Photo: Martin Mifsud
For every uprising, protest and political action there is an unequal and oppressive reaction. 2011 may have been ‘the year of the protester’, as even mainstream magazines such as Time acknowledged, but it also saw severe policing tactics, serious criminal charges and heavy sentences for those taking part in demos and other direct actions.
The past few months have seen dozens of students and other protesters charged with major offences – particularly ‘violent disorder’, which carries with it a maximum five-year sentence. Many people, often in their teens and early twenties, have faced crown court trials and been sent to jail for the flimsiest of reasons – throwing a lightweight placard stick, for example – and their lives have been seriously compromised by the stress and humiliation of a trial (many of which take place over a year after the protest) and the shock of prison. At the same time, policing at protests has been heavy-handed, including the use of kettling, horse charges and batons, and police are pushing for ever more resources (water cannon, rubber bullets) to ‘control’ protesters.
It is no surprise that a Tory-led government during a massive recession would lead to more protests, nor that the crackdown on protest would be more severe. After all, the poll tax riots that contributed to Thatcher’s downfall were, by any standard, successful. No Conservative minister is going to want a re-run of that, especially during the attempt to complete Thatcher’s campaign of privatisation.
But how do we understand the context of the current round of repressive police measures and judicial punishments? New Labour must accept its share of the blame. Of the astonishing 4,289 new or amended laws brought in during their time in power, many were concerned with public order. Alongside the ever-growing number of CCTV cameras (there are perhaps as many as 4.5 million in the UK) and the constant implied threat of terrorism (‘please report anything suspicious to a member of staff’), Labour contributed to the increasing feeling that public space wasn’t really public at all. This was seen in its controversial introduction, in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, of restrictions on the right to demonstrate within one kilometre of Parliament Square.
In a series of sentencing decisions that set the precedent for the use of the charge of violent disorder, more than 60 protesters at the 2009 protest against Israel’s bombing of Gaza were sent down after being charged more than 10 months after the demonstration. University occupations around the same time were precursors for the occupations that were taking place when the Tory HQ at Millbank was stormed in November 2010.
The police use of kettling in the months after the first major student protest had previously been used against disabled protesters in 1995, against WTO protesters in 1999 and on May Day 2001. Lois Austin, one of the protesters kettled on the May Day protest and thus prevented from collecting her young child, will likely hear the result of her challenge in the European Court of Human Rights in early 2012.
Open all night
So while the charges levelled at protesters following the weeks of student protest in 2010 and all the many protests, riots and actions in 2011 are not exactly new, the scale of prosecutions is extraordinary. We saw law courts open all night after the riots and protesters sent for crown court trials (to put this in perspective, 95 per cent of all criminal cases are heard at lower magistrates’ courts where penalties are much less harsh). At the same time, the police have so far escaped any kind of punishment for their violence. The near-death of a student protester, Alfie Meadows, on 9 December 2010 was followed by the police charging him with violent disorder several months later.
It has become a common tactic to blame the victims for the injuries inflicted upon them. This may take the form of outright disinformation about the person in question (remember how Jean-Charles De Menezes was originally supposed to have been running while wearing a ‘bulky jacket’?) and media smear campaigns (the Daily Mail in particular has gone overboard in demonising individual protesters).
But sitting in court watching protester trials, one common feature that strikes you is how badly beaten up the defendants appear on the day, and the absurdity of them then being tried for something trivial like kicking a fence. Fortunately for some of those who pled not guilty, juries haven’t bought the case against them – of recent cases against protesters for violent disorder, six out of eight were acquitted. Those who pled guilty to protest charges, however, are facing lengthy jail sentences, usually between 12 and 18 months. Some universities and colleges are refusing to reaccept those punished in this way, and there will be campaigns in 2012 to put pressure on individual institutions to re-enrol students sent to prison for their role in protests and riots.
Recent revelations about the extent of police infiltration into protest movements has shocked many, with the exposed climate camp ‘activist’ Mark Kennedy admitting that his involvement is the tip of the iceberg. Protesters, including those who have had charges dropped, have been receiving letters warning them to behave themselves on forthcoming demos, while some were pre‑emptively arrested and others had charges brought forward in the days before the royal wedding.
It has already been suggested that all protest will be banned around the Olympics later this year. This will be backed up with the new Metropolitan police chief’s campaign of ‘total policing’, which is already appearing as ominous as it sounds – at a recent student protest, there was roughly one police officer for every two protesters.
What to do?
So what can protesters do? Clearly, much of what I’ve described is designed to put protesters off, to scare them into staying home, to make them fearful of the police. It should be remembered that freedom of assembly is a right that was historically granted only begrudgingly by the ruling class, and is best exercised by practical application.
If you’re protesting, it’s a good idea to have some knowledge of your rights and there’ll always be legal observers around from the Legal Defence and Monitoring Group and Green and Black Cross to give you a bust card. Writing to people in prison does much to lift people’s spirits and stop them feeling isolated. If you’re a lecturer at a college or a university, you can try to find out if any of your students are facing charges or are in prison and write references for them, send them academic material and help ensure that they have a place when their sentence is up.
Protests in 2010 and 2011 all around the world demonstrated their effectiveness as well as their terrible cost. When governments do not represent their people, it’s the most direct route we have to effectively change the dire nature of things as they are.
Nina Power is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Roehampton University and a founding member of Defend the Right to Protest. Please contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like more information on the campaign, or to get involved. For details on how to write to prisoners, see www.network23.org/londonabc