Alfie Meadows and Zak King are not guilty: now it's time for police behaviour to be scrutinised

Lawyers warn that violent disorder charges are being used to attack the right to protest.

A jury in Woolwich Crown Court yesterday unanimously found both Alfie Meadows and Zak King, the last two student protesters to face court action related to the student protests of winter 2010, not guilty of violent disorder

The jury returned its verdict to a packed courtroom after four hours' consideration, following a four-week trial (each day of which at Woolwich, we were informed in opening remarks, costs around £14,000). 

Both Meadows and King had been on bail for more than two years while awaiting a verdict. Their first trial, in March last year, saw a hung jury; the second was aborted in November, and resumed in February this year.

The jury had heard from both Meadows and King how they felt they needed to defend themselves and other protesters from police violence. Meadows had helped a crowd use Heras fencing as a barrier against a police line; King had strapped shin-guards to his arms and used them to block police baton strikes against himself and other demonstrators. Both described the mood of the crowds changing after containment. Both recounted seeing police officers use batons and shields to strike people who were simply standing in the crowd, and against those who had fallen, as well as against those immediately facing police lines.

The verdict was welcomed by the defendants and their families. 

Alfie Meadows said:  

"Today's result is a vindication of the right to protest and all those who have been subjected to police brutality. Those who are struggling against cuts and austerity should not live in fear of criminalisation. It's unforgiveable that we and our families have had to wait two years and endure two trials to clear our names. I'm very grateful for the solidarity I've received from so many: the family of Sean Rigg, Defend The Right To Protest, and so many others. I want to send my solidarity to the Critical Mass defendants."

The acquittals of Meadows and King bring the tally of unsuccessful prosecutions from winter 2010's fees protests to 19. Of the 58 young people charged with violent disorder from the student demonstrations, 12 have received custodial sentences. Comparative tranches of violent disorder charges from demonstrations have, in the past, resulted in far greater numbers of people facing prison terms; of the 72, mostly young Muslim, people charged with violent disorder following the Gaza protests in 2009, 62 were given custodial sentences. Only seven faced trial by jury; of these, six were acquitted.

Matt Foot, of the firm Birnberg Peirce, who has defended six of the student demonstrators in this group of prosecutions, believes the charge of violent disorder - the second most serious public order offence, which carries a prison term of up to five years is being used punitively and too readily.

"It started with a protest against George Bush, the last time he came to this country, and a whole number of people some months afterwards were suddenly charged with violent disorder," he said. "They suddenly started using Section 2 of the Public Order Act, violent disorder, in an aggressive way since then... People used to be offered cautions, or tickets, fixed penalty notices, and then suddenly the penalties have gone up and up and up, for very similar facts. I think the fact that we're using violent disorder on that large scale, against large numbers of students, almost all of good character, is an attack on protest."

These verdicts come at a time of increasing scrutiny for public order policing. The opening statement of the United Nations Special Rapporteur's report on freedom of assembly and association expressed strong concern about kettling, intelligence-gathering and undercover policing, and criticised the Public Order Act as encroaching on the right to protest, asking for a greater focus on human rights in policing demonstrations; his full report is due in June. 

The Independent Police Complaints Commission's report in December on complaints against the Territorial Support Group found significant areas of concern with protest policing and stop and search. And in her report 'The Kids Are All Right: How the Metropolitan Police Service can gain the trust of young Londoners', Jenny Jones, the Deputy Chair of the London Assembly's Police and Crime Committee, recommended the abolition of the TSG.

Hannah Dee, of Defend The Right To Protest, which has supported Meadows and King throughout the two-year judicial process, sees the case as part of a historical struggle between the notion of public order and the right to protest.

"It's important to bear in mind that there is a long history of criminalising and police violence against protest. It's very interesting to look at the history of some of the officers on the stand, people like Mick Johnson who was the Silver Commander on the 9th of December [2010], who has been at the centre of policing many protests for the last couple of decades: the G20 protests, the poll tax demonstrations, the miners' strikes, the urban riots in the 1980s. The primary aim of the campaign is to build a collective response to what we see as a serious undermining of people's right to protest."

Police at the student demonstrations in 2010. Photo: Getty
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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times