Student protesters found not guilty of violent disorder

Acquittal comes after a two-year process.

A jury at Woolwich Crown Court has returned a unanimous verdict of not guilty in the trial of Alfie Meadows and Zak King, two students who protested against the introduction of higher tuition fees on 9 December 2010.

Meadows and King were both facing charges of violent disorder, for which the maximum penalty is a lengthy prison sentence. This was the third time they have faced these charges, as the first trial resulted in a hung jury and the second had to be abandoned

Meadows made headline news in the days after the protest, because he received a serious brain injury after allegedly being struck with a baton.

More details to follow.

UPDATE: Alfie Meadows's mother, Susan Matthews, says:

The struggle for justice for my son has finally begun. The whole family has been through two years of total agony. We have been silenced on what happened to our son. We can now move on to the really important thing, which is to get justice for Alfie.

A press release from Defend the Right to Protest, the campaign group that has supported King and Meadows throughout their trial, states:

Zak and Alfie have had to wait more than two years and go through the ordeal of three trials to clear their names. Meanwhile the trial has taken a heavy toll on both Alfie and Zak's families, with Zak having had to watch his younger brother being dragged through the courts on the same false charge.

The trial has also exposed the same pattern of criminalisation and victimisation by the police and CPS, which we also saw played out in the cases of the Hillsborough tragedy and the miners' strike at Orgreave.

Alfie suffered a baton blow to the head at the same protest, which required life-saving brain surgery. While the police have so far escaped any form of accountbility for their actions, Alfie was charged with violent disorder and has had to fight to clear his name before finally beginning the road to justice.

Of the 15 protesters who pleaded not guilty to charges of violent disorder relating to the 9 December 2010 demo, so far 14 have been found not guilty. In a time of unprecedented cuts to public funding, it is atrocious that the police and the CPS have wasted resources in the pursuit of criminalising protesters.

The trial has allowed us to scrutinise what happened on the day of the protest. The peaceful and kettled protesters were charged at with horses and subjected to indiscriminate baton use. When Alfie's barrister Carol Hawley challenged officer Wood, a senior officer in charge of the ground operation on the day, on whether their batons had been used as a last resort, his reply was that the use of a machine gun against protesters would have been the last resort. It transpired that police also considered the use of rubber bullets against the student protesters.

Police in riot gear during the protests of 9 December 2010. (Photo: Getty.)
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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”