Last Thursday and Friday saw around forty-two people in the dock at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on charges relating to the protests before and after Christmas (10th, 24th and 30th November, 9th December 2010 and 26th March 2011). The court were clearly in a rush to get all the pleas entered – they saw almost all the students in batches, regardless of whether the charges related to the same protest, regardless of what the charges were and regardless of whether any or all of the ‘evidence’ was in. The prosecutor was disorganised and often seemed not up to speed on who was being charged for what. The judge hurried things through, cut short defence statements, patronised female defence lawyers and said at one point said of the students something like ‘don’t these people know when they’re fighting a losing battle?’ The protests were referred to as if they were all part of the same thing (‘on the second protest…’ e.g.), no explanation for why anyone would legitimately be there was given (well, that’s not a surprise I guess) and the prosecutor routinely referred to ‘the violent disorder on the day in question’ as if it were a foregone conclusion (unless he was talking about the police, arf) and to the ‘mob’, as if this was some sort of neutral term for talking about people legitimately taking to the streets to protest.
Many of the students and other protesters are up on Crown Court (i.e. serious) offences, mainly violent disorder. This situation has the advantage that the defendants will be heard and judge by a jury, but rumour has it the cases will be held in a notably conservative catchment area, rather than somewhere like Southwark, where the jury might be expected to be somewhat more compassionate, particularly to victims of police violence. Some on either-way offences opted for Crown Court anyway, which means their sentence may be heavier if found guilty but may have more chance of getting off.
One of the things most noticeable about the protesters in the dock was how young they were – some under 18, many around 18/19, almost all men. Some have other problems that would lead most people to question why on earth it was in the public interest to bring these people to court in the first place, let alone see them hauled up on serious charges: mind you, the idea that it’s in the public interest to see any of the protesters in court, let alone Crown Court, is laughable – many of the descriptions of the supposed ‘crimes’ committed by the protesters were things like burning placards (‘arson’), holding railings in self-defence (‘violent disorder’), shouting at police (‘affray’). One man was up on the charge of throwing yoghurt at a bank. None of the cases involved police officers being hurt, but many of the prosecutor’s claims relied, and will rely in future, on the supposed ‘fear’ felt by cops in riot gear – awwww, poor frightened coppers in their protective gear, clutching shields and waving batons around, protected only by hundreds of their fellow coppers, charging horses and the law’s inability to ever find them guilty of anything…
A combination of ineptitude, authoritarianism and gross lack of insight into what guilty sentences might mean for the lives of the protesters was the order of the day. Those who came to support those charged made a huge difference however, and getting in touch with protesters who lacked legal and social support has more than justified the existence of the Defend the Right to Protest campaign a hundred times over. But this is just the beginning – July 4th sees a test case of 20 of the 145 UKUncut protesters accused of ‘aggravated trespass’ in Fortnum & Mason’s. Those charged on Thursday and Friday will be back in court on the 19th and 28th of July. As things get increasingly unbelievable, yet serious at the same time, more support will be needed. Details to follow.