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Thursday, March 25, 2010 

The Gaza protest prosecutions and assorted thoughts.

The dropping of the prosecution case against Jake Smith, charged with two counts of violent disorder after taking part in the protests outside the Israeli embassy in January of last year, only hints at the potential mendacity of the Metropolitan police and the collusion of the Crown Prosecution Service in the out of all proportion criminal crackdown on those alleged to have taken part in the confrontation late into the Saturday evening. Smith's lawyers happened by chance to find footage of their client being beaten by riot police on YouTube, video which the police denied they had until the very last working day before his trial, when they suddenly discovered they had a full seven and a half hours of footage from the day which might be of use to Smith's defence.

Quite why the police decided to arrest Smith after the event is unclear from the footage, especially when there are almost certainly others who on the day took part in far worse confrontations with the police. Smith is clearly seen pushing the barriers to protect himself from the riot police, being bated by other protesters. Despite this attempt at blocking the police from being able to get to him, when the police next charge the protesters Smith is seen by hit by at least one officer with both a riot shield and a baton, despite posing no apparent threat to the officers. This all happened after the "kettle" had been put into place, preventing any of the protesters from being able to leave; Smith it seems was trapped and not involved with the group of other protesters who were set on confrontation. Perhaps he was picked on because he, unlike some of the others, was positively identified or gave accurate information to the police when the protesters were finally allowed to leave, albeit only after they were photographed and their details were demanded.

Smith is undoubtedly one of the lucky ones: others who took part in the protests that day have been given custodial sentences for the heinous crimes of throwing sticks (broken parts of the many placards) or empty plastic bottles in the general direction of the Israeli embassy, the police often claiming that they were thrown at them. The police presumably felt threatened by these flimsy bits of balsa wood coming towards them, being fully equipped in riot gear as they were and therefore completely unable to defend themselves.

As you might recall, I was on the protest and march that day, although I left before the "kettle" was put in place outside the embassy. What was clear then and is even more apparent now is that there was a fundamental lack of preparation by both sides. Both the Stop the War Coalition and the police themselves were not expecting the sheer number of people who turned out, and as a direct result from the moment the march itself started there were small groups who had turned up looking for trouble who were out of control, as shown by the video which featured a group all but rampaging along at the very front of the march (which I can't incidentally find at the moment). Much of the trouble which occurred later could have been prevented if they had either been arrested then or separated away from the rest of the march. The confrontation which I did personally witness outside the North Gate into Kensington Gardens, where eggs and paint were thrown at police officers who were not yet in riot gear was probably far more frightening for those in uniform than it was those who were deployed later, and yet probably because there were no specific FIT officers there from what I could see monitoring the crowd, none of those who attacked them, almost certainly unprovoked, are likely to have been prosecuted.

I can far more understand the reactions and fighting which occurred in Kensington High Street, outside the embassy's main gates as even while I was there it was becoming difficult to move, a crush developing, a direct result of the police shutting off all the other roads and leaving only one exit, which to get to you had to push past everyone else. Even then though the mood for the most part was jovial, apart from the few idiots at the very front who were pushing the barriers towards the police who were guarding the embassy's gates. Undoubtedly why some who at this point threw items towards the embassy have since been picked up was because a FIT team was set-up on the roof of a building to the right of the embassy's gates, filming the entire protest.

Once the riot police had fully moved in, kettling those remaining and not letting anyone leave even if they had done nothing except continue to peacefully protest, it's not surprising that sticks or worse was thrown at them; for Judge John Denniss, who has been passing sentences on those brought before the court for what have mainly been trivial offences, many of whom have pleaded guilty after being advised that they would receive either community sentences or fines, to then claim that he's doing so to "deter others" is ridiculous. Firstly because those who were determined to cause trouble from the outset will not be deterred from doing so, just as there is a minority of police officers who enjoy such occasions as an opportunity to hit people have not been deterred by the pathetic response from the Met to G20 protests, and secondly because those trapped in the "kettles" are always going to express their discontent, potentially in a physical way when the police themselves are acting in a completely unreasonable and violent manner, as shown in the video featuring Jake Smith.

Equally clear is that the police take protesters taking them on in such a way as a personal affront: there is no other explanation for the early morning raids on the family homes which some who took part in the demonstration have suffered. These are ostensibly justified on the grounds that they are most likely to find those they're looking for by calling early in the morning, but handcuffing the entire family and taking computers and mobile phones for evidence is out of all proportion to the offences allegedly committed. Even if it isn't intended, these are the tactics of humiliation and act as far more of a warning to those potentially willing to protest than any sentence a judge could give. While there is some hyperbole involved, there is the danger that this only encourages the view amongst Muslims already inclined towards a radical viewpoint that the British state is determined that they not be allowed to put their point across, and with that the path to full radicalisation follows. What shouldn't be obscured by all this is that despite the battles, the day's protests was angry, inclusive but overwhelmingly peaceful, unlike the target of the protests which were at the time, according to the United Nations, committing war crimes. Protests are messy, but they are also cathartic, and the police, CPS and the courts would do well to recognise that. The alternative is unthinkable.

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