Voices from the Occupation
Forgive us our Aggravated Trespasses
10 people were arrested under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act Illegal Protest, while on an authorised march 5th November 2011. I was one of them. We had our first appearance in court on Friday 18th November and this is an account of the experience, as the government proceeds with its efforts to criminalise peaceful protest.
Bureaucracy and the Unknown
The first thing to say about the experience between arrest and court appearance, is the lack of information. We were simply told to show up at 10am on the 18th at Westminster Magistrates Court. Thankfully I had been provided with a bust card (a card with contact information for solicitors and some information on rights when arrested) prior to my arrest. Even as a fairly smart, educated person with a good reading level, I found the legal aid forms paperwork mind numbing. It took hours and I needed to provide a lot of information. This in itself was a barrier to some of my co defendants pursuing a ‘not guilty’ plea. What if you had no proof of earnings? What if you have no fixed abode? This system is not built for those leading unconventional lives.
In essence, it made more sense for some to plead guilty and take the consequences, despite being innocent.
To Plea, or Not to Plea
Since Thoreau’s classic Essay ‘Civil Disobedience’ – there has been some debate on how the civil disobedient person should plea in court. Gandhi felt they should plead guilty and be imprisoned if they have broken the law; but go happily, pleased that they broke an unjust law. Others argue that the Not Guilty plea is a statement that you don’t think you have done anything wrong. Some plead no contest or put in a creative plea such as ‘I plea for the sanity of this country right now’.
There was a great guy called Simon who had been arrested for Aggravated Trespass for standing on parliament square carrying a peace flag.
Simon pleads guilty. Standing in the dock, he put forward a stirring speech invoking the words of Mahatma Gandhi. He told the Magistrate that he might be guilty of a crime, but that he did not feel he was wrong. He then quoted the following:
"I am here to . . . submit cheerfully to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what in law is a deliberate crime and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen."
He requested that if the magistrate felt he had broken the law, then to bring down the fullest force of the law upon him, and if she didn’t then to resign in protest at the state of UK law.
Others plead guilty not knowing the extent of the charge as they were not using legal support.
I and several others under the same solicitor, Sashy Nathan of Bindmans did not put forward a plea. We argued for and won an adjournment in the case to give us time to speak with the Prosecutor and consider discontinuing the prosecution on the basis that it is made in error.
I think the SOCPA laws are intended to criminalise peaceful protest. They are bad enough on their own. But what has happened in this case, is the already egregious SOCPA laws have been stretched out of all kilter.
In essence, they arrested a handful of peaceful people, who did not resist arrest, saying we were carrying out an authorised protest. Once it became clear that when the demonstration started it was an authorised protest, they said we were carrying on our own separate unauthorised protest which was nothing to do with the authorised one. Finally, on reading my charge sheet for the first time in full….the police statement now says that I am infact a member of Anonymous and was part of that protest happening the same day.
Now, there are several flaws with this story of theirs. One, there is copious footage of me in St Pauls and all the way to Westminster in the authorised protest. Two, nowhere in those pictures am I wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. And three, 5 minutes prior to my arrest I took to the megaphone, declared my name and that I was happy to go on the record publicly with my support for the Occupy Movement and that I would not be moving.
I don’t know how much the police know about Anonymous, but the clue is in the title.
Like a Caged Animal
I’ve never been a fan of having my physical freedom limited. Once, as a young teenager, my parents dropped me and my brother at what – to all the other kids – was Nirvana. A giant wonderland of go karts, slides, bumper cars, quad bikes and such stretched out like a carnival over the Downs in Bristol. However, I looked around and all I saw were the 13 foot high fences surrounding the place. I was going to Kiddie Prison and I was not amused. So, rather than play, I spent the day figuring out how to escape, and did.
On arrival into the courtroom, I looked to my left where a defendant was being lead into what looked like The Cube. He was walked through a plexi-glass door into a small room adjoining the court. Three white walls, with a plexi-glass wall on the courtroom side which he was locked in during testimony. He looked like a caged animal. He went to leave at the end of answering his charge and found the door locked. The List Caller in court has the key to the dock, and you are locked in and out of it.
After several hours of briefing and waiting, it was my turn in the dock. On stepping into the cube, I felt my heart beating faster and could actually hear it in my ears. The dock is several degrees colder than the court and I was shivering slightly. It was also hard to hear what was happening in the court. I felt like an exhibit. Unsafe and on show. Dehumanised. I held my chin up and reminded myself that I am a human being and I had nothing in the world to be ashamed of.
I was asked to confirm my name, address and date of birth, which I did. I was asked to make a plea and went straight to ‘Not Guilty’. Then, in a sort of ‘Law and Order’ moment, my solicitor stood and requested we have an adjournment rather than make a plea. The magistrate moved to block this three times, insisting that a plea on first appearance is expected. My solicitor stayed calm and restated his case and after consideration, and frankly, a widening of the eyes when it was stated that we hadn’t been interviewed after we were arrested, but sent straight to court – she agreed with our solicitor that we should have an adjournment.
This was carried across the other defendants who were not pleading Guilty.
Democracy in the Dock
Despite asking for three weeks to prepare the case, we will now reappear in court tomorrow November 22nd 2011. There is an additional significance to this date. Those arrested at the Battle of Trafalgar on the 9th November, have their first appearances in Westminster Magistrates Court that day.
So, it is hard not to consider these charges as a legal attack on the Occupy Movement. A means of criminalising peaceful protest. Part of a sustained rollback of hard won freedoms over recent year; tolerated and ignored by a population fooled into thinking they don’t require them. What’s it to me if it’s illegal to stand outside parliament? So what if it’s illegal to peacefully assemble? What does it really matter anyway? These freedoms and rights were fought for to protect those without wealth or structural power, from those with it. So, in a time when we have the greatest levels of wealth and power inequality in history – one might consider this the time when those rights and freedoms are most necessary. They are needed for people to be able to express, without resorting to violence, their objections to policies which impact their daily lives. They are needed for people to group together and utilise their collective bargaining rights as labour, civil rights, economic justice or Occupy Movements. They are needed so that we have a say in decisions made in our name, using our money, and impacting our present and future.
Over 3,500 people have been arrested for protesting against corporate greed and an unjust and undemocratic economic system in recent months. There has not been one member of the so called 1% arrested for their role in the 2008 financial crisis.
Some people will call the Occupy Movement naïve in its ambitions for a world that works for everyone. However, the ultimate naivety is the failure to understand the criticality of an educated, liberated, civil society. The current situation is eroding this society from the bottom up, while some of us sit in relative comfort believing that it won’t or doesn’t affect us.
It will. It matters.
If you want to see for yourself, then be at Westminster Magistrates Court on Tuesday 22nd November from 2pm.