We may not have had the opportunity to declare victory on the steps of Kingston Crown Court on Wednesday, and it may be that this will be a longer battle than we may have hoped for, but what is certain is that we are no less determined or confident that Alfie will finally win justice. Until then we must all stand with him, now more than ever, we are all Alfie Meadows.
Written By Rachel Harger
Violent disorder is one of five public order offences available to the police, all five have almost identical definitions yet have much wider, differing punitive consequences, by charging protesters like Alfie Meadows with the second most serious offence - violent disorder, the police are inviting disproportionate custodial sentences if the jury returns a guilty verdict. The frequent and widespread use of violent disorder against student protesters also helps to paint a picture of student demonstrations being, quite literally, a mass of violence. It helps to justify not just police tactics and strategy on the day – the use of kettling, horse charges, any other use of force-but ultimately justifies the horrific process of criminalising those who protest, from the media witch hunt of protesters (many people having their photos and names published in the aftermath of protests), to the ordeal of being arrested and tried. As well as any subsequent consequences of conviction - imprisonment, curfews, fines and in every case of conviction- the consequences of a criminal record will affect individuals’ job and university opportunities.
It is in this context we should look at Wednesday’s verdicts in the trial of Alfie Meadows and others. The most important thing to acknowledge is that no-one was found guilty of violent disorder, despite the repetitive efforts of the prosecution barrister, in a wider context of media narratives and politicians who have vilified student demonstrations and individual protesters as a violent minority. On Wednesday, three people were acquitted of violent disorder and one of those three defendants also acquitted of arson. One person has been found guilty of arson, after admitting he was part of a group of people to burn a bench to keep warm in sub zero temperatures, only wearing a t shirt. These verdicts do nothing to boost the confidence of those who have been trying to depict student protesters as violent.
In fact when looking solely at 9th December 2010 student demonstration, Legal Defence Monitoring Group (before considering Wednesday’s verdict) have recorded 15 cases of Violent Disorder, 3 cases were dropped, 7 people who pled not guilty which led to trials has subsequently led to only 1 guilty verdict.
Therefore, in consideration of Wednesday and the verdicts that could be reached, that number has now boosted to 10 trials for violent disorder from 9th December being concluded with ‘not guilty verdicts’. There may very well be other cases of violent disorder not recorded from 9th December but out of these which have, it certainly tells us something of the reluctance of jurors, ordinary members of the public, to convict protesters of violent disorder.
It would seem that prosecuting barristers are having a hard time convincing juries of a frequently dogmatic account of 9th December 2010. One which simply paints student protesters as violent and police officers on the day as thoroughly restrained, and part of a flawless policing operation in which nothing could have or did go wrong. Indeed, it was in Alfie Meadows’ case that the prosecution called Silver Command Officer Mick Johnson to give evidence, as their lead witness. Johnson ordered police tactics and oversaw the police strategy on 9th December 2010. He and the court were shown a montage of footage by Alfie Meadows defence barrister, Michael Mansfield QC, which clearly showed many demonstrators experience of the police on 9th December 2010. Within this footage we saw the charges on horseback by police, which resulted in chants of, “shame on you, shame on you”. Johnson disregarded the horseback charge as a passive advance through the crowd despite what we could all see on the television screen, and what many in the public gallery could remember from being there on the day. I remembered the account of a student from Manchester University, who had a broken collarbone as a result of the horseback charge, and her bag being found splattered with the blood of other people; I wondered what she would have made of Johnson’s explanation. Johnson and the court were also shown harrowing scenes from Westminster bridge during the tight kettle, the court could hear the screams of terrified protesters, we heard more than once someone cry, “you’re going to kill somebody.” Yet Johnson insisted there was room and that any squash was solely the result of protesters themselves pushing each other, once again refusing to accept any criticisms or questioning of police tactics and strategy. Johnson, made further blunders, exposing the arrogance and unaccountability of the police as he continuously shifted responsibility from himself onto anonymous bronze officers or other bodies within the police. Johnson had started giving evidence by saying the buck stopped with him regarding tactics and strategy of the police on 9th December 2010 but what was clear, by the end of him giving evidence, was that the buck might have stopped with him but so did his responsibility once the day was over. When Johnson (who also oversaw the G20 protests) was questioned about the policing of protest more generally. He claimed nothing “necessarily” went “wrong” on the G20 protests. Despite the death of bystander who was hit with a police baton while trapped in a police kettle. Yet, it is Mick Johnson who will be deciding police tactics during London 2012 Olympics.
It is an incredibly frustrating and distressing situation for Alfie and his loved ones to have heard the [lack of a] verdict on Wednesday, which may lead to a re-trial. A re-trial would not be a possibility until at least October or November this year, meaning Alfie’s life plans and daily life being affected for 7 more months. This is illustrative of the wait many defendants also have to go through before they can clear their names, Alfie already had to wait over a year to be tried after being initially charged in March 2011. The Hilliard brothers – Andrew and Christopher, arrested on 9th December 2010, will be tried 23rd April 2012, almost a year and a half after the event. The kind of practical and psychological affect this must have on defendants, who are fighting to clear their names, should also be accounted for. As a mother of a defendant said to me recently, “they asked what time the kettle ended, I feel like I am still in that kettle until the trial is over.” However, as frustrating as the lack of a verdict may be, it is not a guilty one. This is within a trial where defendants were acquitted, for violent disorder and therefore significant defeats for those who are trying to criminalise Alfie.
Defend the Right to Protest will continue to stand with Alfie Meadows and all those who have been criminalised as a result of exercising their right to protest. It is repeatedly those who demonstrate who juries are invited to scrutinize, not the police tactics and strategy on 9th December. The jury were not invited by the court to pore over and examine the kettling, horse charges, indiscriminate use of police batons and subsequent injuries. Essentially, it is not the police on trial for their actions on 9th December 2010. Juries are constrained by the law and court system to analytically look at defendants’ actions. They are expected to politically and emotively detach, even in the face of clearly political charges, from political events. How possible the latter has been for juries is perhaps reflected in the recent succession of not guilty verdicts from 9th December.
We may not have had the opportunity to declare victory on the steps of Kingston Crown Court on Wednesday and it may be that that this will be a longer battle than we may have hoped for, but what is certain is that we are no less determined or confident that Alfie will finally win justice. Until then we must all stand with him, now more than ever, we are all Alfie Meadows.