Michael Mansfield Defends Students’ Right to Protest, Criticizes Heavy Policing and Draconian Sentencing

7.8.11

In the Observer today, the celebrated QC Michael Mansfield, who has been involved in numerous high-profile legal cases including the Guildford Four and the Stephen Lawrence murder trial, announced that he was bringing his partial retirement to an end to act on behalf of Alfie Meadows, a 20-year-old student who suffered head injuries during a tuition fees protest last December, as I explained here. Despite being left with brain damage, Meadows is “awaiting trial on charges of violent disorder,” as the Guardian explained.

As a result, Mansfield was undoubtedly correct to state, “We praise those in the Arab Spring and condemn the force used against them by their governments, yet allow our own rights to be eroded,” and to ask, “What is happening here? A direct attack is being made on the right of people to go out on the streets and show their solidarity and unity with others of the same opinion and hold peaceful protest.”

As the Observer also explained, Mansfield’s warning came amid “controversy at unusually harsh prison sentences” handed down to two students, Francis Fernie, 20, and Charlie Gilmour, 21, who were both sentenced last month for their part in protests. Fernie received a one-year sentence for throwing two sticks from placards at police lines at the giant TUC-led anti-cuts protests in central London on March 26 this year, and Gilmour, the son of Pink Floyd guitarist Dave Gilmour, received a 16-month sentence for “outrageous and deeply offensive behaviour” at a student protest last year. An undergraduate at Cambridge University, Gilmour had “thrown a bin at a Rolls-Royce carrying Prince Charles, kicked at shop windows and swung off a war memorial,” as the Observer put it. Both he and Fernie said that they had “got carried away in the heat of the moment” and, as the Observer described it, “offered profuse apologies.”

Capturing the excessive nature of the prison sentences, Charlie Gilmour’s mother, Polly Samson, called her son’s sentence “a waste of taxpayers’ money,” adding that she believed students were “paying a ‘very heavy’ price under a ‘catch-all’ charge of violent disorder.” Her son is appealing his sentence, but at the time of writing, Cambridge University had not confirmed whether he would be “allowed to continue his studies after serving his sentence.”

This is a depressingly “zero-tolerance” approach to dissent compared to that which prevailed when Gilmour’s parents were young, and, although it is not unique to the Tory-led government, as Ian Tomlinson was murdered by police during Labour’s heavy-handed approach to political dissent, which was one of its least appealing legacies, and Muslim protestors received punitive sentences in 2010, after a protest against Israel’s attack on Gaza in January 2009, it is understandable why, as the Observer described it, “Mansfield and other leading legal figures believe Gilmour and Fernie were made scapegoats to show disapproval of public objections to government policy at a time when the process of democracy was weakened by the disempowering of politicians by the expenses scandal.”

Mansfield said:

There is a direct comparison to what was going on during the miners’ strike, a shameful tradition … of riot squads or tactical support groups or response units, whatever you want to call them. They go in hard and heavy, and the whole idea is to intimidate, not those who are not intending to commit crime, but those who are presenting opposition to the government.

He also criticised “the brutality that can come from a ‘unit mentality'”:

When there is a culture of a unit, they share a uniform, they share an ethos, things can get out of control and that is something that has run from Blair Peach through to Ian Tomlinson and I fear the police still haven’t got their heads round this at all. They have to be reminded that there is a right to peaceful protest in Britain and it worries me how many cases that shouldn’t ever have left the ground are ending up in the courts when there may have been an inconvenience to the public, a trespass, but nothing criminal.

Furthermore, he described this as “a low-level politicisation,” although — generously, I fear — he refused to implicate the most senior politicians, including David Cameron, for pushing it. “I don’t think it’s done at cabinet level, but there is a very strong consciousness in the echelons of power of making examples of people,” he said, whereas I think David Cameron took from Tony Blair the hideously annoying trait of talking down to the people of Britain, and suggesting that they should work hard and go to bed early unless they are rich, in which case they can do whatever they want, and that, as a result, it was perfectly comprehensible that he would thoroughly back attempts to stifle dissent in as heavy-handed a manner as possible.

Significantly, however, Michael Mansfield also demonstrated that the tuition fee protesters had the law on their side by drawing on a 1966 UN agreement, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which entered into force on January 3, 1976, and was signed by the UK on September 16, 1968 and ratified on May 20, 1976, which states, at Article 13.2(c):

Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education (emphasis added).

Michael Mansfield is not the only lawyer concerned that, as the Observer put it, young people are “facing court for little more than getting over-excited or scared by police kettling techniques and horse charges.” It was noted that “200 officers have been assigned to finding those who took part in the UK Uncut sit-ins and the tuition fees protests,” and the attack on UK Uncut seems particularly cynical, as the organization has no interest in violence, and, instead, stages theatrical occupations   of corporate buildings, designed specifically to raise awareness of how a clampdown on corporate tax evasion and a refusal to subsidize the banking sector would eradicate the UK’s deficit, which is being used to justify the Tory-led government’s savage cuts to the state, including the recklessly experimental assault on Britain’s universities that led to the protests last year.

The Observer also spoke to Raj Chada, a lawyer who represented Jonathan May-Bowles, jailed for throwing shaving foam at Rupert Murdoch during his recent appearance before a House of Commons Committee, who said “he had real concerns that a person now arrested during a political protest could expect harsher treatment than someone who committed a similar offence when not at a protest,” as the Observer put it. In Chada’s words, and this too is crucial, “The fact they are at a political protest is now being treated as an aggravating factor, rather than a mitigating factor.”

He added that people were being put off protesting by the brutality of the police and the harshness of judges. “When I have spoken to protesters,” he said, “some on the fringes say they do not want to go on protests any more. There are real concerns that the judiciary is being unduly harsh on political protesters.” As evidence, it is worth considering that appeals for community service orders rather than prison sentences were turned down by the judge who presided over the cases of Charlie Gilmour and Francis Fernie, even though that would have been more appropriate than a prison sentence.

Ultlimately, though, it must be hoped that Gilmour’s appeal is successful, as it remains deeply troubling that the scapegoating of political protestors is passing unchallenged, when, to be frank, dissent is the only viable response to the slash and burn experiments of this arrogant and inept government.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

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Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
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