[This piece was published in the Guardian here and in the paper on 19th July]
In Sir Paul Stephenson’s resignation as Metropolitan police commissioner on Sunday night, one of the things he claimed he was most proud of the Met for was “the professional and restrained approach to unexpected levels of violence in recent student demonstrations”. There are, however, many people who’d disagree with Stephenson’s assessment, not least the scores of people from the student protests and other demonstrations now passing through the courts on serious charges of violent disorder, affray and criminal damage. In many of these cases the nature of the charges are ludicrously minimal: a lobbed lightweight stick here, a tipped-over bin there, and even the objectively not-violent-at-all-in-any-way offence of talking back to a police officer.
We have seen in the past couple of weeks the sentencing of Francis Fernie, jailed for 12 months for throwing a couple of banner sticks on the 26 March TUC protest, injuring no one. Much more widely covered was the 16 months handed down to Charlie Gilmour for sitting on the bonnet of a car that was part of the convoy carrying Charles and Camilla, and for throwing a bin, which may or may not have been done by him. Much has been made of Gilmour’s other “crimes”, the things he wasn’t charged for: holding on to the Cenotaph flag being the favoured stick to beat him with according to the more moralising elements of the media, but also for things that by any reckoning, are neither crimes, nor Gilmour’s “fault” as we would usually understand it: having a famous father, being relatively privileged and studying at Cambridge, being unhappy, and so on. But Gilmour, who is to appeal his sentence, is being punished not only for what he represents economically and socially, but above all for what he stands for politically – a student protesting against fee increases and education cuts.
It serves the interest of the press, the police and ultimately, parliament if protesters are isolated, pilloried and made examples of (as Gilmour, Fernie and, before them, Edward Woollard have all been). It does not serve them, their families, or those who defend the right to protest in general to demonise specific individuals. We run serious risks of undermining the legitimate reasons why so many hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets in recent months if we start making arbitrary and prejudiced separations between those protesters we support and those we do not: many have made the point that real violence lies not with protesters, but with policies that increasingly destroy lives, as benefits and jobs are cut and cut again.
There are many, many cases to be processed in months to come as police have devoted hundreds of officers and man hours to identifying people they don’t like the look of from the student protests as well as the TUC march and the strikes on 30 June. All of these charges have to be seen in the broader context: a government pushing the population to the streets through unpopular polices and into the hands of a police force that feels perfectly at ease to beat up, kettle and threaten protesters then arbitrarily arrest dozens of them with the complicity of the courts, which appear to think nothing of ruining the lives of people, many very young, by sending them to jail for actions that outside of a protest situation would be deemed to be of very little significance at all.
So why the crackdown on protesters, all the example-making? As the Met finds itself increasingly entwined in media and parliamentary corruption, it will need more scapegoats to lash out against. Students and young people, so long attacked and ridiculed as lazy and apathetic but now, conversely, for being politically active, seem to have provided the establishment with a recognisable enemy within. Incredibly harsh individual student prosecutions are being explicitly described as punishment not only for the actions of other protesters on the day, but as a warning to future protesters. Sentencing Fernie, Judge Nicholas Price QC said: “It is clear that not only must I take into account your actions but the general day”, punishing Fernie for whatever description of the day the police decide to push for. (In initial plea hearings, prosecutors described the atmosphere of many of the protests as being “violent”, pre-emptively determining how the situation might be understood – many would indeed describe the protests as violent, but coming from the police rather than the protesters.)
The case against UK Uncut for aggravated trespass in Fortnum & Mason on 26 March has provided one of the clearest images of the way these charges are designed to wage a form of psychological warfare not only on those charged, an isolating and harrowing experience for anyone, but also on future protesters. After months of delay it was finally announced on Monday that charges are being dropped against all of them except 30 UK Uncut protesters because the charges are “not in the public interest”: not yet a complete victory, by any means, but hopefully an indication that as the Met’s power and reputation crumbles into the dust, the growing public opposition to political policing and punitive sentencing of protesters will become cacophonously loud.