The trial of Alfie Meadows and Zak King

Defending the right to protest.

It was an unlikely security crackdown. Following a show of support by Defend The Right To Protest outside Woolwich Crown Court, the families and friends of student protest defendants Alfie Meadows and Zak King were denied access to the building, along with members of the press. Waiting outside in the snow, we were told, variously, that the public gallery was full, that it was empty but only a few seats were allocated to us, that only the defendants' family would be permitted to enter, or that security had been ordered to keep all “protesters” outside, a decision of the court manager until the judge in the case let the freezing group in. The principle of open justice, which deems that courts must be available to public scrutiny as far as reasonably possible, seemed in conflict with the high security of the facility itself, an airport-style array of scanners, barriers, sealed doors and uniformed guards.

That wintry morning's wait marked the recommencement of the second trial of Alfie Meadows and Zak King, each facing a single charge of violent disorder dating from the tuition fees protests of December 2010. This second trial began last year, but was abandoned in November, after delays and illness left the court unable to conclude. The first trial, in 2012, resulted in a hung jury, and despite representations from both Meadows and King, the Crown Prosecution Service declined to drop charges after being unable to secure a guilty verdict in that instance.

The support campaign for Meadows and King, led by Defend The Right To Protest, has mobilised students, trades unions, academics, lecturers and teachers, and linked the student protest movement to the family campaigns against death in police custody. The awful post-surgical image of the near-fatal head injury Meadows sustained during the protest is by now familiar. What is less well understood is the impact of this lengthy judicial process on the defendants and their families: almost two years, by now, of court appearances, legal wrangling and waiting, of viewing and reviewing the same distressing evidence; almost two years of life on bail - a life of curtailed freedoms, of work unfinished or unbegun, a long lacuna in meaningful living.

This time around, the trial is taking place at Woolwich Crown Court, a privately-run, high-security court adjacent to Belmarsh Prison. The nearest overground stop is a 15-minute walk away between a busy dual carriageway and a razor fence. Inside the facility, panoptical security arrangements prevail, with public areas under surveillance and private areas demarcated. With a sizeable log of video and audio evidence to get through, as well as witness appearances, this third iteration of the trial of Meadows and King is set to run for up to six weeks.

James Lofthouse opened for the Crown with a slew of video evidence of the containment in Parliament Square. This footage was largely drawn from helicopter surveillance, CCTV and hand-held video from Forward Intelligence officers, the Public Order Intelligence street teams whose presence at protests has become emblematic of the diminishing right of free assembly. Witnesses for the prosecution included two officers, PC Marcham and PC Bartlett, from the Parliament Square cordon - the police term for the lines of uniformed and Territorial Support Unit officers which prevent free passage during a “full containment”, or kettle. The court also heard from Superintendent Woods, from the third tier of command at the protest, a Bronze Commander on the day (police use a structure of Gold (strategic), Silver (tactical) and Bronze (operational) command for public order events). Given that their original statements had been written in 2010, the officers were permitted to use them for reference where memory failed, though under cross-examination from Tom Wainwright, counsel for Zak King, PC Bartlett admitted that his statement, which he had said was contemporaneous, included evidence he had not been aware of until he had discussed the day's events with his colleagues.

Questioning largely focused on the use of batons, and the jury was shown footage of officers striking out at protesters at several points in the evening. Though the cordon officers had agreed that baton use was a last resort, and that they were more than aware from their training how much injury a head strike could cause, Supt. Woods defended the use of batons and head strikes in some other circumstances. The jury was shown footage of officers striking protesters, some masked, who were walking past the police line; Supt. Woods responded that the officers were showing "superb restraint." When pressed by the defence on the necessity of baton use against masked protesters who were simply walking past, Supt. Woods replied that officers might be at risk of being "dragged into the crowd" by the protesters. Further videos of head strikes, collarbone strikes and confrontation followed, with Supt. Woods defending baton use and speculating that officers may be being spat at as justification. On being asked once more whether baton use was an absolute last resort, Supt. Woods responded, "the absolute last resort is getting a machine gun out, but in this instance, yes, a baton strike or horses."

Meadows and King deny the charge of violent disorder.

The trial continues this week.

Alfie Meadows and Zak King deny the charge of violent disorder. Photograph: Getty Images
A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.