It shouldn’t be a crime to hate the Old Bill
Convicting a man for wearing an anti-cop t-shirt shows how skewed the balance between state and citizen has become.
Growing up in north-west London, I had a friend who occasionally wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘COP KILLER’, after the Ice T song that was pretty popular at the time. My friend wasn’t a cop killer, of course; he was a college student who had a Saturday job at B&Q. But he loved Ice T, and also Niggaz With Attitude (we all loved them, especially their thumping anthem ‘Fuck tha police’), and no one took much notice of the embarrassingly self-aggrandising gangsta tee this well-groomed white boy sometimes wore. Besides, hating the Old Bill, even wishing them dead, has been a commonplace sentiment in some communities for ages.
These days, if the case of Barry Thew is anything to go by, wearing a ‘Cop Killer’ t-shirt could potentially land you in the clink. Thew, a 39-year-old ‘beer-swilling dad’, according to the Sun, has been found guilty of committing a public-order offence after he wore an anti-police t-shirt in public. Last month, shortly after the killing of those two policewomen in Greater Manchester, Thew went shopping in nearby Rochdale while wearing a t-shirt that said, ‘One less pig – perfect justice’. Later, he went out in another t-shirt that said, ‘Kill a cop for fun ha ha’. Clearly Mr Thew really doesn’t like the police. Some Rochdale shoppers took offence at his homemade tees, so they phoned the filth – sorry, the police – and before you could say ‘All Coppers Are Bastards’, Thew was being hauled before Manchester’s Minshull Street Crown Court and convicted of disturbing the public order. He’ll be sentenced this week.
The media reports about the case reveal just how surreally authoritarian it was. We are told that in court Thew ‘admitted wearing an anti-cop t-shirt’, as if the clothes we wear and the sentiments we express are things we should have to explain to judges. ‘Cop hater on t-shirt rap’, said the Sun, neglecting to explain when it became so terrible to hate the cops, or why on earth a t-shirt expressing a point of view, however crude that point of view might be, should lead to any kind of ‘rap’ (unless we’re talking about an Ice T kind of rap, of course: ‘I’m about to bust some shots off / I’m about to dust some cops off.’) Boiled down to its essence, the Thew case involves the arrest, trial and conviction, in the twenty-first century, of a man judged to have expressed unacceptable views.
The criminalisation of Thew for wearing a t-shirt with an admittedly explosive slogan on it is an attack on political speech – teenage, not-particularly enlightening political speech, yes, but political speech nonetheless. Thew was expressing strong feelings about a wing of the state, which in a free society everyone should be at liberty to do. What next, the arrest of people who wear anti-monarchy t-shirts that say ‘Off with their heads’ on the grounds that they’re being treasonous? The rounding-up, on charges of blasphemy, of those greasy-haired Cradle of Filth fans who wear t-shirts that say ‘Jesus is a cunt’? Maybe those anti-George Bush feminists who had a penchant for wearing t-shirts saying ‘The only Bush I trust is my own’ should have been had up for offending decency by mentioning vaginas in public. From Sex Pistols fans wearing t-shirts with swastikas on them to last year’s super-controversial Topman t-shirts that said ‘Nice new girlfriend. What breed is she?’, there’s a tradition of people, especially young people, donning offensive tees in order to cause a stir. It isn’t big or clever, but it isn’t criminal, either – or at least it shouldn’t be.
There have long been subcultures in Britain that are vociferously anti-cop, going back before the emergence of modern-day American gangsta rappers like NWA, who in ‘Fuck tha police’ sang about being ‘young niggers on a warpath, and when I’m finished it’s gonna be a bloodbath’. In many working-class communities in Britain between the 1940s and 80s, you’d frequently see graffiti saying ‘ACAB’ – all coppers are bastards. That slogan featured on t-shirts, too, and on many a tattooed forearm. The 1980s punk band the 4-Skins recorded a song called ‘A.C.A.B’. The idolisation of real-world cop killer Harry Roberts, who killed three policemen in Shepherd’s Bush in 1966, further confirmed public loathing of the Old Bill. Among anarchists and in football stadiums in the 1970s and 80s, you’d often hear the chant (to the tune of ‘London Bridge is falling down’): ‘Harry Roberts is our friend, is our friend, is our friend / Harry Roberts is our friend, he kills coppers.’ The lefty folksy band Chumbawamba sings songs about Roberts, including one in which they repeat his name over and over in the style of a cult-like Hare Krishna chant. (Hare / Harry – geddit?) Should those records be banned on the basis that they undermine public order? Should we have an amnesty for all owners of ‘ACAB’ t-shirts, wherein the forty- and fiftysomethings who sported such shockwear back in the day would be allowed to hand them into the authorities without risking a criminal record? That would be the logical conclusion to the current criminalisation of a man for wearing a ‘cop-hating t-shirt’.
In a free society, we must be free to hate, and to express that hate. Yet it is striking how successfully the police have played the victim card in the wake of the killing of the two policewomen in Manchester in order to clamp down on expressions of contempt for cops. Alongside the conviction of Thew, a Liverpudlian who set up a Facebook page praising Dale Cregan, the man who murdered the policewomen, has been arrested under the Communications Act 2003 and faces up to six months in jail, while internet ‘trolls’ who have lauded Cregan have been exposed by the media and questioned by the police. God knows what would happen if some football fans who felt mightily annoyed by police heavyhandedness switched from singing ‘Harry Roberts is our friend’ to ‘Dale Cregan is our friend’… there’d probably be mass arrests, reflecting the success the cops have had in playing the role of the victim in order, ironically, to re-establish the authority of the state over the individual.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here. He will be speaking at the Battle of Ideas debate Occupy: illusory radicalism? at the Barbican on Sunday 21 October.
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