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
Photo: Getty
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Novelty isn't enough for Emmanuel Macron and Martin Schulz

The two politicians have caused excitement - but so far, neither has had to articulate a programme. 

Emmanuel Macron’s rally in London last night was overshadowed by polling that showed him slipping back slightly as he reaped the consequences of his excessive candour on the matter of France’s rule in Algeria.  Third with Elabe, and joint-second with centre-right candidate François Fillon with Opinionway and Ifop.

As far as the polling and French history show, what matters in this contest is the race to second-place and a ticket to the second round run-off against the hard-right Marine Le Pen.

Macron’s difficulties have intensified as this is the first Wednesday in months in which Le Canard Enchaîné has not brought fresh scandal involving Fillon and his finances. The question of why Penelope Fillon and the Fillon children were paid to act as parliamentary assistants while doing no work will run and run, however, so there may be a way back for him.

Macron’s problems have an echo in Germany, where for the first time since his return to German politics, Martin Schulz is facing serious criticism over his proposed changes to the Agenda 2010 reforms of the last SPD-led government. We wait to see what if any impact that row has on his standing in the polls.

But the difficulties of Macron and Schulz speak to a wider reason why their improved standing in the polls means that the talk of the end of the European centre-left’s crisis was just that, talk.

So far, neither of them has had to articulate a programme beyond “I’m new!” in the case of Schulz and “I’m new and attractive!” in the case of Macron.

We’ve seen that Macron, a neophyte politician, has put his foot in it when asked to add substance to his considerable style. He might improve and Fillon’s ongoing problems might give him a get out of jail free card. Schulz has been around for a bit longer but he has to keep this up until October. It’s a reminder that while being new and shiny is a useful asset for a leader – it isn’t enough on its own. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.