Comment | What if the Tottenham Court Road hostage-taker was a Muslim?

Last week, a middle-aged white man entered an office on one of London's busiest streets and threatened to blow himself and others up. Philip Miller and Taherali Gulamhussein argue the treatment of the incident by the police and the media tells us a lot about the politicised nature of counter-terrorism.

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Tuesday, May 8, 2012 0:00 - 9 Comments

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Michael Green is escorted by police officers following an hours-long stand-off (Source: Telegraph)

On the afternoon of Friday 27th April 2012, a job seeker walked into an office on London’s Tottenham Court Road with a bomb and took a company boss hostage, shouting “I have nothing left to live for!” according to witnesses.

Michael Green, 48, allegedly threatened to blow himself up unless he got a refund from a company that trains lorry-drivers, before proceeding to throw furniture and electronic equipment from the 5th floor of the building. Police arrested him hours later once negotiators had persuaded him to release the hostages and give himself up.

The story alone is shocking enough, but even more extraordinary is the manner in which the State apparatus – the Police in particular – and the mainstream media have represented the incident.

For a start, the Metropolitan Police openly stressed at the outset that this was not a terrorism-related incident and that no counter-terrorism officers were involved. This should raise serious questions about the Police’s definition of ‘terrorism’, considering a special-forces team, an Army bomb disposal unit and the RAF’s Nuclear, Biological and Chemical warfare group were all put on standby. Somehow, the self-declared potential suicide bomber, who took several people hostage, was not considered by the Police to be a terrorist.

The media towed the Met Police’s line and the word ‘terror’ was conspicuously absent from their reports. Even the reliably sensationalist national papers, such as the Daily Express, carried no mentions of terrorism. Their bland choice of article headline, ‘Police Quiz Man After Office Siege’, showed uncharacteristic restraint. The incident was notably absent from the front-pages of Saturday’s papers.

In the days since, Green has been revealed to have been a former Parliamentary candidate for the far-right British National Party, yet at no point was he referred to in the media as a ‘domestic extremist’, nor his behaviour portrayed as ‘criminal’. Instead, Green was repeatedly described as a man or a suspect. It seemed that, for once, the media were willing to treat a person as innocent until proven guilty. On occasion, Green was described in the media as mentally unstable, especially after video testimony (below) emerged of Abby Baafi, one of the people Green had allegedly threatened, describing him as such.

Exceptionally, the Guardian, the UK’s leading liberal-left newspaper quoted Abby Baafi but omitted her assessment of Green’s mental state. Perhaps they felt it was inappropriate or unreliable – especially given the lack of evidence Baafi’s was a serious, considered assessment. And yet, the Guardian showed no such circumspection about repeating the Metropolitan Police’s account of the events and giving prominence to it. Is this reasonable? Can the police, in light of everything that has emerged over the past few years, really be considered reliable?

For many journalists, Green’s arrest was only remarkable because he was photographed being led away topless, not because he had threatened to murder people. Indeed, rather than vilify him as a cold-blooded killer, the Daily Mail mocked Green’s disproportionate reaction to failing an exam: “Topless Tottenham Court Road siege suspect ‘demanded a refund from the licence office after he FAILED his HGV driving test’”.

All of which completely ignores any discussion of Green’s actions as a form of political protest. Have we forgotten Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian man who had such difficulty earning a living that he set himself on fire in December 2010 in protest? His action sparking the Tunisian Revolution and the wider Arab Spring. Indeed, the political dynamics of self-immolation were so obvious that the tactic was repeated across the Arab world.

And yet, Michael Green’s actions are not that different from Mohamed Bouazizi’s. Finding work in Britain is hard – the economy is stuck in the longest recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s and Green had just failed his lorry driver’s test for a third time, effectively seeing his chances of finding employment vanish.

With this in mind, why then did the British Press and Metropolitan Police ignore the political aspects of this incident, dismissing Green’s actions as if they were hardly a matter of concern – comical and crazy; an incident about mental health, not terror or crime? If terrorism involves political violence, then doesn’t that surely include an aggrieved jobseeker taking a company director hostage?

Let us remember that criminality can include throwing objects out of buildings. When student protestor Edward Woollard threw a fire extinguisher from the roof of the Conservative Party Headquarters in November 2010, or when young people looted shops in the August Riots, the State and the media were quick to condemn that as criminality. So why is Green’s, arguably far more serious, behaviour not being depicted as such?

Had Green been a Muslim, would counter-terrorism officers not have bothered to attend the incident? Had he been a member of an anarchist organisation, would he not have been described as a domestic extremist? Indeed, why aren’t the Police now warning Londoners to be suspicious of unemployed people on the tube?

The fact is, were the police to treat this as a security crisis, they would have had to class millions of people as potential threats. After all, it was the condition of precarious employment that turned Green into a potential suicide bomber, and his ‘profile’ thus clearly applies to the majority of (white) working class people in Britain, especially since his actions are easy for anyone to replicate: get some gas bottles, strap them to your body and demand an employer gives you a job. Yet the government has not made the incident into a crisis. They have not said that mass unemployment is a threat to national security. Instead, the incident has been ridiculed.

On one level, this should cast doubt over Met Chief Bernard Hogan-Howe’s “priority” to counter terrorism during the Olympic games. How can they possibly plan their operations when seemingly almost anyone could ‘do’ terrorism without ‘being’ a terrorist. On another level, this episode reveals an instructive truth: that unemployment, an everyday threat to people’s physical security (i.e. their ability to meet basic needs), is nonetheless not considered by the state to be a threat to national security.

The inescapable conclusion is that it is all too convenient for the state to scare-monger about external demons when a suicide bomber happens to be a young Muslim who says his grievance is the West’s occupation of Iraq. This was the State’s response after Hasib Hussain blew up the No.30 Bus in Tavistock Square, not far from Tottenham Court Road, on 7th July 2005, killing 13 other people.

However, it’s a bit more awkward for the government to do so when the potential suicide bomber is a middle-aged white bloke called Michael Green who wants to be a lorry driver. Best to sweep it under the carpet and dismiss him as a crazy guy who was under a lot of stress; that way we don’t have to reflect on how unemployment in our society can lead to self-destruction, nor do we have to admit that anyone has the potential to be a terrorist.

It’s worth pointing out that Green’s BNP credentials were not revealed by the police but by campaigning group Hope Not Hate. This raises a number of questions about the police’s approach to ‘profiling': was Green on the suspected terrorist database given that he practised terror? Was he on the domestic extremist database given his extreme views on immigration? If Green had a criminal record, was his BNP membership/electoral candidacy noted? Was the police, at the time of going to press, aware that Green had been a BNP candidate in the 2010 election? If so, why did they not disclose this to the public? Did they not find this relevant? And if so, why? And finally, could the police have done more to stop him?

These questions about profiling probably seem far-fetched and speculative to some readers. But why should Mr. Green, a middle aged White Nationalist from the Home Counties, be treated with less suspicion by the Police than, say, Mr. Hussein, a young Black Muslim with Anarchist views? If police profiling is wrong for one type of citizen, should it not be wrong for all?

If you don’t want to take part in police profiling, take a stand and refuse to give over your details. Sign up to constrain police powers by supporting the Network for Police Monitoring, and come to the next NetPol Conference on May 20th.

Philip Miller is a researcher and anti-deportation campaigner.

Taherali Gulamhussein is a volunteer with the Network for Police Monitoring and a student at the College of Law Bloomsbury

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9 Comments

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Bobby
May 7, 2012 14:10

Great piece guys, very timely. I was waiting for someone to write this!

Mike Fried
May 7, 2012 14:25

Terrorism is not an easily defined term. But I think its very reasonable to say that a crazy guy threatening to blow up a building unless he gets his refund is not a terrorist.

This journalist is making a mountain out of a molehill. He compares this guy to Bouazizi who was protesting the inability to find work in a corrupt and oppressed land to a guy who failed a test to get a lorry license? Or comparing it to people who conducted acts of civil disobedience for the sake of disobedience?

There are enough real cases of racism/racial profiling that we don’t need biased reporters manufacturing new ones.

Ian
May 7, 2012 22:28

I think Mike Fried has said everything that needs to be said on this article.

Raj
May 9, 2012 13:31

Sometimes, the phrase “missing the point” isn’t enough. If Mike Fried was Muslim, we wouldn’t even know the back story – MI5 would have ‘intelligence’ about his links to Al-Qaeda

Aec
May 9, 2012 17:32

This isn’t about racism, this is about white privilege

ashok
May 10, 2012 6:14

“this isn’t about racism, this is about white privilege” … hmm, ive never heard that phrase before. how do you delink ‘white privilege’ from ‘racism’? the former is only possible because of the latter.

Aec
May 11, 2012 20:14

Correction: this isn’t JUST about racism, but about white privilege

ashok
May 12, 2012 7:39

got it.

James Newman
May 20, 2012 0:24

Terrorism is the British Government and the Military. If dropping a bomb onto civilians and killing them is not terrorism then I can’t call September 11th a terrorist attack either.

Definition of Terrorism:

1. the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.

2. the state of fear and submission produced by terrorism or terrorization.

3. a terroristic method of governing or of resisting a government.

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/terrorism

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