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
ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war