by D.J. Webb
I read a story in the Daily Telegraph today that reminded me somewhat of my experience in Gatwick airport last year. A man who, incidentally happened to be the creator of the Fireman Sam children’s character, made a comment while going through security checks about a Muslim woman in a veil who had not been subject to the same level of checks that he had. His comment was not a racial attack, or a diatribe on the subject of immigration or multiculturalism, but the following: “if I was wearing this scarf over my face, I wonder what would happen.”
He was held for over an hour at the airport, while the security staff there accused him of racism and managed to find a Muslim female member of staff to come along and claim to be distressed by his comment—although he hadn’t made any offensive comment. His passport and boarding pass were confiscated and he was escorted back the other side of the security controls.
The security staff told him he could not leave, even though he was now back in the outer zone, until he apologised to the Muslim woman, although they appear to admit they did not have powers of arrest. After being held for a long time, he asked for the police to attend. The police refused to help him, although, eventually, with his flight just about to leave, they decided that he would be allowed back through security as long as he admitted that a Muslim might find his innocuous comment offensive.
This mirrored my experience in Gatwick, when I said that I didn’t see why English people should have to throw away their shampoo and all other bottles of fluid over a certain size, as English people did not belong to a demographic group likely to commit terrorism. After seizing numerous potions, including shampoo and aftershave, with a monetary value of more than £20 in total, I was held for half an hour and asked to repeat my comments, and then explain them. Just as this man in the Telegraph reported that a lot of additional views were insinuated by security staff into his comments, the staff tried to suggest some subtext to my comments, although I wisely refused to rephrase my comments or elaborate on them. Eventually, I was allowed to get my flight.
As far as I am concerned, it is the airport staff in these circumstances who are on the wrong side of the law. They don’t have powers of detention, and even on “private property” they are committing the offence of false imprisonment by detaining people. Their rights in this matter are confined to searching people and either allowing them through or preventing them through: they don’t have the right to question someone intensively for long periods of time on matters unrelated to security.
I phoned Sussex Police to ask their view on this—as Gatwick is policed by Sussex Police and not the British Transport Police for some reason—and they agreed that anyone can legally make any comment travelling through Gatwick airport that does not cause a breach of the peace or amount to racial abuse. Refusal to be searched would occasion police attendance, as the police are concerned that people who won’t be searched are carrying banned substances. The policeman told me that Gatwick Airport are within their rights to prevent onward travel if people will not be searched—although not to detain people for long periods of time for refusing to apologise for innocuous remarks.
There seems to be a difficulty in arguing with the police that Gatwick Airport, a private company, should not refuse onward travel to people who agree to be searched, but make a mildly worded comment on the search process in a way that does not amount to abusive behaviour or breach of the peace. The police seem to believe that, as it is a private company on private land, the airport can do as they like—although I would argue that an airport is a public hub that is not truly private.
Apart from my view that Gatwick Airport has no right to deny onward travel to people on the basis of their political views (note: in both of the cases mentioned above, the views were not spelt out in the original comments, but rather inferred by the security staff themselves), there is the issue of false imprisonment. As far as I see it, if the airport are not allowing you to travel, they should escort you the other side of security, and then you are free to go home; they cannot detain you in the outer zone until you apologise. This is surely false imprisonment—and the presence of a policeman while the man above was being detained, not by the police, but by the airport’s security staff, strikes me a shocking violation of his oath of office. When I suggested to Sussex Police that security staff at airports who detain people in this fashion should be arrested for false imprisonment, his reply was, “let’s not get silly about it!” Yet surely the silliness is the inflation of a mild remark in the first place?
The ability to deny people travel long enough for the flight to have come and gone—thus ensuring they miss their international connection—strikes me as something worse than this: harassment bordering on racial supremacism. It must be great fun for a member of the ethnic minorities to wield a significant portion of real power in such circumstances and to behave in a manner that would have real repercussions in terms of lost holidays and lost flights, but an English person who subjected a Muslim to such treatment on account of his political views would be considered guilty of a serious crime.
I support the right of people like Emma West to express themselves, even vociferously, on the subject of immigration. But if we can’t even make mildly worded points, then we have become helots in our own country, a second-class of residents, who are now lorded over by incomers on explicit racial grounds.