Jamie Insole says that in pursuing a couple of young demonstrators the Crown prosecution Service is endangering democracy
On Friday 11 November, ‘Occupy Cardiff’ held a demonstration with a view to setting up camp on the grass verge outside Cardiff Castle – land, gifted to the people of Cardiff in 1947. Like other camps around the world, its aim was to publicly challenge both the growing inequality and democratic deficit caused by ‘our’ failed financial system.
I was surprised by the diversity of the large numbers present. Amongst its hundred and twenty or so supporters, I spoke to students, bus drivers, office workers, trade unionists and university lecturers. The atmosphere was both peaceful and vibrant. Consequently, I was not particularly concerned when a large police contingent arrived. After all, (and in contrast to the London and Birmingham Met), I have successfully worked with both South and West Wales constabulary in arranging protests and tackling fascist violence. However, as the evening drew closer, it became increasingly clear that my initial confidence had been very much misplaced.
Departing from my previous, admittedly idealised experience of Welsh policing, the officers first formed rank and wedge. Then, in citing an arcane public-health bylaw (1875), they proceeded to confiscate tents and ‘kettle’ protesters before forcing them off the castle grounds into a nearby subway. During the ‘operation’, a legal observer was injured by a mounted officer, whilst six people were arrested under section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act.
Now that I reflect upon the behaviour of the police that day, I note one thing. The shouting and pushing were in no way unfamiliar. As a ‘usual suspect’, I have personally witnessed the direct impact of ‘total policing’ during two of the 2010 London student demonstrations and am no stranger to the semiotics of ‘public order’. However, what impressed me as particularly foreign was the fact that it should be happening in Wales.
Here it all was: the same riot vans, the same police cavalry, the jostling scrum, the same transition from farce to travesty. Like a television depiction of a Napoleonic Battle, although pared down in scale, the drama lost none of its meaning. Essentially, we were being forcibly reminded that free-expression was not the order of the day.
Both Jason Simons (36-year-old Porth-based therapist) and Eric Jinks (a 17-year-old FE Student) were arrested and detained for over six hours. They were charged under Section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act with “failing to leave the land, namely Cardiff Castle, as soon as reasonably practical”. They are due to appear at Cardiff Magistrates Court on Wednesday 8 February. If convicted they face a maximum sentence of three months imprisonment. In response to this a powerful coalition of supporters, including Tony Benn, Paul Flynn MP, Leanne Wood AM, Mick Antoniw AM, Bethan Jenkins AM, Bob Crow, Andy Richards (Unite), Peter Harris (Public and Commercial Services Union), John McDonnell MP and Dave Renton (a barrister) have supported the following statement (published in the Western Mail and Guardian):
“As trade unionists, elected representatives, lawyers and campaigners, we feel that the November 11th police action constitutes an attack upon the right to peacefully protest. Furthermore, the subsequent CPS decision to prosecute, far from serving any public interest, endangers free-expression and risks chilling democracy. We call for the charges against Eric and Jason to be dropped. We also call upon South Wales Constabulary to act responsibly when called upon to ‘police’ protest.”
So what conclusions might we draw? Firstly, since the initial challenge posed by the student uprising and ‘English riots’ in 2010, our dis-united kingdom has witnessed a new hardening in policing styles. Putting aside Theresa May’s recourse to the idea of to water-cannon and some of her more right-wing colleagues’ suggestions that plastic bullets might be in order, the appointment of Bernard Hogan-Howe as Chief Commissioner of the London Met, reveals several significant contradictions.
On the one hand, there is talk of elected commissioners and a new culture of accountability. On the other, operational emphasis will now be placed on ‘swift-envelopment’, a sort of zero-tolerance for dissent. Contrary to my expectations, the Westminster Coalition did not reverse its decision to cut police-budgets following last summer’s unrest. Rather, the plan is to construct a veneer of consent whilst optimising the shock-impact of limited resources. As any law undergraduate will attest, there is a direct correlation between the state’s ability to enforce ‘its’ will and the degree of resistance ‘it’ will tolerate. In Marxist parlance, escalating exploitation entails increased oppression. To that end, we might justifiably envy the freedom enjoyed by our more devolved Scottish cousins to adopt an organic, dare I say, democratic approach.
Secondly, there is the question of democratic-mandate and what makes a democracy. During a moment when the Westminster consensus seems to disbar any alternative to austerity, it can be all to easy for elected representatives to consider their role as managers forced to make difficult decisions when confronted with finite resources. In the context of rhetoric such as ‘national’ emergency’ and ‘clearing up the mess’, opposition is made to appear reckless or even unpatriotic.
Against this background, the ‘right to protest’ not only provides a platform for fresh articulation but also ensures that an active connection is preserved between the electorate and the elected. In seeking to suppress it, South Wales Police and the Crown Prosecution Service risk severing the threads of legitimacy. This is a hazardous affair as observed (and welcomed!) in capitals as diverse as Tunis, Cairo, Athens and Santiago.
Consequently, I find it heartening that so many AMs, MPs and trade unionists have chosen to back Jason and Eric. As the Westminster class attempt to restore lost profits by nationalising the financial crisis (that is, making us pay), I sincerely hope that our Welsh representatives will stand shoulder to shoulder with all who suffer and are prepared to make a stand. I also hope that South Wales Police will resist any external compulsion to quash peaceful protest and thereby do vandalism to our young democracy.