Saturday 9 August 2014

A cautionary tale about stereotyping and free speech at Kilburn station

Yesterday evening along with others I was giving out leaflets at Kilburn Station about today's demonstration.

There follows a troubling account of what happened to one of the women who was leafleting which raises issues about stereotyping (religion, age, gender) as well as free speech in a democracy.
After about twenty minutes of leafleting just outside the station, I had a most unusual encounter with a middle-aged Pakistani man who works there. He told me I should move away and stand more discretely and not so close to the station. I asked why, and he said he had received complaints and some people were afraid that I was going to blow up the station because I was wearing a headscarf.

Really? There were plenty of women wearing headscarves walking in and out of the station and past it. Were people afraid they were going to blow the station up as well? What if such a complaint had been made against one of TfL’s female staff members who wear a Muslim headscarf or would he say the same thing to one of them? Here was an Islamophobic comment being made by a Muslim.

I pressed him to find out how many such complaints had been made in such a short space of time as there were few people around. I asked many times until finally he said three. I said I was outside the station and it was not the station’s concern as in a democracy a person can hand out leaflets and people can complain about it, but if neither of us is breaking the law, there is not much anyone can do. There were Police Community Support Officers (PCSO) inside the station the whole time, so I said that if I was breaking the law, he should complain to them and they could deal with it directly.I remained calm all along.

He had picked on the wrong woman to intimidate: he then told me that I was actually on TfL property. I asked for proof of that but he just pointed to the bridge above the station. He said the land just outside the station is also owned by TfL. I said, then why aren’t you talking to other people? He said “you’re too close to the station”. I said if I’m not breaking the law and you can’t prove it, I’m not moving. I did ask him which statute I was offending, to which he could not answer. I also pointed out the discriminatory nature of his actions. Instead, he went on, claiming I was aggressively leafleting people and making them feel scared. This was after he had accused me of being a terrorist, trespass and aggressive behaviour. I am intimidating when I am the person being intimidated.

He spoke to me in a patronising tone. It is not only the fact that I was wearing a headscarf: he also chose to target me as I am a younger person. I think he thought I was a school kid on holiday. 

He eventually gave up and left. As he walked away, I told him I hadn’t moved and didn’t plan to: I stayed where I was until I finished. Before I left, I finally entered the station. I asked his colleague, a younger man, if anyone had made any complaints. He said no, and none had been mentioned to him by anyone else.

I then wanted to make sure I had been in the right: I spoke to the PCSOs who were there the whole time. I asked if anyone had complained to them. They also said no. I told them what had happened and they were surprised as they had not noticed any of this. Another activist had come inside to hand out leaflets but she left when they asked her to step outside and took up a similar position to myself. In this case, the younger man asked the PCSOs to ask her to move.

Explaining that his comments were discriminatory, although I was the one who had been accused of all sorts of things, it was me the PCSOs asked if I wanted to make an official complaint. I said no, as they said they could speak to him instead.

I have been an activist for a long time and I am well aware of my rights. He chose to pick on me because of his perception of my age as well as my attire. I am aware that this happens very often to young people of both sexes, and that a less experienced person would be intimidated and walk away when told to by a person in uniform or authority, even if they are wrong. When I spoke to the police, it was me they agreed with. Issues like the current war in Gaza bring in people who are new to activism and such things can really put them off. I have seen this many times. Like war, discrimination is pretty much an everyday fact of life for most of us. The issues we campaign for, however, are bigger than any one of us and we must not forget that wars abroad have their home fronts too.

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