Protesters versus the strong arm of the law

Justice has been poorly served by the bloody-minded determination of the state to prosecute anti-fees demonstrators, argues Martin McQuillan

March 21, 2013

Source: Getty

Justice has been poorly served by the bloody-minded determination of the police and Crown Prosecution Service to victimise students involved in tuition fee protests, argues Martin McQuillan

At 11am on a Friday morning earlier this month, after four weeks of proceedings at Woolwich Crown Court, Judge Douglas Marks Moore completed his summing up in the third trial of tuition fee protesters Alfie Meadows and Zak King. He then sent the jury out to deliberate. Five hours later it returned unanimous verdicts of not guilty.

Alfie Meadows, 22, is a philosophy undergraduate at Middlesex University. Meadows and King, also 22, had originally been tried, along with three others, on violent misconduct charges relating to the fees demonstration of 9 December 2010. At the same demonstration, Meadows received life- threatening injuries after an alleged blow to the head from a police truncheon. He was taken to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital and subsequently transferred to Charing Cross Hospital, where he underwent a three-hour emergency operation to stop bleeding in the brain. Images of his shaved head and surgical scar have come to symbolise the events of that day.

At the first trial, held at Kingston Crown Court in March 2012, three of the accused were acquitted, with two guilty verdicts on lesser charges of arson, but the jury was split over the charges against Meadows and King. A retrial was ordered and set for Woolwich Crown Court on 29 October last year, but it collapsed because of sickness-related delays. As a result, Michael Mansfield QC, who had up until then been acting pro bono on Meadows’ behalf, was no longer able to represent him.

The third trial at Woolwich, two years and three months after the evening when Meadows nearly lost his life, finally resulted in his and King’s exoneration. Meadows has since called for the reopening of the Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation into the circumstances of his injuries (it had been put on hold at the request of Meadows’ legal team).

Alfie Meadows

The only conclusion to be drawn is that the present political and economic system that produced such a fees policy cannot abide the opposition of the recipients of its good intentions

Of the 15 students who pleaded not guilty to violent misconduct on that day, 14 have subsequently been found not guilty. When David Willetts, the universities and science minister, spoke of tripled tuition fees “placing students at the heart of the system”, this is surely not what he meant.

I do not know Meadows, King or Meadows’ mother Susan Matthews, a senior lecturer in English at the University of Roehampton, who campaigned on his behalf. I do know people who taught Meadows, but the same could be said of almost any undergraduate philosophy student in London. I agreed to write about the case for Times Higher Education regardless of the outcome of the trial. What I have to say here is therefore not motivated by personal commitments or by bandwagon-jumping after the not-guilty verdict. It is simply what must be said: that the determination to prosecute Meadows for his part in the student-fees protest has been nothing short of victimisation: the politically motivated persecution of a young man who almost died from injuries allegedly inflicted by the police.

Alfie Meadows is lucky - we are all lucky - that we do not now have to mount a campaign to overturn what, had he been found guilty, would have been a gross miscarriage of justice. We are also lucky not to be contemplating a memorial to mark the second anniversary of his death. However, Meadows is merely the unwilling poster boy for a wider issue: the disproportionate and unreasonable response of the legal authorities to the tuition fee demonstrations that took place between 10 November and 9 December 2010. The punitive treatment meted out to some of the students who took part is symptomatic of the present intolerance for protest inside and outside higher education, a phenomenon that should give everyone working in universities pause.

There have been numerous prosecutions of student protesters since November 2010. Some are well known, such as that of Charlie Gilmour (the adopted son of Pink Floyd guitarist Dave Gilmour), who was sentenced to 16 months for violent disorder after hurling a bin and leaping on to a car that formed part of the convoy carrying the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall to the Royal Variety Performance on the evening of 9 December. Gilmour attracted the most attention, having been photographed earlier swinging from the Union flag on the Cenotaph in Whitehall. This inconsiderate act no doubt informed the rigour of his sentence.

Others have attracted rather less media consideration. Sara El Sheekh, a student at King’s College London, was charged with violent disorder in connection with events at Millbank Tower on 10 November 2010 and tried at Kingston Crown Court a year later. The jury took just 15 minutes to return a unanimous verdict of not guilty. The prosecution case had been based on six minutes of video footage taken from ITV and by The Daily Telegraph, which showed what the accused had already admitted: her kicking and dislodging broken glass to avoid injury to protesters entering and leaving Millbank. The footage presented no evidence of violent misconduct. El Sheekh’s employer was called as a witness to give a character reference and was asked by the prosecution if he was surprised that his employee had admitted kicking already broken glass. He offered the memorable response: “What? This is why I am here? Because Sara kicked an already broken window! Yes, I am surprised that this is why I’m here.” In summing up, the defence maintained that a criminal damage charge, if anything, would have been more appropriate, given that the glass had already been broken.

University fees demonstrators

Despite such setbacks, the Crown Prosecution Service pressed ahead with other trials of students involved in the demonstrations. Altogether, these trials have resulted in a 48 per cent conviction rate, considerably lower than the CPS’ 77.4 per cent average, according to the campaign group Defend the Right to Protest.

The brothers Christopher and Andrew Hilliard were acquitted of violent disorder charges relating to the 9 December demonstration. Yet prior to their court appearance, Prime Minister David Cameron had put the integrity of the trial at risk by publicly denouncing protesters who, it was claimed, had dragged a policeman off his horse and beaten him. Footage assembled by the defence in fact showed the mounted officer pulling Christopher Hilliard’s hair so hard that he was forced to stand on his tiptoes. The defence argued that it was this action, and the officer’s failure to follow the normal procedure of tightening the girth on his horse, that led to his unseating. Eight police officers offered evidence that they had witnessed the five seconds in which their colleague had fallen from his horse, but all stated that they had been looking away in the moments leading up to the incident. The discrepancy between the account offered by the mounted officer and what the video footage demonstrated led one of the barristers for the defence to comment that he “must think you don’t have eyes in your head”. The jury took less than two hours to return unanimous verdicts of not guilty against the brothers. There are plenty of other examples of similarly overzealous (and failed) prosecutions against the demonstrators.

Equally, there have been successful prosecutions and many students who have entered pleas of guilty - for some the path of least resistance through the legal system. Edward Woollard, an 18-year-old schoolboy with no history of activism or criminal record, clearly behaved dangerously and impulsively when he dropped a fire extinguisher from the roof of Millbank Tower. However, although repentant about his moment of madness, he was given, in the words of Judge Geoffrey Rivlin QC, “a deterrent sentence” of 32 months. Omar Ibrahim, 19, was given 18 months for violent disorder, having thrown a spent toy smoke bomb. Zenon Mitchell Kotsakis, 20, received 15 months in a youth offenders’ institution for throwing two placard sticks. Demi Wilson Smith, 19, was given 10 months for shouting at police and waving a stick at them. Benjamin Sunderland, 20, was sentenced to 12 months for poking an already broken window with a chair and a stick. Abdullah Hussainzai, 21, was jailed for three months for criminal damage to a bus shelter and arson to a road traffic bollard.

An explanation, then, why the following year, in November 2011, only 2,000 students (half the number of police officers on duty) attended an anniversary march: the “deterrent sentences” had clearly worked - that and talk of using rubber bullets against protesters.

It goes without saying that I am not defending acts of violence by students or anyone else. I am a dean of humanities and, having attended the 10 November fees demonstration myself, I wrote the next morning that “we cannot take the moral high ground in an argument about the value of education and then make our point by putting a boot through a plate glass window”. However, what is clear from these trials, of which Meadows and King were the last to come to court, is that there has been a systematic attempt to prosecute young people with no criminal records, under the serious charge of violent disorder (carrying a sentence of up to five years) in the heightened venue of Crown courts, and at great expense, despite a lack of supporting evidence or likelihood of conviction. Excessive sentences have been dealt out for minor offences and the lives of many have been made miserable or even ruined by this pattern of victimisation. This has been done to send a message to the students of Britain not to protest against the new fees regime or any other related issue of intergenerational inequality.

Charlie Gilmour

Students have been jailed for throwing sticks while we await a single charge to be brought against any banker for the fraud and mis-selling that caused the world economy to crash

The cause of the student protesters that day was overwhelmingly just: the intrinsic unfairness of the proposed tripling of university tuition fees by a group of ministers who had received their own “elite” educations for free. These young people face an entirely different calculation from that of previous generations as to whether to go to university, given the rise in fees, a working lifetime of repayments and uncertainty about the employability of Western graduates in a global economy. Who or what is served by pursuing this generation through the courts with excessive vigour and handing down unreasonable punishments as a deterrent to legitimate protest? The only conclusion to be drawn is that the present political and economic system that produced such a fees policy cannot abide the opposition of the recipients of its good intentions. The weight of the courts has been misapplied and justice has been poorly served. Students have been jailed for throwing sticks while we await a single charge to be brought against any banker for the fraud and mis-selling that caused the world economy to crash, providing the justification (if not the origin) for the student fees policy in the first place.

The youthful idealism of students cannot always be supported without reservation. However, the history of student protest has been overwhelmingly one of support for progressive causes: opposition to the Vietnam War and the campus shutdowns following the shooting of Kent State University students by the Ohio National Guard in May 1970; the French General Strike of May 1968; the Athens Polytechnic protest in 1973 that helped bring down Greece’s military junta; the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989; and the student marches against the Iranian regime in 1999 and 2009. In recent years, students in Chile and Quebec have successfully opposed government reforms of higher education as part of a wider set of concerns about inequality.

Historically, students have been agents of political change, placing the transformative educational values of the university at the heart of global society and culture. When students are told to think of themselves as consumers, they are being asked to exchange their political agency for acquiescence in a system that perpetuates inequality. We speak blithely of “student choice”, “student satisfaction” and the “student experience” in a rush to engineer a value-for-money relationship with fee-paying customers. When this generation of young people expresses dissatisfaction with that experience as its only choice, it is subject to the full weight of the law.

The treatment of Alfie Meadows has been every bit as shameful as the drenching with pepper spray at point-blank range of passive, seated protesters by campus police at the University of California, Davis in November 2011. There is a profound contradiction in the victimisation and criminalisation of student protesters by governments and university administrators in the name of a market of student choice, underwritten by the credit-worthiness of the idea of higher education.

Universities wish away dissent, questioning and criticism at their peril. Without them, universities would merely be adjuncts to the corporate global economy: and no professor wants to be an adjunct. To remain silent about miscarriages of justice in the sentencing of student protesters would be a betrayal of this present generation, but so would an insistence on their systemic designation as indebted, passive consumers of educational products. As long as we have social inequality, it will be in the purview of young people to protest against it; as long as we have inequality, universities will be necessary agents for social change. Student protest has a future: the values that inform it are the values of the university per se. Those responsible for our universities should not be first in line in attempts to silence it.

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Reader's comments (1)

This article is an excellent analysis of how disproportionately student protestors have been treated in the aftermath of the tuition fees protests. Some of the incidents for which people have been prosecuted may not have even been considered as arrestable offences if they had not happened in the context of mass collective action protests. My blog (link below) looks at how I believe that deeply ideological views of crowd behaviour (that are rarely supported by evidence of what actually happens in these situations) contribute to a political context that makes such harsh treatment of protestors more likely. http://www.dontpaniccorrectingmythsaboutthecrowd.blogspot.co.uk/

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