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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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood