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Does Charlie Gilmour really deserve a 16-month jail sentence?

Yes, he acted like an idiot, but he's also an ideal tabloid scapegoat.

If the British justice system is truly designed to punish people for being utter prats, we all know one or two people who belong in Belmarsh. Well, now that Charlie Gilmour, the Cambridge student who swung from the Cenotaph during the 9 December riots, has gone down for 16 months, I'm sure we will all sleep safer in our beds.

Charlie Gilmour is a PR disaster for the student movement. I met him on the night before his monumental bender, as someone's reprobate brother who had turned up at the UCL occupation to party.

We had an altercation on the smoking steps whose content is now lost to memory but which ended in me storming off, and Charlie staggering after me, grabbing me in a half-headlock and demanding that I sign a piece of paper on which he had hastily scrawled 'Charlie Gilmour is not a misoginist [sic]'.

By the time I had patiently explained that this might not fix whatever it was he had just done, he was already tearing off to disrupt a planning meeting. I remember remarking to a friend: 'That guy is a liability. He's going to give us all a bad name.".

I have every reason to consider Charlie Gilmour a prize dickhead. But 16 months? Really? Sixteen months for going on a bender and attempting to damage some property? Sixteen months for setting fire to some newspaper and jumping on the bonnet of a car?

Charlie Gilmour is many things, but he's not dangerous, unless you happen to be a bottle of Gordon's Gin. Meanwhile, it seems unlikely that whoever, at the same protest, beat 20-year-old Alfie Meadows until he bled into his brain, will be facing charges; in fact, Alfie himself is now amongst the many young protesters up on charges of violent disorder this summer, presumably for headbutting a police baton.

Gilmour is, of course, the ideal tabloid scapegoat for those who would prefer to believe that all young people involved in political struggle are spoilt, drug-addled and reckless. It's a perfect way of whipping up outrage against activists who have a sustained critque of government-imposed austerity, and of dissuading others from joining them.

While Gilmour was not sentenced for his actions at the Cenotaph, he was told that his actions were 'reprehensible', and that the eminence of the occupants of the car had been taken into account. So it's not about throwing a rubbish bin at a Roller - it's about throwing a rubbish bin at a convoy containing the heir to the throne. In swinging off the Cenotaph, he broke the unspoken rules of the King-and-Country brigade. 'You showed disrespect to those who made the ultimate sacrifice defending this country," said Judge Price, who last week sent 20-year-old Frank Fernie to jail for a year for throwing sticks at the TUC demonstration in March.

This is British justice. Over the past six months, 200 police officers have been dedicated to hunting down and punishing students and school-age protesters as part of Operation Malone and Operation Brontide. Meanwhile, a senior Metropolitan police officer devoted less than eight hours to reviewing the original News of the World phone-hacking investigation.

When the photos of Gilmour's rampage dominated the front pages after 9 December, leaving no space for any discussion of police violence or the confiscation of public university provision, many activists were furious with Charlie Gilmour for giving us all a bad name. Now he's been sent to prison on their behalf, along with many genuine protesters, it's the justice system that people are angry with.

Charlie Gilmour behaved like a massive prat, but being a massive prat is not a crime, and nor is being young and foolish. He has been sent to jail purely because he makes a good scapegoat, and to indulge tabloid hand-wringing about disrespect for those who lost their lives in war.

Well, there's disrespect and disrespect. Right now, a cross-party consensus is tearing up the 1945 Attlee settlement -- a far more important monument to those sacrificed in war than any lump of rock in Whitehall. And the newspapers crowing over Charlie Gilmour's jail term are cheering them on all the way.

Editor's note: This post was updated by Laurie Penny at 5.05pm on Sunday, 17 July

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.