by Liz Cody
Art by Laurie Harden
I was standing with five other people, arms linked, protecting a man dressed as a giant cauliflower who had superglued himself to Lambeth Bridge. The vegetable needed our protection: We’d all seen on Facebook how rough the police had been to climate protesters in the first two days of the action. Previous actions had passed off quite amicably, so no one had expected brute force.
While I was linked, I couldn’t protect my possessions and I watched, helpless, while the cops confiscated my tent, my bedroll, my wash bag, my spare underwear, and the thick woolly I wear at night. They broke my tent pole and my radio.
The irony was that the cops were damaging the equipment they had bought and paid for themselves. My name is Shareen Manasseh, police officer Shareen Manasseh, and I was employed by the Metropolitan Police to infiltrate a group of climate-change rebels. Six months ago we, the police, had been caught napping by imaginative, energetic climate rebels who had brought London to a standstill. Our bosses were left with egg on their faces as far as the media were concerned. And, ever sensitive to their public image, they decided, this time, to take a much tougher stand and get ahead of the game.
“Expletive deleted!” yelled Boxer, shocked at the aggression. “Can they do that?” He was almost as new to the game as I was, but much younger and far less cynical.
“They think they can,” said the cauliflower. “And that’s what counts.”
So the five of us protecting him watched, dismayed, as our temporary homes were destroyed. They even dismantled the kitchen tent and carried away the pots and pans that had fed nearly forty of us who had come to the capital from the West Country.
I hadn’t asked for the assignment. As usual, I was simply dropped in it a couple of months ago and sent, no argument permitted, to Bristol. The property officer said, “I am issuing quality camping gear. Try not to get it wet. You are house-trained, aren’t you, Shareen?”
I glared at him.
He was pleased enough with himself to add, “And here’s your vegan cookbook. From now on it’s adzuki beans and tofu for you, my girl. Don’t let anyone see you with a pork chop or they’ll kick you out of the movement.”
This was insult combined with prejudice. I opened my mouth to protest, but seeing his expectant leer, I shut it again.
“And them upstairs are suggesting you get a tattoo,” he went on. “You want to fit in with the other crusties, don’t you?”
“No,” I said flatly. “No tattoos, no piercings. It’s a cultural thing.”
The property sergeant looked genuinely surprised. This was not a familiar prohibition like the one against unclean meat.
“I didn’t think you believed in all that rubbish,” he said.
“Cultural,” I repeated. He was right, though: I’m not a believer. But my people are strict, and I don’t want to be more alienated from them than I am already.
“A nice Bengal tiger?” he wheedled. “Just a little one on your bum?” He was delighted to have found something fresh to taunt me with.
“You get one,” I said. “If it looks good on you, maybe my culture will make an exception.”
Now I watched as my new rebel friends divided. The non-arrestable ones like me would allow themselves to be hustled off the bridge while the arrestables lay down.
I was pleased to see that all the arrestables went limp, and it took four police officers to pick up and carry one limp body. It was exactly what we’d been taught at the nonviolent training day. But the tactic irritated the cops and they were not gentle.
“Oh f—, I mean, expletive deleted,” Boxer said, watching.
“You can still back out,” I said. “You don’t have to be arrested. You can live to fight another day.”
“That’s right,” said Aurelia, one of our group’s leaders. “No shame, no blame.”
“I’m okay,” Boxer said. He sounded wobbly, but he was too young to realise he could change his mind without losing face.
About a dozen cops in their yellow-and-black high-viz vests advanced on us. Now that I was on the wrong side of the law, I could appreciate how very big they looked. And how extremely pissed off they were.
“You get the van numbers on the south side,” Aurelia said to me. “I’ll do the north side. Text me. I’ll see you on Victoria Street.”
“Okay,” I said. We were supposed to have legal observers to witness what the police did, but there had been too many arrests in too short a time. All I could do was record the van numbers our people were carried off in. It was the only way we could find out which custody suites they’d been taken to.
Our people. I was beginning to have my doubts as to who my people were.
“Got your bust card?” Aurelia asked Boxer. “Ring one of the numbers on it. Don’t let them palm you off with a duty solicitor.”
I added, “And you don’t have to say anything to anyone until you’re actually in custody.”
“I know,” Boxer said miserably.
Aurelia and I exchanged glances, and I squeezed his hand before letting go and escaping to the south side of Lambeth Bridge.
We lost the bridge on only the second day of the protest. The police had too much information and had acted far too quickly. Their success was in part due to information received from snitches like me.
I walked south, diligently writing down van numbers and the names of people I recognised who had been bundled into them: Jen, Fiona, three Johns, James, Ash, Megan, and Dot. Then I was shoved off the bridge and avoided more police presence by walking a long way before recrossing the river by another bridge.
It was no more than I deserved. Double agents have to take their licks from both sides. The London sky frowned at me, granite-grey and heavy with rain.
“They’re disrupting the whole city,” said my cop colleagues. “Costing the country billions. Preventing ordinary working people from making a living.” I believed them. They had facts and figures to prove it.
“Tell the truth,” said my climate-rebel colleagues. “Ignorant society is sawing off the branch we’re all sitting on. It’s almost too late already. There is no planet B.” They had facts and figures to prove it. I was beginning to believe them too.
So the enemies of the movement were paying me to march behind a climate-change banner—dance behind it, actually, because the samba drummers we followed were so irresistible. And I had to admit that it was way more fun to protest than to arrest.
The climate-change rebels looked after me much better than my employers did. As word spread that the West Country rebels were homeless, we received dozens of offers of food, clothing, and shared tents from other groups. Meanwhile, our polluted, money-grubbing capital was crowded with colour, alive to the beat of the drummers and entertained by street theatre and graffiti.
I hooked up with Aurelia on Victoria Street. She had managed to find seven more of our original group. They were gloomily waving rebellion flags. I unfurled my own and joined them.
But unlike them, I wasn’t thinking about the danger of climate change. No—I was replaying in my mind the sight of the destruction of my tent-home and the confiscation of property. My people did that, I thought—the guys I’d worked with for five years.
I was looking at the insecure remnants of our group and thinking of my own family—the tight little self-imposed ghetto up in Yorkshire that was the pathetic remainder of a thriving group of families in Kolkata who had been split and dispersed from the East by the Second World War. I suppose this present diaspora was a bit of a game by contrast. But I was shivering even before the rain came.
Luckily, the samba drummers arrived at the same time as the downpour.
“‘If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution,’” I quoted, perking up. I’d been encouraged to read some revolutionary literature in Bristol.
“Emma Goldman!” Aurelia exclaimed happily. “‘The most violent element in society is ignorance.’ ”
George, an ex-teacher and communist, said, “‘If voting changed anything, they’d have made it illegal,’” in a depressed tone of voice. But he picked up one end of the banner. I picked up the other, and we fell in behind the drummers, dancing our way through the rebel village camped outside Westminster Abbey. Our flags were soggy and sagging but the Lambeth Bridge survivors were heartened. We had Emma Goldman on our side.
We spent that night uncomfortably squeezed into Trafalgar Square alongside the original camp and the survivors of other camps, like ours, displaced from many sites around central London.
I knew what was happening: The police were corralling us into one giant ghetto. Tomorrow or the next day they would descend like wolves on a flock of sheep to disperse and arrest thousands of us in one operation. Disrupt the disruptors. Game over.
I was a police officer—I should have kept the thought to myself. But my sorry family history made my job as snake in the grass confusing. I’d been brought up on stories of camp survivors, escapees and relatives who were never heard of again. A few of us fled to England and were useful enough to work as medics in the army, nurses in a Yorkshire hospital, and cartographers. After the war in the East ended so explosively in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it took years before the survivors gathered to form a protective huddle around my great-grandfather in Yorkshire. His house became their synagogue.
Squashed into a single-occupancy tent with Aurelia and George, I ignored a text from my so-called boyfriend, who was actually my liaison officer. I whispered to Aurelia, “We’re sitting ducks here. We need to regroup somewhere the cops can’t find us.”
“Where?” she said. “The cops seem to know our plans before we do.”
“Is communicating by Telegraph as safe from hackers as everyone said it would be?” George asked.
No, it wasn’t. That was my fault too. Treachery’s name was Shareen Manasseh.
By texting, we could all know where we were and where to go next at a moment’s notice. But so could the police. There were too many double-dealers like me. It hadn’t been hard: Climate rebels were a welcoming bunch. They were absolutely convinced they were right and righteous. All they had to do was tell the truth and live in good faith with their people. Everyone who joined them would be in good faith too, wouldn’t they? Well no, they wouldn’t.
Aurelia, her little face creased with concern and pinched with fatigue, left our tent to talk to Dave and Julie, our area leaders. George, who is over fifty, sighed with relief as he stretched his legs into the space she’d left. I closed my eyes and tried to let my mind drift. But all I could see, projected like a movie on the back of my eyelids, was the sight of the West Country village of small tents, spread like acne on the face of Lambeth Bridge, as it was destroyed by scores of police officers, huge in their black boots destroying our homes. Black boots—jackboots, I thought, knowing I had a pair of uniform shoes exactly like them.
My phone hummed and George’s beeped at the same time. Something was coming in on our group’s special thread.
I looked at the message. It read, “they said to trafalgar square where is everyone.” It was from Boxer.
Immediately about fifteen rebels told him, “Outside Canada House.” And then the phones went quiet again.
I hugged my borrowed sleeping bag around my shoulders like a cloak and edged out of the tent, trying not to wake George, who had dropped suddenly into sleep. It was almost impossible to move around the square without tripping over someone.
I couldn’t see Boxer, but somewhere in the square, someone was playing “Dream a Little Dream of Me” on a piano.
“Listen up,” our training officer said, “we have to keep the traffic flowing, we have to maintain order and stop the whole economy from grinding to a halt. That’s our job. These people may think they’ve got God on their side, but they can’t hold the whole country to ransom.”
“They’re just a bunch of hairy hypocrites,” said one of us.
“They eat at McDonald’s like the rest of us,” said another.
“I’ve heard they eat babies,” said someone else.
Even if my idiot colleague was joking, this sounded awfully like the old blood libel. I shivered while the rest of the group sniggered.
“Our job,” the training officer interrupted loudly, “is to keep our country safe from extremist ideology and unwanted elements. We all know who I’m talking about.” He nodded vigorously and we did too.
Later, when we were all having a beer and a curry together, the idiot who’d talked about eating babies sat next to me and said, “I was only joking. You know I talk bollocks when I’m nervous, don’t you, Shar? Well, I’m a bit edgy about this gig—I think I’ll get rumbled as soon as I open my big gob.” I grinned at him. I was edgy too. But that was months ago, before the likes of Aurelia and George welcomed me into their affinity group.
When I first joined the force, it was because I wanted some of the black-and-white certainty I thought would come with the job. Now, in cold, wet Trafalgar Square, I wondered if it was more like a time at secondary school when I was sorely tempted to join the baddest, meanest girl gang. Better to be with the bullies than against them. I was tired of being picked on; I just wanted to belong.
I stood, cramped on all sides by sleeping climate rebels, looking across a square full of small tents and the stages erected for performances and speeches. I was still watching for Boxer.
Aurelia didn’t come back. Maybe she’d found more comfortable quarters.
Boxer didn’t show up either. Someone else must have scooped him up, fed, and bedded him. The piano player moved on to “Mr. Sandman.”
I crawled back into the tent and lay down beside snoring George. It started to rain heavily again, and there was a collective groan from all the neighbours.
Just before dawn the next morning, my phone was humming with instructions. We were to pack up, leave quietly by ones and twos, and make our way to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. A new campsite had been found for us. As well, my “boyfriend” texted that he was missing me terribly and wanted to know where the hell I was.
The sky was still dark, but the early risers were beginning to move off to a friendly church hall for a wash and pee. I went too, stumbling between tents pitched far too close together. I had my head down, following the beam of my flashlight, watching where I put my feet, so I almost missed a small commotion on the steps of Nelson’s Column. Then someone grabbed my arm and said, “Hey, bring your torch over here.”
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Dunno, mate,” the guy said. “Someone’s sick, I think.”
So I climbed the barrier and joined a group of rebels standing and kneeling beside a fallen man. . . .
Copyright © 2020. My People by Liz Cody