In November and December 2010, a series of protests took place in London against proposals to introduce student tuition fees. The protests, attended by between 30,000 and 50,000 students, were mostly peaceful, yet the popular press portrayed them as lawless, focusing on alleged vandalism and violence. One resonant image that emerged during the final demonstration, on 9 December, showed a police officer apparently being dragged from his horse by demonstrators.
For some, including the Prime Minister, this demonstrated the depths to which students would sink. On 10 December David Cameron declared: “When people see . . . police officers being dragged off police horses and beaten . . . I want to make sure that they feel the full force of the law.” Two brothers, Chris and Andrew Hilliard, were arrested and charged with violent disorder. They faced up to five years in prison and an unlimited fine.
Eighteen months later at Kingston Crown Court, however, they were found not guilty. Under examination, their “victim”, PC Cowling, agreed that he had failed to tighten the strap that held the saddle on to his horse and that he had later pulled off the young men’s masks and pulled Christopher’s hair. The defence argued that the brothers were the ones subject to assault.
The judgment follows a string of acquittals for protesters facing similar charges. Figures from the Legal Defence and Monitoring Group show that 11 of the 12 students who pleaded not guilty to charges arising from the protest on 9 December have since been acquitted. This suggests that charges of violent disorder have been brought primarily to intimidate people or deter them from taking part in future protests.
Complaints have also been made about the police tactics on 9 December. It was widely felt that “kettling”, which prevented protesters from leaving the area, was being used punitively. Alfie Meadows, a 20-year-old student, suffered a life-threatening brain injury after allegedly being hit by a police baton. Yet from the outset the police positioned themselves as the victims, claiming it was the most violent protest they had ever seen.
This interpretation is now being challenged. Initially the police and the Crown Prosecution Service resisted disclosure of communications and video evidence that the defence counsel believes vital in disproving some of the allegations against the brothers. The defendants had
to identify this evidence unaided, and then go to court to force disclosure. They are now taking legal advice on seeking redress for what they claim was serious violence inflicted on them.
Yet even if the Hilliards have been spared, other prosecutions are being pursued assiduously and at great expense. John McDonnell, about the only MP to put his head above the parapet on this matter, believes that the demonisation of protest is corrupting the very law and
order that politicians are sworn to uphold. “Many have been appalled,” he told me, “at the way young people like the Hilliard brothers have been dragged through the courts and had their futures put at risk simply to make an example of them to deter others from protest.” McDonnell is now calling for an independent inquiry into “what is being exposed as a clear abuse of our policing and judicial system”.
Jane Fae is a writer on civil liberties