All queues break down in adversity

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I ONCE went to a really brutal place, a place where the police went around enforcing the law - and, beyond the law, their own more personal urges - with boots and clubs; where justice and injustice were meted out with beatings and kickings. It was a place where the sight of uniformed personnel was definitely terrifying, definitely a bummer, rather than the sort of place I was used to, where the sight of uniformed personnel was only possibly terrifying, only possibly a bummer. And it made me long for the curt, mean-spirited, petty, suspicious and crude civility of the police I knew.

I was in Morocco, walking along the beach at Tangier, when I saw my first proper bit of North African law and order. It started with a little scrap, a beach-bum fight - two guys punching each other inexpertly, writhing around in the sand. No blood. A small crowd, including me, drifted over to watch. And then I looked behind me and saw them coming: four policemen, in tight fawn uniforms, running across the sand towards us. I thought: how solicitous, how caring. These guys must hate violence. They look really eager.

Then I noticed they were carrying rubber truncheons. And, as the first policeman reached the edge of the crowd, he whacked someone in the head - someone standing two yards from me, not one of the fighters. The man fell on his knees, covering his head with his arms. Then all the police started doing the same - hitting people in the head, the back of the neck, the lower back, in a flurry of truncheons. They smashed their way through to the fighters, and whacked them around until they were quiet - half a minute's work.

And then the policemen got up and started chasing people. They sprinted along the beach, hitting members of the dispersing crowd as it fanned out, just about anybody, knocking them to the ground, moving on, knocking more people to the ground. A pretty good way of stopping a fight, I thought afterwards. But an effective policy for making the community less violent? I wondered.

Two days later, I was walking towards the boat terminal, on my way out of the country. Tangier was hot and disgusting; the running water facilities had closed down for a few days. I trudged along slowly, shuffling through the heat towards the formal civility of queuing and ticketing. In the terminal, you had to wait in line with your tickets, and show them to a man who stamped your passport, and then filter on to the boat. That was the idea. The place stank; it was a big concrete hangar with lavatories that hadn't been flushed or cleaned for four days. In the queue, people were elbowing each other. They were getting restless, trying to push themselves into a better position, or to hold on to the position they already had. The queue got fatter, until it stopped being a line, and started to look like a ball.

I should have known things would turn ugly. The waiting, the stench, the lack of facilities - also, the speed with which the queue broke down. All queues break down in adversity. The thing to look for is how fast it happens. There was a sense that, if you didn't do anything to help yourself, you'd get nowhere, you'd fall back. Soon, there was a shoving, angry little knot of people next to the passport-stamping booth - a defined area of violence. Then the first punch was thrown. Then the first person was kicked to the ground. After this, more or less everyone joined in; there was a point when people's initial motive, to move up the queue, gave way to something more basic, more brutal - the desire to hurt people, born of frustration. The man in the passport-stamping booth disappeared.

People who didn't want to push and punch tried to drift out of the queue and stand around the edges, but the rest - most of them - fought on grimly, hopelessly. Mostly, they were ramming their bodies into the scrum, wedging themselves as far as they could go, or until they were repelled. There were a few really bad fist fights; a lot of people were getting their hair and clothes pulled and torn. One little boy - eight, nine? - standing at the edge of the scrum, abandoned, smashed another little boy half his age in the mouth. Then there was a howl, and the scrum broke up; the man with the passport stamp was now in another booth, at the other end of the terminal. He was rapping his date-stamp on the perspex window of the bureau de change.

At what point did the police arrive? Not until the fight had stepped up a little. Not until the passport-stamper had gone behindthe bank counter, the information desk, the left-luggage counter; there was an outside corridor which joined all the booths. The throng lumbered around the concourse, vaguely following the man with the passport stamp. People occasionally got their passports stamped and drifted away towards the quay.

Suddenly, the police were in the room. They stood around the edge of the violence, watching it. There were about 10 of them. They wore fawn uniforms with leather belts and peaked caps. Nobody stopped fighting. Then two policemen walked to the edge of the scrum, grabbed somebody, and pushed him up against the wall. A third policeman whacked him across the back with a truncheon. The man slumped to the ground. The police repeated this; they did it to six or seven people. One of them was standing next to me. The riot didn't stop. Then the police went away. They just disappeared. And that was that.

The fighting gradually wound down as people's documents were stamped, as their frustration and energy wore off. We had given our passports to a couple of English hard-nuts, who fought their way through the throng and thrust them forward; our fraudulent admiration was the only payment they required. We made the midnight boat, and watched the lights of Tangier recede in the distance: an ordinary-looking place in the dark. We stood on the deck, grateful to be going back towards the things we knew - towards Saturday football, and Tony Blackburn, and News at Ten, and pints of bitter, and Esther Rantzen, and the right to silence.