The prosecution brief had an oily voice; it was expensive oil, mind – the kind of olive oil that comes in those over-engineered cans and which makes hard to prove the claims about its quality in the marketing bumph stamped on the metal.
It was the summing up in the trial of four Insulate Britain protesters. I had navigated the bureaucratic gauntlet of supercilious security officers (A reporter? From Norwich?!) and officious court officers to make my way to the public gallery (No electronic devices!) and was now listening to the prosecution case coming to its peroration (lawyerspeak for overly-argued set of conclusions where each word costs more than a good dinner or a lot of bad booze).
The barrister was picking over the specific meaning of “serious”; the question here was whether the disruption caused by the Insulate Britain Four – all of whom had “respectable non-activist lives”, the prosecuting counsel told us in the most patronising tone that public school can provide you with – was “serious”.
This game of semantics made my mind drift to a broader set of games being played by the government under Grand Disaster and Home Secretary Suella Braverman and her bumbling henchpeople in the Metropolitan Police. In the letter of the new draconian laws, protest is still legal. But in the practice dictated by it but done in similar fashion for decades, it really isn’t. If the police and Government decide you should not march or object, they have every tool available to them to stop you and, if it’s their whim, to reframe you from peaceful protester to potential violent agitator. What Philip K Dick called “precrime” in his novella The Minority Report is with us in our reality but without fiction’s clairvoyants to justify the decisions.
I have reported a lot on protest and its absence recently. On the day of the Coronation, I barrelled towards London as soon as I heard that Republic protesters – who had been speaking to the Met about their rally for four months before the event – had been arrested. Once I got there I found out that my friend Graham Smith, Republic’s CEO, and the other protesters had been taken to Walworth, an arsehole of a custody centre – like a police station but cheaper and staffed by more aggressively angry and average people – fifteen minutes away from Elephant and Castle station.
When I arrived, I discovered that protesters from a number of other groups, including Just Stop Oil (JSO) and Extinction Rebellion (XR) were being held there. All of those held have subsequently had their bail conditions removed and have faced no charges. They were all found to be in need of No Further Action (NFA). Essentially NFA is a way of the police saying they had NFE (no fucking evidence).
Coronation day represented a new high point for preventative arrests by the Met. It ran around town arresting people it thought might cause disruption, including fourteen members of Animal Rising – an animal rights group – who were meeting in Haggerston (five miles from the procession route) to do non-violent protest training, and three women’s safety volunteers from Night Stars (an initiative backed by the Met and Westminster Council).
I broke the Night Stars story because I was the only journalist who stood outside Walworth all day (reporters from PA and ITV News and a cameraman from Sky News did all pop in for a bit). I spoke to the two women who were arrested first before their male colleague, Riz Choudry, who also does police station support for XR, came out and was willing to give me his name, to appear on video to explain what happened to him, and to show his hi-vis jacket.
Unlike his white colleagues, Riz had been handcuffed and roughly treated. He had been held handcuffed and crying with pain outside the police station between 3am and 5.30am. He and his colleagues were held for 14 hours. At the time of writing, Riz is still waiting to have his phone returned and one of his colleagues has spoken about their experience to the Home Affairs Select Committee.
The Night Stars detainees were held because the Territorial Support Group had apparently been told to arrest anyone in possession of rape alarms. The volunteers had them to give to vulnerable people at night. The Met – the force that gave us the murderer of Sarah Everard – confiscated rape alarms and made London at night more unsafe. The week after the arrests, the Night Stars cancelled their shifts because there weren’t enough volunteers who felt safe enough to do their work; they were afraid of harassment by the Met.
The JSO protesters were arrested not for any action but because the police claimed they might be planning one. More JSO arrests recently have been for walking slowly after the Met has imposed a Section 12 order banning protesters from… walking slowly. Republic protesters were arrested for being in possession of luggage straps; they had been used for securing the placards intended for use at the protest but police pretended that they believed the protesters would use them for “locking on” — an offence after the passing of the most recent public order legislation. The real aim of the police’s actions was to get protesters off the streets with any excuse. The “eyes of the world” were on Britain, the Met and Government ministers alike honked, but they seem to ignore – deliberately – the fact that the world saw protest crushed before it could even begin.
The Left are currently the ones being suppressed, oppressed and harassed. The Right finds that hilarious but it should think back to the hassle and attacks suffered by the Countryside Alliance during the Blair/Brown governments. You might dislike JSO, XR and Republic now and what they stand for, but when it comes time for you to object to government policy you might find that your right to protest has evaporated too, gone on the whim of some future home secretary less sympathetic to your beliefs and your contention that you are just a law-abiding citizen expressing your beliefs.
Mic Wright is a journalist based in London. He writes about technology, culture and politics