‘We’ve had riot shields, we’ve had riot gear, we’ve had police on horseback charging into our people, we’ve had people hit with truncheons and people kicked to the ground . . .The intimidation and the brutality that has been displayed are something reminiscent of a Latin American state.’
Not an account of the police response to the student protests of 2010, but a voice from 1984 when riot police clashed with striking miners at Orgreave. Back in 1984, violent police tactics including kettling supported Thatcher’s conservative government in its determination to break the power of the unions. Then, as now, it was the victims of police violence that were prosecuted and a young lawyer called Michael Mansfield defended miners beaten up by the police.
Not surprising then, that the parallels with that time were obvious to the now famous human rights lawyer Michael Mansfield in August last year when he spoke out about the treatment of students protesting about tuition fee rises and education cuts: ‘There is a direct comparison to what was going on during the miners’ strike’ he told a Guardian reporter, ‘a shameful tradition…of riot squads or tactical support groups or response units, whatever you want to call them. They go in hard and heavy, and the whole idea is to intimidate, not those who are not intending to commit crime, but those who are presenting opposition to the government.’
Exactly one year on, Mansfield is defending my son Alfie Meadows against the charge of violent disorder at the 9 December demonstration against education cuts and tuition fees, a demonstration where Alfie nearly died from a police baton blow.
A broadly based campaign group, Defend the Right to Protest, was formed in the wake of the Millbank occupation by students and others in November 2010 and I joined the campaign in early 2011 after Alfie was injured. Alfie was very lucky not to die: he survived only because a neurosurgeon operated on him in the night to reduce the pressure of bleeding on his brain. His experience is thankfully rare amongst protesters. But violence against protesters, including blows to the head is common. So are disproportionate sentences like that of the York student Frank Fernie who was sentenced to 12 months in prison for the crime of throwing two light placard sticks towards police lines at the vast TUC anti-cuts march on 26 March last year. Whereas such actions count as ‘violence’ in the courts, beating of protesters which places their survival at risk seems to merit no action.
If events now echo those of 1984, so does the abuse of official language.
Whereas protesters who hurt no one are described as ‘violent’, police using horses to control crowds is a ‘passive push’ and a horse charge into protesters is an ‘active push’. Police on demonstrations swear at young protesters but in official reports they cite human rights training and speak of ‘facilitating protest’. It’s certainly helpful that the report of parliamentary select committee on human rights published in March last year expresses surprise that the Metropolitan police have no specific guidance on baton blows to the head, but it’s worrying that only one police force (West Yorkshire) according to this report understood the meaning of the term ‘proportionality’. It is also encouraging that the Director of Public Prosecutions has recently issued new guidelines on when it is in the public interest to prosecute protesters. But we should not conclude that the threat to the right to protest has gone away.
Of course no one, from David Cameron to Met chief Bernard Hogan Howe, would challenge the right to protest. All cherish protest as central to the democratic process – in theory, in Egypt, in the past. But in the present, protest is a problem because it’s a challenge to power. The way out for the power that be is to single out the so-called ‘violent’ protester for disproportionate punishment, a process that is clearly meant to have a chilling effect on protest more widely. Often the vehicle for this process is the serious charge of ‘violent disorder’, the second gravest of the public order charges and one that carries a sentence of up to five years. This is a charge that has been used against over 80 students in recent protests, and it has been used for a variety of ‘crimes’ that might in other circumstances merit no more than a reprimand.
The parallels between 1984 and now are certainly depressing. But they are also a reminder that the right to protest and the right to strike go hand in hand. In the 1980s, attacks on the right to strike were part of an explicit attempt to disable the power of unions. As Seumas Milne argued in November last year (‘Five reasons public sector unions are right to strike’ www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/nov/28/public-service-workers-strike) the consequence was a steady decline in union membership, a decline which exactly mirrors the rise in financial inequality in the UK. When we wonder how to level out the madness of gargantuan city salaries, we need look no further than the decline in union membership, and its ugly sister, the threat to the right to protest.
I am sceptical about the category of ‘the protester’ because it suggests that protesters are a special group of people. In my view, anyone can become a protester. Protest happens when people are faced with situations that make no sense: when they are lied to, when they do not believe that they are represented by those in parliament, when they see gross injustice or when they can see ahead the terrible consequences of today’s decisions. The young protest more than the old not because they like going on protests but because they have a stronger sense of unfairness. I’m worried by the ease with which the impossible can turn into the normal. But despite the passing of fifteen months, I have not forgotten the hours I spent waiting outside the operating theatre. In the run up to the Olympics, we read, police will search social media looking for something called ‘protest and disorder’. But protest is not synonymous with disorder. In an unjust world, protest is the voice of sense.