Review by Daniel Renwick
Wednesday 31st March’s Newsnight offered a very concise account of the disturbing trend of criminalising legitimate protest. The prosecution of the protesters who mobilised in response to Israel’s ‘Operation Cast Lead’ crystallises a clear policy by the State to sedate those who feel that as the government is not acting upon their behalf, they will take direct action. Judge Denniss has stated throughout his sentence reports that the punishment is motivated by the need to “deter” those who feel aggrieved in the future from taking any form of militant action, irrespective of important antecedents (like police aggression). The judge has stated throughout the sentencing of the accused that this is not an attempt to criminalise protest, just the individuals who violate the State’s constraints.
The average age (19), race (Arab) and religious beliefs (Muslim) of the accused are not recognised by the State to be motivating factors for the prosecutions. The fact that the accused were arrested through the use of anti-terror laws, with the police seizing computers and phones, seems to be at tension with this claim. As Seumas Milne’s article on this subject demonstrates, to an already victimised Muslim community, such “draconian sentences” do seem motivated by prejudice. One cannot help but sympathise with the families who make the point that violent disorder is prevalent everywhere across Britain on Friday and Saturday nights, with alcohol induced disorder. Why do these people get away with a slap on the wrist, yet young Muslims need to be “deterred”?
This is not to say that some of the actions engaged in by protesters were not of a violent nature. In abstraction, some of the actions by the protestors can be viewed as criminal; there is no denying this. However, fair judgement requires contextualisation of the actions. It is widely understood that the police pre-empted any violent actions by protesters by being the first to use violence. More to the point, it is vital to stress that large swathes of demonstrators, if not all, were in a state of trauma following the stream of images received through our media services. None of the accused thus far have been considered to be a threat to society.
Protests against Israeli actions in Gaza started in late December. By the 28th thousands were being kettled for attempting to reach the Israeli embassy. On the 3rd of January the Hyde Park Underpass was rushed by police, threatening the lives of many as it created chaos. Those who were not deterred by police violence proceeded to the embassy, where 5,000 protesters were kettled for close to 5 hours before being allowed to leave (most were asked for their name and address as conditions of release, which is against standard stop and search procedure). In the summation of the case for a Mr. Scott McPherson, who was being sentenced for actions committed on the 10th, Judge Denniss cited Scott’s attendance on the 3rd as evidence that he intended to cause trouble.
One assumes, therefore, that Police policy in regards to the Gaza demonstrations was to draw a line. If one attempted to reach the Israeli embassy, trouble would be an assumed motivation. The police did not facilitate legitimate protest, but contained what they assumed would be disorder, and with negative results. This pre-emptive approach was a major catalyst for violence, which explains otherwise inexplicable actions. As Newsnight’s report revealed, 38 charges of police brutality in regards to the protest have been ignored by the IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Commission). We simply do not feel that justice can be claimed while there is such a clear asymmetry between the actions of the law officials and the actions of the protesters.