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Laurie Penny on how protest is being outlawed

The message from the Alfie Meadows case is clear: if you protest, the police can do what they like to you.

New York

Alfie Meadows still hasn't grown his hair back. When they rushed him into theatre for emergency brain surgery after his injury in a demonstration against the tripling of university fees, doctors shaved the 20-year-old's shoulder-length locks, the style that announces to the world "I am a philosophy student". Now the thatch is gone, exposing a hand-length scar across his skull, he looks much younger. Thin and shy with eyes that dart downwards, Meadows speaks rarely, and never about his legal case against the Metropolitan police officers who his lawyers claim nearly killed him. This week he goes on trial for violent disorder for his actions that day, a charge that could land him in jail.

The message being sent may as well have been printed on official police stationary and distributed outside the court: in protest situations, police are never in the wrong. Meadows is among the most high profile of dozens of protesters who have been tried for serious public order offences over the past eighteen months. As emergency measures against public assembly and popular protest are passed in time for the Olympics, any political direct action more energetic than standing silently with a few signs in designated areas is becoming functionally illegal in Britain.

The narrative of public dissent is being rewritten with astonishing speed. As police continue to crack heads with impunity, peaceful protesters are handed down harsh deterrent charges. Ten defendants in the Fortnum and Mason trial were recently given six-month suspended sentences for aggravated trespass, essentially for standing around in a grocery shop with some leaflets. I was there at the time, and the worst I saw was some slogans against corporate tax avoidance being carefully wrapped on printed ticker-tape around large stacks of Earl Grey tea. For those swept up in last year's riots, meanwhile, there hasn't been a crumb of mercy. As I write, teenagers are still in prison for creating Facebook events.

Whatever we think about how these young people behaved, we should have the decency to call them what they are: political prisoners. That this government has run out of ideas for enforcing austerity beyond frightening people into compliance may be of little comfort to those whose young lives and job prospects will be blighted by deterrent jail sentences.

As with music and angular haircuts, so with public order policing -- the Americans are at least a year behind us in keeping up with the latest trends. This week, during another brutal crackdown on Occupy Wall Street, skulls were stomped on, heads were cracked into windows and journalists were dragged or shoved away from the scene as anti-capitalist protesters attempted to peacefully reoccupy Zucotti Park, site of the original encampment that drew international attention last September.

From behind hastily-erected police barricades, I watched as a curly-haired girl in green appeared to begin having a seizure during her arrest, flopping about on the pavement with her hands cuffed and passing out more than once before police eventually allowed an ambulance behind the lines. As she was stretchered away, protesters standing near me speculated that the NYPD would have to put the girl -- later identified as 23-year-old Cecily McMillan -- on a felony charge to "get out of this one".

Sure enough, McMillan was released into custody the next day and charged with assaulting a police officer, a crime that could see her serving over a year in prison. I thought of Alfie Meadows, whose trial in London will send the same message to anyone thinking of joining the cultural backlash against austerity and kamikaze capitalism. If you protest, the police can do what they like to you. Any sort of public dissent can and will be met with force. You chose to protest, so you asked for it. Next time, make it easy on yourself -- sit down, shut up and stay at home.

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

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Mission impossible

Photo: Getty
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How a small tax rise exposed the SNP's anti-austerity talk for just that

The SNP refuse to use their extra powers to lessen austerity, says Kezia Dugdale.

"We will demand an alternative to slash and burn austerity."

With those few words, Nicola Sturgeon sought to reassure the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland last year that the SNP were a party opposed to public spending cuts. We all remember the general election TV debates, where the First Minister built her celebrity as the leader of the anti-austerity cause.

Last week, though, she was found out. When faced with the choice between using the powers of the Scottish Parliament to invest in the future or imposing cuts to our schools, Nicola Sturgeon chose cuts. Incredible as it sounds the SNP stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tories to vote for hundreds of millions of pounds worth of cuts to schools and other vital public services, rather than asking people to pay a little bit more to invest. That's not the choice of an anti-austerity pin-up. It's a sell-out.

People living outside of Scotland may not be fully aware of the significant shift that has taken place in politics north of the border in the last week. The days of grievance and blaming someone else for decisions made in Scotland appear to be coming to an end.

The SNP's budget is currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament. It will impose hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts to local public services - including our schools. We don't know what cuts the SNP are planning for future years because they are only presenting a one year budget to get them through the election, but we know from the experts that the biggest cuts are likely to come in 2017/18 and 2018/19. For unprotected budgets like education that could mean cuts of 16 per cent.

It doesn't have to be this way, though. The Scottish Parliament has the power to stop these cuts, if only we have the political will to act. Last week I did just that.

I set out a plan, using the new powers we have today, to set a Scottish rate of income tax 1p higher than that set by George Osborne. This would raise an extra half a billion pounds, giving us the chance to stop the cuts to education and other services. Labour would protect education funding in real terms over the next five years in Scotland. Faced with the choice of asking people to pay a little bit more to invest or carrying on with the SNP's cuts, the choice was pretty simple for me - I won't support cuts to our nation’s future prosperity.

Being told by commentators across the political spectrum that my plan is bold should normally set alarm bells ringing. Bold is usually code for saying something unpopular. In reality, it's pretty simple - how can I say I am against cuts but refuse to use the powers we have to stop them?

Experts - including Professors David Bell and David Eiser of the University of Stirling; the Resolution Foundation; and IPPR Scotland - have said our plan is fair because the wealthiest few would pay the most. Trade unions have backed our proposal, because they recognise the damage hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts will do to our schools and the jobs it will cost.

Council leaders have said our plan to pay £100 cashback to low income taxpayers - including pensioners - to ensure they benefit from this plan is workable.

The silliest of all the SNP's objections is that they won't back our plan because the poorest shouldn't have to pay the price of Tory austerity. The idea that imposing hundreds of millions of pounds of spending cuts on our schools and public services won't make the poorest pay is risible. It's not just the poorest who will lose out from cuts to education. Every single family and business in Scotland would benefit from having a world class education system that gives our young the skills they need to make their way in the world.

The next time we hear Nicola Sturgeon talk up her anti-austerity credentials, people should remember how she did nothing when she had the chance to end austerity. Until now it may have been acceptable to say you are opposed to spending cuts but doing nothing to stop them. Those days are rapidly coming to a close. It makes for the most important, and most interesting, election we’ve had in Scotland.

Kezia Dugdale is leader of Scottish Labour.