I don’t really care about the car – I needed an excuse to stay behind a little longer. It’s not just that I don’t want them to see me give in. That’s what I couldn’t explain to them. Though I grew up speaking English as well as Farsi, I carry the trace of my parents’ accent. Sarah has no trace of an accent. To her, Farsi is more like a secret code than a language, a special game that we played sometimes when she was small. She has my dark eyes and hair, Sue’s pale, freckled skin. The simple truth is, they were less likely to face hassle and awkward questions at the gate if I’m not there. I wonder if I should join them at all.