Saturday, 26 July 2014

"Britain First" do their worst

The place: Crayford, south-east London. The date: Sunday 13 July. The Kent Battalion – all three of them – are ready. Weeks of preparation are over, all for this one moment. Ladies and gentlemen, prepare for the movie of a lifetime (cue angry music)… “The Removal of the Sexist Mosque Signs”. This is Britain First at its moronic finest.

The three comrades walk into the mosque, and let the door swing shut behind them. They ask for the imam, but he is away. Undeterred, the group’s commander, Paul Golding, approaches the first person he sees, an elderly man with a white beard.

“We’re Britain First, yeah? We object to your signs that are outside, the signs for men and women… in this country we have equality,” Mr Golding says to the bearded man.

After a short conversation about Islam, intolerance, and the like, the three intruders decide it is time to move on. On the doorstep – clearly thinking that he has done enough intimidating for one day – Mr Golding thanks his unwilling host and leaves. Cue more angry music, and the film cuts.
Britain First is facing an image problem. I have done my best to dramatise its “invasion” of Crayford Mosque, but quite frankly it was a hard task. For those of you who have never heard of Britain First, they are a splinter group of the BNP and aim to wage a “crusade” against Muslims through street-level activism. In reality, they’re failing miserably to live up to the image of racist, violent and intimidating Islamophobes. Something is going wrong. What a shame…

Firstly, the uniform really lets them down. They are meant to be paramilitaries, but their matching black anoraks and caps make them look more like the local pigeon shooting club. To clear this up, I read their mission statement which is on their website. Yet, the contradictions continue. Next to their paragraph which describes Britain First as a “street defence organisation” is a photo of the Queen and Prince Philip. Che Guevara maybe, but Elizabeth II as a street fighter? Come on guys…

Moreover, their driving is somewhat questionable. This is not to say that proper racists should be good drivers, all I mean is that their inability to navigate the roads properly slightly lessens the fear factor. For example, on Channel 4 News, their military Land Rover was on the way to intimidate some Muslims when it collided with the gate to a car park. Another time, a group of activists were too busy ‘invading’ the East London Mosque to realise that their car was parked on zig-zag traffic lines. The local community support officer walking past was not pleased.

And, in general, it seems that their ability to annoy the police is rather limited. After the Crayford Mosque incident, Paul Golding headed to the local police station and waited to be arrested. Here he filmed a piece to the camera, lamenting the suffering he was about to endure for the cause. “I am about to be arrested,” he said, looking downcast. “In this game… in this line of business.. quite frankly, I am going to get arrested and face danger, I accept that.”

“We’re quite happy to bear the brunt of the state coming down on us like a tonne of bricks and danger from Islam because someone needs to, someone needs to stand up for our country.” Unfortunately for his publicity team, the state must have been on lunch break, because he was never actually arrested. The Old Bill never bothered, which was presumably quite awkward, as Britain First had just announced the ‘arrest’ on Twitter and Facebook.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Britain as a cycling nation? Not if we don't learn to love cyclists

The final straight; sprint finish. He powers ahead, legs pumping like pistons, with just twenty metres of tarmac between his bike and eternal glory. One overtake, then the next…
“Sorry mate, that will be £50 please.”

This is not an excerpt from the Tour de France – the first stage of which was in Yorkshire a few weeks ago – but from the morning cycle taken by a normal Londoner. Kristian Gregory was pedalling towards Elephant & Castle, before being stopped by a policeman and fined for cycling on the pavement. His crime: to move from the cycle path to the crossing, infringing on the path for a few seconds.

You can judge the video for yourself, but this fine was quite clearly unnecessary. Even members of the local council – usually stout defenders of petty regulations – said that the police had gone too far, and should review their enforcement on this particular stretch of path.

This incident epitomises Britain’s schizophrenic attitude towards cycling. People cheer on the athletes on the Yorkshire moors, yet hate the cyclists they encounter every day in the street. Cyclists are demonised as selfish, borderline psychopaths; who carelessly jump red lights, and mow down grannies on the pavement. Forget hug a hoody, it’s time to cuddle a cyclist.

The idea that cyclists are somehow uniquely threatening has become the watchword of the London bobby. Take this email, sent by Inspector Colin Davies from the Metropolitan Police’s South East Area Traffic Garage said:
“All, can you please cascade this onto your troops, officers have four months to do 40 cycle tickets. Ten per month, 2.5 a week. Most officers are nearing or have even achieved their other targets.”
These policemen fine thousands of people every year for cycling on the pavement, but none have read legislation they are enacting. It specifically says that fines should not be given to cyclists who “sometimes feel obliged to use the pavement out of fear of the traffic and show consideration to other pavement users”. In other words, the police are overly zealous in prosecuting those who cycle on the pavement, a point recently made by the cycling minister, Robert Goodwill.
Yet nobody cares about such legal niceties, because cyclists are at fault anyway. Surely if they didn’t ride so dangerously they would not be involved in accidents? So goes the lazy assumption that justifies penalising cyclists. One example of this attitude is an anonymous comment article in the Guardian, in which the writer argues that what most scares him as a cyclist is other cyclists, who are uniquely aggressive and unpleasant.

The Mayor of London demonstrated a similar attitude when he made a claim – which he has now retracted – that three quarters of cycle fatalities in London are due to the cyclist flouting the laws of the road. In reality, motorists are responsible for crashes almost three times as often as cyclists.Unsurprisingly, it is the mass of steel that belches its way down London’s roads that poses the biggest threat to cyclists, not middle-aged men in lycra…

Compare this attitude to the Netherlands, where cyclists have their own traffic lights, and are actively prioritised over other road users. Most importantly, motorists bear the burden of responsibility in the event of a collision with a cyclist. Given that most cyclist fatalities are due to careless driving, and that trucks and cars will always win in a collision, it makes sense to adopt similar legislation here. Thankfully, cycling in London is relatively safe – with just 1 in 433,000 cycle journeys leading to serious injury or death – but more needs to be done.

Meanwhile, traffic police must place more emphasis on targeting rule breaking that is most likely to harm other road users. This means, among other things, prosecuting motorists who cut across lanes at junctions or stray into cycle lane. At the end of the first stage of the Met’s safety campaign, Operation Safeway, nearly 1,000 tickets were given to bike riders for going on the pavement, but just 42 tickets handed out for driving in a cycle lane. If cyclists are going to have to make do with a narrow strip of paint to protect them from the traffic, this boundary should at least be upheld.

Yet none of this is possible without the general public accepting that cyclists have as much right to use our roads as anyone else. In fact, they arguably have more, because cycling – with its environmental and health benefits – has a more positive effect on our society than driving.
So, rather than just cheering on the professionals on the moors of Yorkshire, why not give a round of applause to the next cyclist you see on the road?

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Hidden hungry: the rise of Durham's food banks

“When I joined as food bank manager in September 2013 we had thirteen distribution points; now we have got twenty-three.” Bev Anderson, Project Manager at Durham Food Bank, describes the rapid expansion of emergency food provision in County Durham.
Having worked as an accountant, Bev now oversees an operation that feeds 1300 people a month from a small building just off Framwellgate Peth. The financial calculations that once filled her working life have been replaced by the grim arithmetic of poverty: it takes three tealights to warm a tin of soup, she was told by one former soldier.
From her first floor office – which I reach from a flight of stairs lined with tins and cartons of food – she tells me how the Durham Food Bank operates.
“All our clients come through referral agencies: social workers, parent support advisers, MP’s offices, Job Centre Plus – anybody helping with the underlying causes of the problems.
“We want people referred to us when they are getting help with the main causes of their food crisis. Running out of food is just a symptom of the problem.”
Many referrals are for working people who cannot pay the bills: an issue starkly presented in a new study by Loughborough University, which found that living costs are rising three times faster than wages.
Yet Bev primarily blames benefit delays and changes for the high volume of people needing emergency food aid. Nationwide, 49 percent of referrals to food banks arise due to problems with social security payments.