Most people want security in this world, not liberty.
~H.L. Mencken, Minority Report, 1956
I am living in an old people's home with 30,000 residents. Or is it perhaps a creche? It is statistically impossible for me to leave my front door (yes, i now have a fixed abode) and walk more than 500 metres without seeing a cop. They are ubiquitous. And they will book you soon as look at you.
A colleague was sitting on the street one night in Albany, having finished a meal with friends at a restaurant. He had taken with him what was left of his wine, which he had recorked in the bottles. The police wanted to know what he was doing sitting on a public bench in the street with two bottles of wine. Not open, mind you. He was not drinking from them, mind you. Nor was he driving or intending to drive.
"Why? Why do you want my name?" He was waiting for his friends who had gone into a nearby pub.
"What's your name?" asks the cop.
He knew the police officer through his work at the newspaper. She knew him. And she knew that he knew that she knew him.
"Why? What's the charge? Why do I have to give you my name?"
She asked him again. "What's your name?"
"Why? What's the charge?"
The police placed him under arrest. Put him in the back of the paddy wagon, in full view of his friends and passers by. He was driven to the lockup, fingerprinted, and his DNA was taken. He was charged and convicted of failing to provide details to police when requested. This conviction, and a sample of his DNA, is now permanently on record. His crime, following amendments to State law after the September 11 attacks, carries a maximum sentence of twelve months in prison.
A friend walked home from the pub in Albany one night, as she felt she was too drunk to drive.
She was stopped three times on her way home by three separate sets of police officers who held her up and questioned her. What are you doing, they wanted to know. Uh, walking home?
You could argue that this police omnipresence is a good thing, that it is unsafe for a woman to walk home at night by herself, and isn't it just grand that the police are around to protect her.
But the police were not interested in protecting her.
"I'm walking home," she stated, exasperated, after the third interrogation. "Why? Are you going to give me a lift?"
"No," said the police officer.
"Well fuck off then." A perfectly reasonable response.
An off-duty cop stopped me on my motorcycle in Albany one night. I was taking Sarah Toa for a ride. He asked for my address. I did not actually have an address, and was probably going to sleep in my storage unit that night. I didn't want to tell him that, since such things are, more than likely, illegal.
The law, in its majestic equality, forbids all men to sleep under bridges ... the rich as well as the poor.
~Anatole France, Crainquebille, 1902
So i gave the cop my mailing address, as well as my place of work in Albany. For failing to tell him exactly where i was sleeping that night, i was later fined $200 plus costs. Again, this carries a maximum sentence of twelve months in prison.
I guess the police need to know where you are at all times, just in case they want to turn up in the middle of the night and take you away. Under our new anti-terror laws, the ASIO Act as amended in 2004 and 2005, our government can detain any of us for a week without laying charges. You have no right to a phone call: you just disappear. ASIO has the right to detain you without charge if they have reason to believe you are likely to commit an offence, or have any information about terrorist activity. And after a week, they can apply to detain you again for another week. And so on. And if you speak to anyone afterwards about your arrest - the press, a friend, or your husband - you can be thrown in jail for five years. If you refuse to answer their questions, you can be thrown in jail for five years.
Why have we handed over this power? Why have we given away our freedoms? As Richard Flanagan says in The Unknown Terrorist, fascist states have come about in countries far more cultured than our own.
I am thinking along these lines as i walk down York Street on my day off. Suddenly, there is a marked police car in front of me. About three officers are in the street, pulling over vehicles and speaking to drivers. About five other people in day-glow vests are standing nearby, ready to go. They have a table covered with some kind of paraphernalia. It's a big operation, to be sure. Perhaps someone has escaped from the Albany Regional Prison? Perhaps a terrorist is on the loose in Albany? Naturally, i cross the street to find out what is going on. There is Tiffany, one of the journalists. What's going on, i ask her. Why all the cops.
"Oh, it's Roundabout School," Tiffany says, laughing. "Can you believe it?"
"It's Roundabout School. They're pulling over drivers who don't do the right thing, giving them a lesson and a thorough talking to."
The 'roundabout' is about 10 metres around, barely wider than the median strip and car park in the centre of the main street. The roadway deviates all of about a metre as it passes around it. But if you are continuing straight up the street and don't switch on your left and right indicators for about half a second as you pass this tiny roundabout, you are apparently guilty of a Very Serious Traffic Infringement. Serious enough to tie up three police and five RoadWise workers for a whole day.
You're kidding, i say.
"No. Look, they have a little classroom over there."
On the table in front of the day-glo RoadWise workers is a printed vinyl map. Expensive-looking graphics show the main roundabout, clearly labelled with Albany Highway, Middleton Road, York Street and Lockyer Street, complete with dotted and solid white lines. Several toy cars and trucks lie waiting, like faithful animals, on the vinyl roadway. When the recalcitrant roundabout drivers are lectured by the safety team, these day-glo robots push the little dinky cars around their pretend roundabout. The dinky car drivers, if they indicate and behave properly, can in this way avoid death by fearsome toy semi-trailer. Or a fine. Or twelve months prison for failing to state exactly where they are going next.
Roundabout School. Next time i see a cop in Albany, which will no doubt be very soon, i'm going to put my hand up and ask if i can go to the toilet.