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Reclaiming the right to protest from kettling police and hanging judges

Lindsey German
Stop the War Coalition
4 August 2011

Two young men have received prison sentences over the past weeks for offences committed on demonstrations.

Frank Fernie, a 20-year-old student at York College, has been given a 12-month sentence for throwing two placard sticks at police in Piccadilly on the anti cuts protest on March 26th.

Charlie Gilmour, son of the Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour and of Polly Samson, got 16 months for hanging off a flag at the cenotaph, sitting on a car and throwing a bin at a convoy of cars taking Prince Charles to the theatre during a student demonstration last year.

It is hard to conceive of any useful purpose in jailing these young people. They are not criminals. They went on demonstrations to protest over issues which are of legitimate concern to millions of people. Their actions did not harm nor cause any injury. Their actions reflected the anger and frustration felt by many people at the effects of the rise in student tuition fees, the cuts and a number of other issues.

The only imaginable reason for such sentences is not to make honest citizens sleep safer in their beds, but rather to deter people from demonstrating. This would suit the police, who have for some years been criminalizing protest and protestors (the latest example of this being the Belgravia police’s advice to local residents to shop their neighbourhood anarchist). It suits the politicians, who would rather there were no protests at all over their policies. And it is in a long and dishonourable tradition among judges to pass 'deterrent' sentences.

Ed Woollard, who threw the fire extinguisher from Millbank on the first student protest, was given three years. His family are campaigning over this sentence. Protesters on the Gaza demonstrations in 2009 were kettled, attacked by police and then given punitive sentences. Many of them were young Muslims who had not protested before. Many demonstrators now plead guilty thinking that they will be treated leniently for cooperating, only to find that they still receive punitive sentences. 

Protests are an essential part of the democratic process. They are the means by which a consciously organised group of people come together to challenge the status quo. It is for this reason that they so often fall foul of the judiciary, the police and politicians. How demonstrations are dealt with is also a political issue. The new wave of anti-capitalist and anti-war protest in the first decade of the century took the authorities by surprise. The anti-war movement was so big and the war so unpopular that policing was much less aggressive than it is now: the movement was able to successfully defy bans on Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square without thousands of tooled up riot police appearing.

Even then, school students and young people did get attacked, for example when in 2002 in Whitehall, when they demonstrated against Britain going to war with Iraq.

This has become the rule in the past three years. On 26 March 2011, police explicitly tried to distinguish between 'good' and 'bad' demonstrators, so attempting to drive a wedge between different sections of the movement. They attacked and kettled students and school students who were protesting against a huge rise in tuition fees, then arrested them.

The aim is clear: to demoralise and deter protests over the important issues facing us today, and to criminalise a new generation of protesters. We have been here before. In 1970, students in Cambridge protesting at the Greek dictatorship during an event at the Garden House Hotel in prison sentences that helped to deflate the student movement. We cannot allow that to happen again.

We need to campaign as widely as possible against the draconian sentences being imposed on young protesters like Charlie Gilmour, Frank Fernie and dozens of others. But the best protection of our right to demonstrate is by refusing to be intimidated or deterred, and protest in ever greater numbers and solidarity on the issues that confront us.

The anti-war movement has organised hundreds of protests over in past decade and on 8 October, we will be asserting our right to be in Trafalgar Square for a mass assembly marking ten years of war in Afghanistan and the "war on terror". We want this protest to be about the war, about the need to cut warfare not public services, and about ending the war in Libya. But we also want it to be about demanding the right to protest without the law being used to stop us.

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