How protest is being outlawed -Laurie Penny

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The message from the Alfie Meadows case is clear: if you protest, the police can do what they like to you.

Alfie Meadows still hasn’t grown his hair back. When they rushed him into theatre for emergency brain surgery after his injury in a demonstration against the tripling of university fees, doctors shaved the 20-year-old’s shoulder-length locks, the style that announces to the world “I am a philosophy student”. Now the thatch is gone, exposing a hand-length scar across his skull, he looks much younger. Thin and shy with eyes that dart downwards, Meadows speaks rarely, and never about his legal case against the Metropolitan police officers who his lawyers claim nearly killed him. This week he goes on trial for violent disorder for his actions that day, a charge that could land him in jail.

The message being sent may as well have been printed on official police stationary and distributed outside the court: in protest situations, police are never in the wrong. Meadows is among the most high profile of dozens of protesters who have been tried for serious public order offences over the past eighteen months. As emergency measures against public assembly and popular protest are passed in time for the Olympics, any political direct action more energetic than standing silently with a few signs in designated areas is becoming functionally illegal in Britain.

The narrative of public dissent is being rewritten with astonishing speed. As police continue to crack heads with impunity, peaceful protesters are handed down harsh deterrent charges. Ten defendants in the Fortnum and Mason trial were recently given six-month suspended sentences for aggravated trespass, essentially for standing around in a grocery shop with some leaflets. I was there at the time, and the worst I saw was some slogans against corporate tax avoidance being carefully wrapped on printed ticker-tape around large stacks of Earl Grey tea. For those swept up in last year’s riots, meanwhile, there hasn’t been a crumb of mercy. As I write, teenagers are still in prison for creating Facebook events.

Whatever we think about how these young people behaved, we should have the decency to call them what they are: political prisoners. That this government has run out of ideas for enforcing austerity beyond frightening people into compliance may be of little comfort to those whose young lives and job prospects will be blighted by deterrent jail sentences.

As with music and angular haircuts, so with public order policing — the Americans are at least a year behind us in keeping up with the latest trends. This week, during another brutal crackdown on Occupy Wall Street, skulls were stomped on, heads were cracked into windows and journalists were dragged or shoved away from the scene as anti-capitalist protesters attempted to peacefully reoccupy Zucotti Park, site of the original encampment that drew international attention last September.

From behind hastily-erected police barricades, I watched as a curly-haired girl in green appeared to begin having a seizure during her arrest, flopping about on the pavement with her hands cuffed and passing out more than once before police eventually allowed an ambulance behind the lines. As she was stretchered away, protesters standing near me speculated that the NYPD would have to put the girl — later identified as 23-year-old Cecily McMillan — on a felony charge to “get out of this one”.

Sure enough, McMillan was released into custody the next day and charged with assaulting a police officer, a crime that could see her serving over a year in prison. I thought of Alfie Meadows, whose trial in London will send the same message to anyone thinking of joining the cultural backlash against austerity and kamikaze capitalism. If you protest, the police can do what they like to you. Any sort of public dissent can and will be met with force. You chose to protest, so you asked for it. Next time, make it easy on yourself — sit down, shut up and stay at home.

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4 thoughts on “How protest is being outlawed -Laurie Penny

  • i have read and watched a video about a deterrent weapon which reaches out quite far intended to use at demonstrations.if you are hit by it you feel an unbearable heat and you are running away.there are some health issues with that as well,if hit two times for example.what is going on?why are there no voices that it is time to topple this tyrannical governments in europe?why looking so far to iraq,egypt etc,when it is on your doorstep?

  • What you say is all perfectly true. Under the pretexts of combating terrorism and preventing “offence” and “inconvenience to the public” Britain has created an authoritarian state in which anyone who engages in protest is placed on a register of “domestic extremists” and can be seriously injured by a police force that is almost never held to account for its violence and crimes.

    Even the most trivial of misdemeanours – if committed during a political protest – now attracts the most draconian of penalties.

    That the state is attempting to deter protest is clearly established. The great weakness of those campaigning for a fairer society is that put all their eggs into the basket of theatric protest in attempt to draw attention to the cause. Wider organisation is also important.

  • In the F&M case, we weren’t given suspended sentences we were given conditional discharges, there is a significant difference between them. A suspended sentence is a custodial sentence that isn’t served unless a further crime is committed during the period of the suspension, in which case the remainder of the suspended sentence would be added to any sentence given for the new offense. A conditional discharge means no further action unless another offense is committed during the period of the conditional discharge in which case the defendant can be re-sentenced for the original offense plus the new offense.

    Whilst I agree with the broader point you make and have written on it frequently, this is an important distinction to make as a suspended sentence is significantly more serious a sentence.

    I also think the way the legal system has been restructured over the last decade-or-so has massively contributed to the charge rates, conviction rates and harsher sentences. You can’t just blame the police, you have to look at the system that backs them up.

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