Lisa Mckenzie on the day she was arrested

Anarchist academic reflects on what her recent brush with the law says about threats to academic freedom

November 26, 2015
Lisa Mckenzie, Class War Party candidate, Chingford
Source: Peter Marshall

They say you should never read below the line after you publish an article in the public domain. Yes, but what if you’re a sociologist? You have to read the comments – it’s your job to know how society reacts to a particular viewpoint. Besides, one of a sociologist’s prime traits is extreme nosiness. So I look. My favourite comment came after I had written in a national newspaper about being a working-class academic and living on a council estate: “Where is her child’s father?” a reader demanded. That was just class – in every sense of the word.

I have written and published several articles that are aimed at the general public rather than academics. I am, after all, a public sociologist. I have written a book, Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain, which I am proud of; it is free of sociological jargon and relatively cheap to buy. I am also an activist, and I have used the knowledge, the platform and the confidence that academia provides to fight inequality, and to shout (very loudly) about the consequences for the poorest in society of the cruel intentions of neoliberal governments (among which I include New Labour, whose social exclusion agenda was similar in language to the Conservatives’ “Broken Britain” rhetoric and was just as demeaning to working-class people).

Being a working-class academic, I know – and I mean I really know – what the impact of neoliberal policies is on poor communities; I know the unfairness of class inequality and how crushing poverty can be for a family and a community. So I speak about it, I write about it and I act upon it. And whenever I’ve done so, my public profile has risen. But this is a good thing for a public sociologist, isn’t it?

Well, on one recent occasion, when I acted on my disgust at a particularly nasty and vindictive piece of housing policy in London, it seemed my rising profile was a bit too much for the Metropolitan Police.

On 2 April, I was in Chingford, whose incumbent MP, Iain Duncan Smith, was campaigning in the 2015 general election. And I was campaigning there, too: I was standing against the former Tory leader – and architect of the party’s attacks on welfare – for Class War, a radical Left political party that was described by Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee as “a group of photogenic fruitcakes”. I am not interested in becoming an MP; it’s not my sort of direct political action. But I am interested in challenging the status quo, disrupting the system, and pissing off the Establishment. I’m interested in pushing boundaries, and finding out just how far a very working-class and proud woman can get.

I had some media interest that day in Chingford, and there was a Guardian photographer with us. After having a few drinks in the local with some Chingfordians who proudly told me that they hated Sir Winston Churchill and would definitely vote for me, I headed back to the East End, to One Commercial Street, a “landmark” new 21-storey block of flats on the boundary of the City of London and Whitechapel. I was attending Class War’s weekly picket of the building, which was in its 26th week.

One Commercial Street is one of London’s many new multimillion-pound housing developments that, in order to get planning permission, have been required to include a small number of “affordable” flats. The growing trend for these upmarket developments is to segregate the less well-off tenants from the wealthy homeowners by forcing them to use separate entrances, or “poor doors”. And it’s not just doors: even their bicycle storage spaces, rubbish disposal facilities and postal deliveries are separated, too. When I first heard about this development, I immediately knew that it was wrong. I certainly didn’t need to carefully weigh up whether devaluing a person and making them walk round the back was better than providing no home at all – which is the argument most often levelled at the protest.

Our weekly picket always started at 6pm on a Thursday and always ended at 7pm – we are very punctual anarchists. After 45 minutes of a very uneventful picket, I was surrounded by about 10 police officers, and “snatched” – a tactic the Met uses to remove a person from a crowd. I was surrounded, my hands were cuffed behind my back and I was forced into a van. I was being arrested, they informed me, for an alleged offence that had happened two weeks previously. My charge was criminal damage: I had allegedly placed a sticker on the window of One Commercial Street, which had required the window to be cleaned at a cost of £50. I was taken to Bethnal Green Police Station, kept in handcuffs for two hours and held in a cell until 1.30am. That said, it wasn’t all bad: a well-meaning copper thought that I might need a book to read (me being a doctor) and gave me the comedian Frankie Boyle’s autobiography, My Shit Life So Far. The dedication on the first page says: “To all my enemies, I will destroy you.” That page now takes pride of place on my fridge door.

Almost two months later, further charges were added when I surrendered for bail at Bethnal Green. These were so-called Section 4A and 5 public order offences, according to which you can be imprisoned for using “threatening [or abusive] words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour” or for displaying “any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening [or abusive], within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby”. My offence was to have held up a poster depicting the graveyard from the film of Oh! What a Lovely War with the words “we have found new homes for the rich” on it. If I had been found guilty, the Crown Prosecution Service and the police would have applied for a Criminal Behaviour Order (the “new Asbo”), which would have curbed my freedom of speech and movement by stipulating in law places that I was not allowed to go and people or groups with whom I was not allowed to socialise.

Four days before my trial, the CPS accepted that there was no evidence that I had caused or committed any offence. You might have expected its response to be to drop the case, or to offer no evidence. No: instead, it added the charge of “joint enterprise”, a 300-year-old offence that has been revived in recent years to allow the police to charge someone with another person’s crime if they can be demonstrated to have shared a purpose with them, whether they were present at the scene of the crime or not.

I first came across joint enterprise when I was undertaking research in my community in Nottingham after the August 2011 riots. A group of young black and mixed-race men were charged, found guilty and imprisoned for being on a street where criminal damage was caused on a particular night, even though both the police and the CPS accepted that they had no links to each other. I became very close to the mother of one of those young men, who ended up being imprisoned for three years. My heart went out to her; I knew her son could easily have been my son. During those four days of rioting across England, if you were a young black man from particular neighbourhoods, you could not be on the streets – you could be arrested and imprisoned for who you were, rather than for anything you had done. I wrote about this in Getting By, and I have stayed close to mothers and sons whose lives have been wrecked by joint enterprise, and by lazy, classist and racist policing.

The charges against me meant that I was tried in a magistrate’s court, at taxpayers’ expense. It would also have left me personally out of pocket if I had not successfully crowd-funded my defence costs; in the past five years, Legal Aid has been slashed for all kinds of offences, including not putting a sticker on a window while someone else – a “person unknown in a mask”, according to the police – did.

On 21 October, I was found not guilty of all charges. Under questioning, one of the police officers, a prosecution witness, admitted that I had been “profiled” from CCTV and photographs of the protest: the police had actively investigated who I was despite my having committed no crime. The district judge, in his closing statement, said that he felt “very uncomfortable” with the fact that I had been subject to such treatment. It seems that being a public sociologist can have wider and more worrying consequences than the venom of Daily Mail readers writing below the line.

I was worried that I would be judged for being involved in Class War: people react strangely to that term. But I was wrong. Many individuals and groups, including from the academic world, have rallied around me, not only in relation to my case but also regarding the issues that it throws up. Rising inequality in the UK means that class politics are once again becoming central to our understanding of oppression: something attested to by the fact that my crowd-funding campaign reached its targeted amount within 24 hours.

Our freedom as academics to disagree and to offend the status quo is at risk from the police, from government and from university management. Ideas are the most dangerous tools in any revolution, and, as academics, thinkers and activists, we cannot take our freedom to explore and promulgate them for granted. That freedom has been hard won and will continue to be challenged by those who are afraid of us.

Lisa Mckenzie is a research fellow in the department of sociology, London School of Economics.

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Print headline: Class detention

Reader's comments (6)

I have watched your demonstrations with the group calling itself Class War, but never detected anything remotely akin to support for working people. All one hears is a blast of obscenities which you misleadingly present as typical working class forms of speech. You boast about using the c word in your Class War Facebook Page, and few of your followers ever go beyond calling the occasional Tory or UKIP member a c***t. Beyond that your followers enjoy wallowing in mirthless jokes about killing rich people. The nearest you or your supporters ever get to political argument is via ad hominem responses or simply dismissing opponents as Daily Mail readers before blocking them from your Class War Facebook Pages. Not a very profound approach for an academic, a public sociologist.. The police should not have arrested you, and your point about diminishing legal aid for protesters is sound. But do try to make your protests in some way appealing to working people.
That's pretty much the extent of their 'anarchist protests'. Mockney accents and lots of swearing. The penultimate point was the idiotic 'protest' against a pair of beared hipsters somewhere in east london that had dared to open a shop selling cornflakes for 3 quid a pop. It shows you how far things have come when we have issues of geopolitical violence across the middle east, mass migration flows, climate change and the rise of anti-liberal political cults in russia, the Islamic world and amongst our own supposed 'progressive left' (anti free speech etc) and the best these bunch of 'anarchists' can muster is a half drunk protest about one shop charging hipster idiots too much for a bowl of cornflakes.
Thanks for caring and for fighting Lisa. It's heartbreaking what is happening in Britain. The wealthy are wealthy at the cost of the poor. It's always been this way. The extremely wealthy and powerful pretend to be concerned about everyone else but they don't need frontline public services. They don't need charities. They don't need food banks or affordable housing. They don't need access to legal representation. The wealthy will always be fine. They never willingly give up their power and history demonstrates they consistently seek to consolidate and further it by whatever means necessary. Demonstrable rising inequality, decimated public services paid for by the people then sold off so shareholder profits can be increased and financial contributions to corruptable political parties can increase, the seemingly relentless desire for war (during which the accumulation of wealth by the wealthy is always accelerated), the relentless downplaying of the negative effects of climate change, a mantra of economic growth which inevitably destroys the earth's finite material resources at a faster and faster rate, a population whose understanding is profoundly shaped by an increasingly corporate media whose top priority is the generation of profit closely followed by waging an ideological war on anyone who dare challenge existing conditions, and as you imply, the institution of higher education itself increasingly turned into a neoliberal factory designed primarily to support and facilitate the continued accumulation of wealth by a tiny elite and keep the status quo rather than being a place where communities engage in free, radical thought focussed on understanding complexity and determinedly pursuing the manufacture of a more peaceful, sustainable, equal world which is sidelined at best and actually punished by the full force of the state at worst. These desperate times need strong, brave and committed people like yourself. Thanks for acting. Please, keep caring and please keep fighting. The powerful have always been terrified of the prospect of a well educated majority with a capacity for critical thought. Cracks are appearing. Nothing good ever happened for the majority without good people speaking out, getting organised and involved, challenging the elite's disingenuous narrative and taking direct action.
I remain second most wanted international fugitive for allegedly calling a certain now former VC 'a criminal.' What kind of country does that?
This low level harassment against peaceful protest is pretty poor. At least you weren't beaten up like some or thrown into the back of a van or cell and left to die like many cases. At least you weren't shot to death like Jean Charles de Menezes. Still pretty awful and I bet neither the police involved, their managers with oversight or the CPS had any disciplinary action against them for this vindictive prosecution. Sticker on window = arrested. For an illegal war on false pretences become a multi-millionaire and peace envoy. How many bankers ever get prosecuted? Class War fulfills a valuable function and stands as a beacon shedding light on this issues. If the establishment doesn't feel threatened (embarassed) by them why doesn't it leave them alone. Keep up the good work Lisa and Class War.
Those who want more powers for the police and security services always say, if you've done nothing wrong then you have nothing to worry about. You have clearly demonstrated how wrong that is. In your case you were charged with an offence even the police admitted you did not commit - although you were in a 'joint enterprise' with a man who did. And the youths in Nottingham were guilty of being black and on the streets.

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