The Right To Protest

RP 174 () / News

As Quebec erupts over plans to increase tuition fees by the equivalent of £200, and twelve people (including Professor Joshua Clover) who protested against a campus bank at University of California–Davis begin a trial that could see them imprisoned for eleven years and fined $1 million each, what of the scores of people arrested during the UK student and public sector protests of late 2010 and early 2011? Anyone who has ever had to deal with the glacial pace of British ‘justice’ will not be surprised to learn that, a year and a half on, some trials are yet to take place and that the personal and institutional fallout for many of the individuals charged and imprisoned has been severe. Yet there are signs that the CPS decision to repeatedly use the second most serious public order charge ‘violent disorder’, which carries a maximum five-year sentence, is beginning to backfire: of the dozen or so protesters who recently pleaded not guilty to the charge relating to Millbank and the 9 December 2010 protest (the day the £9,000 fee increase was voted through), all but one have been acquitted, including several following retrials (and for one poor individual after their third retrial).

There is a feeling among defence lawyers involved that judges are increasingly frustrated by having to deal with serious charges that in practice amount to little more than throwing a lightweight banner stick or pushing a barrier, where no one has been injured: given that just 3–5 per cent of criminal cases (the most serious) are tried in the Crown Court, the gross disparity between the seriousness of the charges brought and the actual allegations of which protesters stand accused is becoming ever more obvious. The political nature of the vindictive mass use of the charge of violent disorder, also evident in the huge number of riot charges, a proportion of which involved the same charge, demonstrates that the government is out for revenge on behalf of the ‘public’, even as prisons are full to bursting point.

More than a hundred charges were brought against protesters following the four main student demos. Of those who pleaded guilty or were found guilty by a jury, custodial sentences of 6–32 months were handed out. Early high-profile cases – Edward Woollard, who pleaded guilty to throwing a fire extinguisher from the roof of Millbank; Charlie Gilmour, who made the mistake of having a famous stepfather; and first-time protester Frank Fernie, who got a year’s sentence for throwing two placard sticks – provided the media and the government with useful scapegoats. Much was made by the judges of the ‘deterrent’ element of such lengthy jail terms. But what has become obvious, particularly with the less publicly visible cases, is the way in which protesters are being punished several times over: often injured by police during the protest, then charged, spending months awaiting trial, tried, sent to prison, released and then forced to face humiliating para-legal committees set up by the very universities and colleges which the student had been fighting to preserve. This ‘punishment by violence’ aspect is particularly grotesque in the widely reported case of Alfie Meadows, the Middlesex Philosophy student who underwent life-saving surgery on the day of the fees protest after being hit by a police baton, was later charged with violent disorder, and is currently awaiting retrial in October after a jury failed to convict him in April this year.

The stress of awaiting trial and living with the real threat of jail is obviously difficult enough for defendant, friends and family alike, but afterwards to have to face ‘criminal conviction committees’ and similar bodies at educational institutions, with no guarantee of being allowed back to study, adds a further punishment that one would imagine most academics would want to resist (and as for those who eagerly volunteer to sit on such committees, a special place in academic hell surely awaits). Several successful campaigns to highlight this potential academic penalty – one that also makes a mockery of any idea of the ‘rehabilitation’ dimension of state punishment – have been waged in recent months, with petitions and meetings organized at Sussex and Kingston …