Friday 4th November saw eleven protesters in Kingston Crown Court for sentencing relating to the Millbank protest of November last year, the Whitehall protest, the final anti-fees protest and from the TUC protest of March this year. Of those that received custodial sentences – all for violent disorder – the length of sentence ranged from 10 months to 18 months, with the majority 12 months or over. When sentencing, the two judges – in the morning Nicholas Price QC and the afternoon Susan Tipping QC – made it clear that even where it was clear that what the protesters had supposedly done was not very serious, the context of the public order situation, combined with the desire to deter and warn future protesters was what was really at stake in the severity of the charges and sentencing.
While defence lawyers worked hard to present their clients in the best possible light – which wasn’t hard, as those arrested were socially active and politically aware, often volunteering, working on anti-racist campaigns and so on – all defendants are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to being able to invoke the ‘atmosphere of the day’, as the police defendants were permitted to do. Had police behaviour on the protests been described, a very different picture would have emerged. Many of those charged yesterday had been hit by police batons, violent arrested and otherwise harassed and attacked by police on the day. Anyone who protested at Whitehall will remember the nine hour kettle in the freezing cold without food, water or toilets; anyone who was there outside Parliament on December 9th will remember the horse charges and police brutality that culminated in Alfie Meadows almost losing his life.
But defendants are not allowed to invoke context: only the police and the judge get to do that. So, according to them, what were the protests like? We repeatedly heard that the police had been ‘grossly outnumbered’, that there was a ‘herd mentality’ among the protesters, and the Judge repeatedly invoked the ruling in the (failed) recent Charlie Gilmour appeal where Lord Justice Hughes said: “It is an unavoidable feature of mass disorder that each individual act, whatever might be its character taken on its own, inflames and encourages others to behave similarly, and that the harm done to the public stems from the combined effect of what is done en masse.”
So we saw Omar Ibrahim get 18 months for violent disorder for throwing a spent toy smoke bomb in the direction of Top Shop, hitting nothing and hurting no one; a 19 year old get 18 months in a young offenders institute for pushing against a metal fences and throwing a couple of placard sticks; a 19 year old woman get 10 months in Holloway prison (because the “nicer” women’s prison is already full) for prodding a police officer with a stick; 12 months for another young man for daring to fight back during arrest and 15 months for a Sussex student who chucked a couple of balsa wood banner sticks, again hitting and hurting no one and nothing.
There were a couple of positive results, despite the overall misery of the day – Bryan Simpson, who ran a high profile defence campaign got a four month suspended sentence for affray, two then-17-year olds were given a suspended sentence and community service (or “payback” as it is now known). One 19-year old got 8 months suspended sentence for violent disorder in an extremely rare turn of events.
If the failed Gilmour appeal and the riots ruling have set the template for assessing and punishing public order offences, we are in for a potentially depressing few months: the political nature of this sentencing and the hypocrisy of the police and courts in attacking those who have themselves been attacked by the police should never be far from our minds. As we enter a new era of occupy movements, more street protests and increasing dissatisfaction with the government, growing public awareness of the punishment of protesters must be in the central of the struggle. Defend protesters, defend occupiers and defend those and their families whom the state decides to punish.
Prisoner addresses to follow.