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
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.