When Baako hit the ground with the weight of four policemen on his back, the sound of the air squeezed from his lungs was barely audible in the swirling wind. It was as if the oxygen he took in before the inevitable events of the past half hour finally found a way to escape in a tragic and ruminating social life soundtrack on the streets of London.
When he walked into the pub he took one of the best seats in the house at my table to watch Arsenal and Newcastle do battle on the bumpy ground of St. James' Park. The large screen didn't benefit from good planning for punters in the pub, and everyone seemed to be peering over the shoulder of other fans or around ill-placed pillars to get a good view of the match.
Twice he turned to be sure that I could see the screen from my table, and twice I assured him that he was not in the way. Conspicuously absent from the table in front of him was a beer or drink of any kind. The landlord clocked this absence and approached him with the assured demeanour of a man who has seen it all before.
"You have to leave mate," said the landlord in a booming voice.
As Baako raised his head, the landlord was in full flow.
"No. No. No. I don't care. I've seen you in here for thirty minutes. This is a business; you have to buy a drink to watch the footy. You got to leave."
"You know me. I was in here on Wednesday buying lots of drinks," Baako protested.
"I don't remember that and anyway, every day is a new day. Doesn't matter what happened before. Now get out of here."
It was that last comment that drew the anger from Baako. Most of the people in the pub were now watching the conversation unfold and both men were under pressure to save face in their now public dispute. Pride entered the building and never left until it was all over. Their voices were now raised.
"Don't talk to me that way!"
"Just get out!"
"Or what? Or what?"
Baako was out of his seat now. His broad and muscular frame towered over the landlord, who was not a small man, but carried the weight of his lifestyle. Standing face to face he contrasted with the elastic sharpness in Baako. It was not a fight he could win this way and he slowly backed away.
"Look mate. Just leave. Or I'll call the police."
"Rubbish! I'll just leave before they come and come back in when they leave."
"I'm serious mate. I've had enough. I'm going to call the police."
"Go ahead. You do what you need to do and I'll do what I need to do."
The landlord was confused by Baako's reaction. It was so obviously a situation he could not win. But he didn't really want to call the police. It was a sunny afternoon and the pub was teeming with people, and that kind of disruption was the last thing he wanted. But with Baako back seated with eyes on the match, there seemed little other choice. Behind the bar he pulled pints with exaggerated vigour, his face flush from the conflict. A kind of heavy quietness weighed on the pub as the drama approached its final act.
Baako rose quickly from his seat and approached the bar, making his case again for just leaving him alone. Worry finally appeared on his face and he looked to find reconciliation. But he refused to cede control and just buy a drink or follow the orders from the landlord. One of the men at the bar, swaying slightly, offered to buy him a drink to put an end to the anger and tension.
It wasn't clear if Baako wasn't buying a drink because he didn't have any money or if it was all dogmatic pride. Baako waved him away, now flush with emotion, unable to clear his head. The landlord offered a final chance for him to lay down his sword. But it was declined.
"I am in charge here! Me mate. Not you. This is my property and my rules. You going to follow them?"
Baako stormed back to his seat mumbling: "Whatever. Whatever."
Consensus now emerged from the rest of the punters. The villain of the narrative had declared himself, all antag and no pro. Several faces frowned and grimaced in Baako's direction as he shifted his weight back and forth in his seat. As the landlord disappeared into the back room, Baako made a phone call to a sympathetic ear.
"I know. I know. Look. I would have just left. But it was the way he did it. No respect. Like I was some kind of bum off the street."
It was clear that the voice on the other end empathised but could clearly see the danger that lurked in the continuity of these moments. Baako was on the defensive and finally losing steam: "What's he going to do? All right. All right. But it just isn't right. He had no right."
As the four policemen entered the bar from the other end of the pub I reached over and poked Baako in the ribs. Still on the phone he turned to me, and as I nodded in the direction of the police, the landlord was pointing over at Baako and they quickly converged on our table.
"Don't really know what the issue is here," the lead policeman started saying.
"He's just disrespected me and it is between me and him," Baako interrupted.
"Let's take this outside," the bobby quietly answered. His body was now blocking off the rest of the bar for Baako and it was obviously an order, not a request.
Baako rose and the four policemen shepherded him out the door to our back. The bubbling sounds of conversation and fans rose again in the bar, but most still peered out on to the street to see Baako in animated conversation with two of the police as the other two encircled and watched on.
As an avid Arsenal fan my attention drifted back to the match, but I couldn't shake my passive participation in the story. It seemed unsuitable to exit stage right just as the drama finally unfolded in some form of strained resolution.
I went outside, and in a break in the discussion indicated to the squad leader that I wanted a word. My own motivation for participating further, this time actively, was a sense of fair play and history. It was not the first time I had seen this exact dispute unfold. These streets of south-east London are a melting pot of different races and cultures, all mashed together in a loose affiliation called being a Londoner.
About a year before this dispute had boiled over at a different pub down the street. Dozens of black African immigrants, used to the culture of an African coffeehouse where you can sit for hours and watch the Premiership and nobody would think to insist you buy a drink, colonised the best seats in the pub for several matches in a row buying only the odd pint here or there. This angered the mostly white regulars who couldn't believe the cheek of these men, taking the great seats and not even bothering to show respect to the pub and buy a drink.
As paying punters their complaints resonated with the landlord who kicked them all out and put a sign on the door: "If you want to watch football, you MUST buy a drink". Maybe it was the capital letters that set off the Africans, or maybe it was an honest sense of injustice, but they picketed the pub for a week, telling anyone who entered that it was a place full of racism. Eventually some of the regulars, who were members of a local boxing gym, bullied the Africans away and everyone agreed they had been right all along and should have hustled the unwelcome visitors away a long time ago.
It was also the last time I went and watched football in that pub. Not because I had chosen sides in the dispute, but because the culture of the place, reflective of the mandatory co-existence for existence that was the reality of the area, had been lost. It was now just another pub appealing to a segregated and specific demograph and not reflective of the streets outside. It was a kind of haven from the storm for those of a particular persuasion and I wanted my ship adrift in the crashing waves and swirling winds of South-East London multiculturalism, not docked at some passive and uninterested harbour.
But now on a more specific scale the murmuring beast of the situation had re-emerged at a new location and I was determined that history, no matter how relentless in its attempt, should not repeat itself. With my Canadian accent, dressed well from a meeting earlier in the day and with only a single pint in my system, I cut a remarkably calm and distinguished figure from Baako, all raving waving hands.
The squad leader and I walked away to have a discreet chat.
"I don't want to interfere in the situation but thought I should tell you that I witnessed all of it from the start and it is really just a case of a simple cultural conflict that has escalated in a ridiculous way. It doesn't need to be this way."
The policeman looked at me, slightly bemused, but I soldiered on.
"It is a case of damaged pride all around and they were both just trying to save face. But there was no physical conflict or threat to anyone in the pub."
Built like a human tank, the policeman also seemed to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. So many times he had intervened in situations like this – stupid, silly situations wasting his valuable time. It was beneath him to be in this pub on this afternoon dealing with petty squabbles, but it was also part of his job. If the situation escalated any further it would probably mean lots of additional paperwork and an ever-greater share of his energy and time. That was to be avoided if at all possible. My plea opened the door and seemed to spark a surprising and unlikely tilt in the scales in favour of Baako.
"Okay, listen. I am going to let him go, but you tell him to get out of here and not come back. And no chatback. He should know how lucky he is."
As I was thanking him Baako moved over to the front door of the pub and in pantomime style was looking to re-enter with the policemen blocking his path. It seemed he had offered to buy a drink and felt that it should guarantee him re-entry.
Before I could reach him a couple of men emerged from the bar on to the busy patio, including the one who had offered earlier to buy Baako a drink.
"Just get the fuck out of here you freeloader. Fuck off! Nobody wants you here. What are you stupid? You need to buy a drink to sit in a pub and watch football. Get your head on straight you muppet. Fuck off!"
"This is none of your business. Get out of here," Baako scowled.
The two men moved closer to Baako, all menacing threat and anger. The policemen didn't move to stop their approach as they concentrated their energies on keeping Baako contained to the fringe of the patio.
As one raised his arm to strike, Baako moved quickly, and with explosive power threw a punch at the intruder. At the same moment one of the policemen, the youngest and quietest of the bunch, stepped in between and was hit flush on the face by Baako's right cross.
While cultures and laws are different the world over, there is no place on the planet where assaulting a police officer is something you can come back from. The policemen crumpled to the floor, and with ruthless precision the other officers pinned Baako's arms behind his back and sent him crashing to the cement where that burst of air left his lungs, and all chance of safety with it.
Voices rose all around and the squad leader left my side with a bolt, pushing Baako's still resisting head to the ground with his forearm. He turned to look at me and dismissed my presence with an authoritative order.
"Get out of here. This is over."
Baako's girlfriend arrived at the scene as he was being pushed into the police van. He had been speaking with her on the phone. Tall and graceful and dressed as an aspiring young professional, the tears on her cheek slowly rolled off on to the pavement where Baako had been pinned.
"Where are you taking him? What has he done?"
Her pleas were ignored as the police dealt with the now imminent threat with efficiency and practice. The two men from the bar were still hollering obscenities at the van as it sped off to the station, three police cars in close pursuit. She ran back to her car to follow the procession. As a first-generation immigrant of uncertain citizenry status, deportation to Baako's home country of the DRC loomed on the horizon like a sledgehammer on a pin.
The first two goals had been scored in the match in my absence from the pub. The attention of the crowd had shifted to the events on screen and away from the now concluded drama outside. The landlord shared a joke with a regular at the bar, but his eyes drifted outside in a daze. A few comments were overheard.
" … still he probably had seen it all before at some other point in his life. Probably felt that."
"Foolish, foolish boy."
"Imagine hitting a copper. What did he think would happen?"
Learning lessons from an experience like this leads to more questions than answers. What was obvious to me was that nobody involved in the events — from Baako to the landlord and the police and even the drunken punters — wanted this outcome. It was as if the events were pre-determined from the moment Baako took that breath entering the pub to the point where he exhaled in forced embrace. Was this the intervention of destiny?
Baako was foolish to persist in his antagonism, the landlord was wrong to strip him of his pride from the off, the police didn't do enough to truly understand, and I could have intervened earlier at the seed instead of the bloom. But would any of it make any difference or was this reality beyond our facilities for control, beyond our actions? Perhaps it was just live sociology on the streets of London, like happens every day in every way, whether we are looking or not.
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