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The recent wave of student demonstrations has seen newly politicised school children and students come onto the streets, acting as an inspiration for the broader anti-cuts movement. The protests have also seen the police break their record on containment, holding protesters for nine and a half hours on November 24, engaging in violent provocation and reprisals within kettles and making more than 300 arrests.
After the controversial death of Ian Tomlinson, we saw public order officials hold back on their response to protest movements. The policing of the student protests, however, shows us that this is no longer the case.
Organisations such as the long-standing Legal Defence and Monitoring Group and the newly formed Green and Black Cross have stepped up to the challenge, providing legal observation and training for the protests and engaging in the vital work of defendant support. Legal activists have been working to co-ordinate legal observers and medics at the student protests – they were hoping to organise a hundred legal observers on the 26 March TUC demonstration as Red Pepper went to press.
The activists involved work to support defendants by linking them up with good lawyers and accompanying them to court. They also aim to support defendants to launch campaigns, and have started a defendant-led campaign for the student protests.
In practice this means support campaigns, directed but not necessarily carried out by defendants, engaging in actions such as solidarity protests outside court hearings. They aim to hold the police to account and make people safer on demonstrations, stop defendants feeling isolated, and help them build a stronger case through good professional legal aid.
Andy Meinke has been acting as a legal observer on protests and supporting defendants since the miners’ strike and the poll tax riots. He says legal support is ‘more important than ever’ in the current austerity climate.
‘The legal system is more complicated than it ever was, and the cuts in legal aid are stopping people being able to defend themselves properly,’ he says. ‘We are going to see a big upsurge in protest, meaning increased police violence and more arrests.
‘Unfortunately the police are back on the rampage after being restrained by the killing of Ian Tomlinson and are acting in a more aggressive and provocative manner.’
The anti-cuts movement has seen the involvement of younger and less experienced activists, who need support and advice to keep them safe on demonstrations. They also need help to avoid charges that have the potential to derail their lives.
If we want the left to be a supportive place to organise then we should look out for defendants who have engaged in progressive protests, whether or not we condone all their actions.
Legal defence activists are also not simply engaging in defensive work but are also supporting people in taking action against the police for unlawful behaviour.
James Green, a UK Uncut campaigner, describes what happened at a demonstration on January 29. ‘A woman was arrested for criminal damage after pushing some leaflets through the door of Boots,’ he says. ‘We moved forward to see what was happening – and an officer CS gassed us and himself in the process.’
Legal observers collected witness statements for the case and facilitated a group meeting with a lawyer.
Legal activists stress that the police are not all-powerful and can be challenged, whether this is through legal observation or through defendant support.
In a movement that is sometimes fragmented and disorganised, making protests safer and supporting defendants is important – particularly as the anti-cuts movement has seen students charged who have little experience of politics and who do not have their own political support networks.