Stolen Futures – Politicised ‘Justice’ and the Suppression of Protest
While we often hear about crime figures and the controversial policing of the riots, few people are aware of the numbers of student and anti-cuts protesters in prison or about to go to prison.
Over 600 people have been arrested in relation to student and anti-cuts protests since last year, according to figures released by the metropolitan police. Up to forty protesters are on trial for ‘Violent Disorder’. This is a serious criminal charge with a maximum jail term of 5 years, but the offences themselves are often far from serious. Scores of protesters are being dragged through the criminal ‘justice’ system on politically motivated charges, likely to have their lives ruined if convicted.
Frank Fernie, a 20 year old budding student and a conscientious young man actively involved with charity work, threw two flimsy placard sticks in the direction of a squad of fully armed riot police. This amounted to ‘Violent Disorder’ and he received a 12 months custodial sentence. He has been released by now but a 20 year old Sussex student is still in prison after receiving 15 months on charges very similar to those of Frank. In November last year Omar Ibrahim was sentenced to 18 months after he threw an empty toy smoke bomb during the TUC protest in March 2011. He is still in prison now – please write to him if you can, this is his blog with prison number and address.
These are only some on the long list of people in prison or on trial for VD and various other, more minor offences. We know of up to 20 people who have gone to prison for lengthy periods in relation to last year’s protests, some released already by now. But scores of protesters are awaiting trial in the coming weeks and months, often for equally flimsy and opportunistic charges. This number includes Alfie Meadows, 20, who was beaten so badly by police that he required emergency brain surgery. Our young people are not just being hospitalised but they are also going to prison for it.
I have met many of the young people on trial or in prison and the one thing that really strikes me is the young age and normally very likeable nature of defendants. The majority of protesters on trial or in prison are aged below 21 and in employment, education or training prior to incarceration. While we shouldn’t distinguish between those more archetypally ‘worthy’ of a custodial sentence (to me the whole criminal ‘justice’ system is fucked) it does concern me to see young, bright and affable 18 year-olds go down for 15 months for throwing 2 wooden sticks when the average sentence for knife crime is 6 months. Something is very, very wrong with our society.
Michael Mansfield, a leading human rights lawyer, draws comparisons between the oppression of the student protests and that of the miner’s strikes, highlighting also the hypocrisy in our treatment of protesters as we cheer on the revolutions in the Middle East. He concludes that in the UK “a direct attack is being made on the right of people to go out on the streets and show their solidarity and unity with others of the same opinion and hold peaceful protest”.
I remember vividly walking out of the kettle in Whitehall, at the first protest after Millbank, the one with the police van set up. We were kept in the cold, without access to food, water and toilets, penned in like animals with barely enough space to breath and stand, for nearly 12 hours; kids as young as 13, a few people in wheelchairs, some people even in their sixties. On the way out line after line of riot police were broadly smiling at me when I told them that they should be ashamed, obviously happy with the job they had done, eager for a payback after Millbank. Perhaps this is what Mansfield refers to as a “shameful tradition” and a gang like mentality within the police force.
I saw that same smile on the police officers’ faces as they forced me into a van on a different protest some months later. When the radio came through that there was cell space in a nearby police station one of the officers joked “At least you won’t have to share your cell”. They were laughing about it all the way to the cop shop. “What’s he been arrested for?” asked the custody officer – “Violent Disorder”.
Violent Disorder is an ill-defined, catch-all charge that is very hard to defend against before a conservative, suburban, middle class jury (many of these cases are referred to Kingston Crown Court, with a catchment area of above description). Recently a young protester was found guilty of VD before a jury like this even though his legal team could prove that the police were lying. People are even going to prison for simply standing in the same crowd in which VD is supposed to have been ‘committed’.
There is a low-level (that is, rank and file) politicisation within the police and the CPS that appears to be leading to a situation in which the long term imprisonment of student protesters, often less guilty of a criminal offence than of getting over-excited in the face of police violence, is taken as justified. This has nothing to do with ‘keeping the peace’ (if ever that was the purpose of the police…) or deterring others from violence on future protests, but everything to do with deterring people from going to protests at all. More than anything these actions are indicative of a revengeful, spiteful and highly political attitude on the side of the establishment. VD is a charge normally reserved for serious football violence, as Matt Foot points out in this excellent article. If any of this had happened on a Saturday night it wouldn’t even reach the courtroom. The same applies if you happen to be part of the Bullingdon Club.
With Prisons bursting and the public purse already drained by the on-going financial crisis, it makes no sense to lock up even more young people and waste thousands of pounds in taxpayer’s money. It can cost more than £ 13,000 to bring a trial in the crown court, sometimes more in the case of lengthy trials. The annual average cost of for each prisoner in the system exceeds £ 40,000; more people than ever before have spent this Christmas behind bars, an all-time record of nearly 88,000 people. The UK’s prison population is proportionally higher than any other developed country outside the US, with an especially high number of children and young adults in prison. I’ll leave you to do the maths. These figures are disastrous, morally as well as economically.
As a movement it is our responsibility to support all those imprisoned in relation to student and anti-cuts demonstrations. While it would be ideal to have a high profile defence campaign headed by the NUS in support of our political prisoners, organisations such as LDMG and GBC have done a brilliant job in supporting people throughout the court process and prison, with DTRTP making some progress on the political campaigning front. Omar in his blog writes that he’s “received so much support mail I have to hide it from my cellmate because I get a guilt trip”. Let’s make that the reality for all student and anti-cuts prisoners. A list of current prisoners and their addresses can be found here.
– ‘Don Giovanni’, a don of the UfSO