My contacts with the Police have been minimal in my lifetime so far. Let me see. Getting told off for walking in a dangerous place when aged ten. At odd times, asking individual policemen or policewomen for directions. Hearing a traffic policeman talk about the stuff they all got up to back at the station. Hearing a village policeman - at the very heart of his community - talk about how he broke up a sexual escapade in the village hall car park at night. Seeing jolly policemen good-naturedly accept drunken kisses from girls in Trafalgar Square on New Year's Eve. Reporting to the Police the odd motor accident in which I was involved, or helping someone like my late mother-in-law make such a report. Seeing a little policewoman get rid of a smelly, surly, one-legged tramp from my front doorstep after I called for assistance. Attending Neighbourhood Watch meetings organised by the local Police. Getting a knock on my door at one in the morning from two policemen who glumly but sympathetically informed me that my father had died. An interview at a police station to secure Dad's personal effects after death. Attending a Saturday self-defence course run by a gay policeman from the Brighton & Hove force. Really, that's about it.
In most of these situations over the years, it was the old or new me being the Responsible Citizen, or else the Police fulfilling a benign Public Service role, which on the whole I thought was performed competently, and certainly not in a way that made me feel bad or in any way personally demeaned.
This said, I have always been mindful of why the Police exist, and what kind of person joins their ranks. They have a certain conservative, black-or-white mindset that must be taken into account. Some would add, though this is not my personal experience, that certain Police individuals are over-eager to find fault, at least where traffic offences are concerned. One suspects that constant contact with the worst in society degrades or at least hardens the attitude of the average force member. And it's sometimes said that the best Police detectives are those who think like criminals. Certainly, there have been corrupt policemen; but then there have always been corrupt politicians and businessmen as well. It's just that it's much more shocking when it's the Police.
The Police have to work with complex laws and procedures that - at least in theory - have an exact application. They have to be so careful. There are traps. I sympathise. I used to work with tax law: with that too, either people were 'caught' or they were not, and there was no discretionary position in between. But the tax world was confidential, and not out there in the streets. The police are out on the streets, and to do their job must have the broad support of the public. So they must have a moral weight behind them. A conviction on both sides that they are acting from proper motives - and acting 'within the law'.
Of course it all gets a bit fuzzy. Practical crowd control and other public-order activity can't be done precisely by the book on every occasion. I'm not apologising for the Police if they misjudge a situation, and someone gets hurt. But I do see how difficult it must be to deal with volatile events. Surely much of the public will approve if the Police, when faced with a rowdy and drink-fuelled nightclub scene late at night, and needing to overcome thuggishness, bundle some young men and women behaving very badly into vans. Provided of course that nobody is physically injured in the process. Well, it's dirty work. Would you like to do it instead? Would you actually do it any differently, in the heat of the moment? And, to get the job done, do you really mind if some of these louts wake up in cells, with dented egos and their overnight liberty denied?
I've never felt inclined to mock the Police, or confront them, or waste their time, or in any way chance my arm with them. Partly because they are clearly busy people, and not there to listen to me unless I have useful evidence to give. Partly because their coercive apparatus is a blunt instrument and needs respect. And most certainly because a gut feeling tells me that if you mess with the Police, or try to be clever with them, you will not come off well. Keep them on your side. Keep them in their Public Service role, as your servant.
So would I ever join a demo, and risk attracting negative attention from the Police? Ah, now we are getting to the point of all this!
Short answer: no. Not for any cause. Because if I do, I may get hurt or humiliated, or illegally treated - and not just from the Police. History suggests that if the Police stand back, and simply let rival factions fight each other, then you can expect to receive injuries far more severe than those the Police themselves might deal out. Common-sense says stay away from all of this.
So when a march in support of [insert your favourite cause] is proposed, I will not be there. Even if it's something that should be jolly and good-natured. Somebody will always shanghai it.
I do realise that principled people will call me irresponsible and craven for putting self-preservation before all else. So be it. But I do not wish to end up being pushed around by some policeman who has no time to ask me politely what I am doing there, and must make a quick decision based on his training and instructions. In these situations I am not going to be treated as an individual. Any more than a soldier in a war zone, nervous of being shot, and all keyed up, is going to ask questions first and shoot second. I'm just recognising that reality.