Last week five of the nine people prosecuted for breaching public order act conditions while on a Critical Mass bike ride in July were convicted. In this article some of the defendants give their views on the arrests, prosecutions and the police attitude towards the Critical Mass.
On 27th July 2012, the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics displayed a host of elements pruned from British history – customary ‘folk’ celebrations, the struggle of the Suffragettes; the invention of the internet – wrapped in the glow of the physical liberation felt in sport itself. But while these totems of dissent and liberation were being worshiped inside the stadium, the Metropolitan Police arrested 182 cyclists outside on the roads of Stratford, on suspicion of disobeying police orders: the largest mass arrest in the UK for many years.
The orders disobeyed were restrictions imposed on the customary Critical
Mass bike ride, under Section 12 of the Public Order Act 1986, mainly that
the ride was not to go north of the river Thames. The pretext – so-called
‘intelligence’ – was a single internet posting suggesting that people would
’cause chaos’ in the West End on that evening. The police admitted that
they had no other evidence for this planned event, no meetings, flyers or
other internet presence; nor did they attempt to trace its origin. This
creates a strong suspicion that the post was part of the police operation.
Further, it has become apparent that the Section 12 restrictions, and the
arrests and prosecutions which followed, were based on no more than the
fetishes of the Met, particularly Temporary Commander Michael Johnson, and
of over-indulgent Crown Prosecutor Ed Hall. To the police’s chagrin, no
evidence from the past few weeks has proved the Critical Mass ride to have
been disruptive to the capital’s transport flow, and it certainly did not
threaten the Opening Ceremony. It is also clear, as it was clear to
anyone on the night, that the policing operation caused far greater
disruption to traffic in London than a Critical Mass could ever dream of,
as they temporarily closed every bridge in central London, and flooded
Stratford with police vehicles.
Since the feared disruption never occurred, even when the Section12
restrictions were transgressed, it follows that the restrictions were
unnecessary by their own standards. Even more so, it was neither necessary
nor proportionate to kettle and arrest almost 200 people, detain them for
half a day, and go on to press charges, dragging people through the
bureaucratic tedium of the legal system.
The most charitable explanation of events suggests that the conditions
imposed were a knee-jerk reaction: they were decided without knowledge of
Critical Mass, nor with any regard to the likelihood of Johnson’s fears
becoming manifest. Johnson was patently ill-informed about the nature of
Critical Mass, including its size, usual scale of disruption or its
susceptibility to ‘hijackers’. His worst-case scenario, in which Critical
Mass cancelled the Opening Ceremony, was an irrational fantasy. However,
once arrests had been made, prosecutions had to follow to vindicate the
operation, and to lessen the chance of successful claims against the
This explanation has one main problem, which is that the Metropolitan
Police had ample knowledge of how Critical Mass works and how it had been
policed in the past. It was visibly policed for years, until the House of
Lords ruling (Kay v. Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police) established
Critical Mass as a ‘customary’ procession. Since then, police in plain
clothes have attended the Mass (as confirmed by Chief Inspector Sonia
Davis during the trial), and the event appears in routine security
round-ups. It is entirely unbelievable that its workings were unknown to
officers in the Met. Prevention of disruption, if this were truly the aim,
could have been achieved by many less restrictive measures.
A more critical explanation would point to a group of police officers with
a wealth of experience in crushing assembly, free expression and protest.
In his evidence, Johnson boasted of his presence at the Brixton riots, the
miners’ strike, the G20 demo in which Ian Tomlinson was killed, and the
student demo in which Alfie Meadows was hospitalised – moments he recalls
as exemplary policing. He testified that in Summer 2012 he sought ‘an
interpretation of the legislation’ – namely, to see how far he could push
the application of Section 12 to Critical Mass. For police like Johnson,
laws passed imagining one extreme (in this case, serious disruption) are
there to be tested out on examples at the other extreme (minimal
disruption). That is a far more sinister motive than trying to prevent
imagined disruption to the opening ceremony.
The prosecution of nine out of 182 arrestees was based on flimsy evidence
scraped from hundreds of hours of footage from police on the ground and in
the air – a weak operation, but well worth it for what Hall and Johnson
clearly believe their function to be: the costly creation of criminals.
They were indulged in this function by the District Judge Roscoe, who
resolutely ignored plain lying by police officers. We can note that Roscoe
was one of the magistrates who worked all hours after the 2011 riots
handing out long prison sentences for handling stolen goods.
The true reasons for imposing the Section 12 may never be known, but it is
clear to us that the legality of Johnson’s actions is questionable even by
the criminal justice system of which he is a part. Despite the best
efforts of the Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service,
District Judge Roscoe acquitted four of the nine. Roscoe’s clear wish to
avoid delving into the reasonableness of Johnson’s belief, or his capacity
to make calculations of necessity or proportionality, led her to uphold
the legality of his Section 12 restrictions. Unfortunately for Johnson, a
ruling in a mere Magistrate’s Court does not set precedent, and so does
not provide the ‘interpretation of the legislation’ he was looking for.
Keep riding, stay disruptive. We’ll see you on the streets.
The CM defendants