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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