On Monday, the third iteration of the trial of Alfie Meadows and Zak King begins at Woolwich Crown Court. It is now over two years since the student demonstration in Parliament Square, in which Meadows was near-fatally injured. It is possible, over the extended period of time in which this laughterless farce has played out, to become inured to its central scandal: after the police beat a demonstrator so badly he requires three hours of brain surgery, they decide to arrest him for ‘violent disorder’; having subjected him to the unrefined punishment of the baton strike, they decide to subject him to the refined and bureaucratic punishment of the courtroom. I reproduce the image above – which often heads articles, posters and campaign leaflets – because it is a reminder that every manicured expression of outrage that comes from the prosecution is intended to occlude this violence. It is a reminder that there are real people, and real bodies, at the centre of this struggle. It ought to shock, scandalise and anger us.
I hope this coming trial sees the end of this bad joke. Courts are impossible to predict, but from the sparse evidence presented in the last trial, I hope for acquittal for both defendants. Some of the police testimony was collated live by Rory MacKinnon here during the last trial. It is what you might expect: where the commander cannot deny police violence, he will ‘avoid putting words in the officer’s mouth’ – that is, avoid giving any explanation at all. Commander Johnson – who oversaw policing at the G20 protests, where Ian Tomlinson died, as well as the kettling on Westminster Bridge and the horse charges on on a street packed with students during the Parliament Square demonstration – finds it hard to think of any error in policing, even when pressed. It is hard to ever bring these people to account, well-versed as they are in avoiding even direct questions. The distributed model of police organisation means it’s difficult to find anyone who can’t pass the buck in a different direction, while the private intention of officers actually engaged in violence is beyond speculation. On the other hand, the private intention of defendants is fair game: a covered face is taken as an infallible sign of malicious intent, rather than a sensible precaution where intelligence gathering on protesters is de rigueur. If such physical signs are so easily legible, then we might infer some coherent story from the baton strikes, or the scars they leave. No: instead we’re assured that behind the body armour, the police are scared, traumatised, rational, judicious, calm, responsible, terrified – usually all at once, and in one person at that. Not to labour the point, but police violence (by the logic of their excuse) can either be a rationally-executed crowd control measure, or the instinctive response of an affrighted officer to a baying mob. It cannot be both at once.
I’d argue that there is a coherent logic to police responses to protest – one of excess, containment and excision – though the mechanisms of this violence change according to political fashion. It is sometimes hard to communicate the obvious contours of this logic to liberals who have little contact with the police, and the subsequent chilling effect on protest or direct action. The recent, damning preliminary answers of the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to assemble and protest in the UK are helpful here (I also wrote a little on the usefulness of these answers):
Nevertheless, I believe that this practice [kettling] is detrimental to the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly due to its indiscriminate and disproportionate nature. I heard, for instance, appalling stories of peaceful protestors, as well as innocent by-standers – such as tourists – held for long hours with no access to water or sanitary facilities. It also undeniably has a powerful chilling effect on the exercise of freedom of peaceful assembly, and I was informed of many people who refrained from exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly for fear of being kettled. Finally, it appears that kettling is used for intelligence gathering purposes, by compelling those kettled to disclose their name and address as they leave the kettle, increasing the chilling effect it has on potential protesters.
There’s a justified sense that the arrests for ‘violent disorder’ during this period of protest were partly intended to intimidate: a substantial proportion of those charged who pled ‘not guilty’ were acquitted, but the sense that those arrested were often arbitrarily charged meant that for many demonstrators the risks of protest began to outweigh its usefulness. This calculation is one we are intended to make. Of course, the charge itself is so elastic – so vague in its definitions of what counts as an offence – as to make its indiscriminate use an easy option. Alongside the much-vaunted automation of surveillance and identification, the repressive mood that followed the August riots of 2011, and the apparent impunity of police officers even when they lie on the stand, make it hard to gainsay that calculation.
It is not just the charge itself, nor the outrageous prospect of being jailed for having the temerity to come in the way of a police baton, but the suspension of life between charge and verdict which is punitive. Many of the anti-cuts protesters who have faced trial have done so with extraordinary gaps between charge and trial process. In this time, the very possibility of a future, a life, the ability to travel, or to study is suspended. Horizons get destroyed. Foucault, when writing about the modern prison, said that ‘the soul is the prison of the body’ – he meant that the modern prison system no longer employs torture to render the bodies of its prisoners docile, instead preferring more ‘refined’ forms of affective and psychological discipline. Perhaps this distinction is tenuous – physical violence, and physical enclosure, isolation, are all parts of the modern prison too – but the psychic effects of the dilation of the judicial process are obvious to anyone who has undergone them: the sense of hopelessness, helplessness, lack of escape. That it manifests in a nightmarish bureaucracy and a language of brutal passivity often makes it even less bearable.
Defend The Right To Protest, the campaign that has done much to keep the Meadows case visible, has also done excellent work in highlighting the resonances between these cases and those of the Rigg family, the Duggan family, and the countless others brutalised or killed by the police. Many features recur in slightly different ways – delays, stonewalling, evasion of responsibility, the insistence on the guilt of those victimised – but so does the determination to see justice done. This is a word that does not get used much in leftist campaigning or discussion, and doubts about courts claiming they will not only deliver ‘justice’ but show that it has been done are justified. In fact, that claim sounds hollow to anyone who has sat in them for any amount of time. We know that their ‘justice’ might depend on the prejudice of the jurors, aptly stoked by the prosecution, the quality of the lawyer one can afford, or whether the judge had a dodgy sandwich for lunch. That is to say, we know their claims to justice are contingent, human and personal. The encouragement, then, is that it is possible – needed, necessary – to support each other through these processes without any illusions about the court, knowing that we need to press hard against them to deliver even a modicum of justice, and, also, simply to survive the process well enough to emerge from the other side. There is another kind of justice – that we will make for ourselves.
The court should acquit Alfie Meadows and Zak King. The photo at the top of this piece ought to be enough to tell you who really should be facing punishment here. The mere fact it comes to trial is an obscenity. There is a solidarity demonstration this Monday outside the court. Come and offer your support.
Protest at Alfie & Zak’s Retrial
Monday, 11th Feb, 9 a.m.
Woolwich Crown Court
Facebook event: http://www.facebook.com/events/316628031789778/