I was sat at home as I pressed the Skype link to enter into Birmingham Crown Court room and listen to the sentencing of Rakeem Malik. This man sent me a number of letters from HMP Birmingham to say he was going to kill me and my family.
In one of the letters, sent to me using the privilege that prisoners have to confidentially contact MPs, he talked about raping me brutally – thankfully this second letter never reached me. But the first did.
I thought it would feel less harrowing through a screen in the safety of my home to listen to the judge passing her sentence. She spent around 40 minutes running through each of the letters sent to me and other members of parliament, reciting vicious violent threats that I hadn’t heard before. She read out parts of Malik’s statements to the police, detailing information about his views on the murder of my friend Jo Cox and his view that “women shouldn’t be in positions of power in England”. The judge detailed his previous violent crimes and gave her opinion on his level of risk, calculation and intent.
The sound flooded my home while my children pottered around outside and I could hear my husband putting the kettle on. The sentence was passed: 10 years in prison, serving a minimum of five years. I closed my laptop and walked to my kitchen to get a cup of tea as if nothing had happened. Chatted with my husband, and made all the liberal noises about how lucky we actually are and how, when all is said and done, the perpetrator has a crapper life than us. We are pragmatic people.
Later that afternoon, my kids had demanded stir fry for dinner and so I agreed to pop to the local Sainsbury’s with my youngest to get the ingredients. As we stood in our socially distanced queue, in the card and home trinkets aisle, my son started nagging me to buy him the Sonic the Hedgehog film on DVD (a crime of a different sort), and I suddenly felt that I was going to pass out. I managed to steady myself on the shelves, but as we began to play shop at the self-checkout I felt as if I couldn’t breathe, as if the walls were closing in on me and my vision was a tunnel. As discreetly as I could, I told my son that he needed to do it alone and then bring the bag to the car to find me. He did not falter, grabbing everything and being silently obedient.
“Oh yeah, I get a lot of death threats.” I say this a lot. “It’s just part of the job.”
Each and every new email, detailing the deepfake pornography people have created, or the fan fiction about killing my kids, and each letter received to both my offices detailing how people will kill me, is met with a shrug and me calling out nonchalantly to my staff, “Where are the evidence bags?” Then comes the equally casual reply, “Second drawer down, with the big stapler and post-it notes.”
I have depersonalised the abuse, but in doing so I have also dehumanised myself, as if I am just a name – a concept. It is the idea of me, not me, Jess, who buys beansprouts and doesn’t want to spend a tenner on a crap film in an old format. This desensitisation has helped me see the bigger picture, the assault on our democracy, rather than focus on me. I thought the effect on me was minimal until I was collapsing in a Birmingham supermarket.
I currently have four or five open police cases because of direct attacks or threats. I honestly can’t remember exactly how many there are. I was interviewed for statements by Greater Manchester Police on Sunday and as we started the conversation, I genuinely had to ask which case this was referring to. Each case involves in some way a divisive political issue, hatred of immigrants, racism, hatred of women speaking about certain issues, Brexit.
Each case on its own is “just another one of those things”. The culmination of it all, coupled with the sound of a judge in my house talking about me and my kids in relation to a violent criminal who knows nothing about me, seems to have been the final straw.
The individual effect on me I will get over. I have already been back to the shops and out and about all weekend. The long-term effect of all of this is far worse, and it feels to me very similar to the deadly virus, because the cure is to limit my interactions with people. “Shut down your accounts.” “Make your staff read your emails first.” “Have an appointments system with checks before you see anyone.” “Don’t ever open your post.” “STAY ALERT!”
Bitter abuse and vitriolic threats in our democracy stop me from reaching across to one of my constituents and holding their hand. It will eventually ruin the genuinely best thing about our democracy: its closeness to its people. Political actors who lean on bitter division or play games with people’s identities to make quick wins for themselves are rarely the ones who hold people’s hands, or in fact end up gasping for breath at the checkout.
As the national conversation becomes alive to equality issues – as it has over the last few weeks – there will certainly be more, not less, of this aggressive abuse. The abuse is the backlash to silence. Politicians must never act to enflame it, and activists and those who speak out need to take care of themselves and lean on others for support. Our democracy is for everyone. No one deserves to feel scared to be part of it, yet at the moment lots of us do.
Jess Phillips is the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding and Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley
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