On Monday the trial of five anti-fascists facing charges relating to an anti-BNP demonstration on 1 June last year ended in farce as the Crown Prosecution Service turned up at court without its key witness, who was on leave. The judge refused the CPS an adjournment and in the absence of any evidence, the case was dismissed.
This outcome is an important vindication of the five protesters, but it will not undo the many stressful months spent on bail preparing for a trial, and a possible criminal record. Ironically it has also deprived the defendants of an opportunity to put the policing tactics on that day under scrutiny. The court would have heard that 59 people were arrested: many of them held for hours on pre-booked buses, transported to various police stations around London and finally dumped on the streets in the early hours of the morning, sometimes with no means to get home. Bail conditions also barred many from participating in protests against fascist organisations until a legal challenge saw this dropped.
All of this happened despite the prosecution admitting in court that no major public order incidences took place on the day. No reference was made to what happened to Amy Jowett, a UCU member who says she had her leg broken after being kicked by a police officer. Jowett was present in the public gallery for the trial, hoping the proceedings might shed light on a policing operation that has left her with a permanent disability requiring a lifetime of surgery. Ten months and six procedures under general anaesthetic later, Jowett is still waiting to hear the outcome of a police investigation into the events that led to her injury.
In the meantime we will never know why, of the 59 arrested, the police chose to charge those five particular individuals, two of them elected union representatives, and one who had previously bought a civil action against the police. Nor will there be a chance to question the imposition of restrictions under section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986 on protesters who had already achieved their aim of stopping the BNP from marching on the Cenotaph. There is no doubt Monday’s outcome is embarrassing for the Met and the CPS. However, there is perhaps a reason why the police might not be too worried. As human rights lawyer Louise Christian has said, the process of criminalisation can sometimes be more effective when “a final determination of guilt or innocence can be avoided”.
Instead it is the act of subjecting protesters to mass arrests and long periods of bail that legitimises police authority over protesters. The publicity that often surrounds such events also serves a wider narrative that the police need more powers. This may explain why the police are one step away from being granted the right to use water cannon despite a police chief admitting they are about as much use “as a chocolate tea pot”. However useless (and dangerous) water cannon might be, their introduction will reinforce a state of emergency and anxiety around “public” order.
This trial, then, is one facet of a wider set of police tactics that are being deployed to deter protest and manufacture threats to public order. It was only in 2006, for example, that police were given powers to impose pre-charge bail conditions. This has resulted in severe restrictions on the civil liberties of significant numbers of protesters as they are churned through a system that seems to have dispensed with the notion of innocent until proven guilty.
When questions were raised about the bail conditions placed on the 59, the police appeared to take some pride in the short amount of time taken to process the arrestees compared to the 182 arrested on a Critical Mass cycle ride during the Olympic Games in 2012. Just months after the anti-BNP demonstration, the English Defence League had provocatively announced its intention to march on Altab Ali Park in Tower Hamlets, named after a young Pakistani killed in a racist attack. When the day came, 286 anti-fascist protesters were arrested. Pre-booked buses and draconian bail conditions were again utilised. In the end only two of the 286 are known to have been charged.
The police are clearly refining their tactics. It is vital that those aware of the issues call for a proper accounting of these tactics.