It’s a victory, but hardly justice: the Metropolitan police have apologised and agreed to pay a six-figure settlement to Alfie Meadows. Meadows was a 20-year-old philosophy student at Middlesex University when a police officer hit him on the head with a baton at a protest against the tripling of tuition fees in December 2010, after which he needed life-saving brain surgery. Shamefully, it has taken a decade to settle his claim for damages, which he brought against the Met in 2013 and included aggravated and exemplary damages for assault, battery, false imprisonment, and human rights breaches.
The anti-fees student protests of 2010 marked a resurgence in the use of criminal offences against protesters. Meadows himself was charged with – and acquitted of – violent disorder, which carries a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment. Along with many other students and young people at the time, he found himself in court after attending a protest.
The use of the criminal law to attack protesters has a long history in Britain. It’s a particularly popular tool in times of political upheaval, economic crisis, and in the implementation of unpopular or divisive government policy. As people make their opposition known, the state seeks to crush this resistance by criminalising peaceful protesters. By charging them with criminal offences – usually public order offences – it frames them as violent and disorderly, rather than as being engaged in legitimate political contestation.
At the time Meadows was attacked and charged, Keir Starmer was the director of public prosecutions, responsible for all criminal prosecutions in England and Wales. In this role, he oversaw not just the prosecution of the student protesters in 2010, but also those who participated in the uprising following the police killing of Mark Duggan in 2011. In 2012, at the height of the anti-austerity protests, he issued guidelines to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) on when protesters should be prosecuted, setting out factors that would make it “more likely” that prosecuting a protester would be considered to be in the public interest.
These guidelines were based on a mistaken assumption that people attend protests with either peaceful or violent intentions. In reality, ‘violence’ tends to follow attacks by the police on crowds – the use of batons, horse charges, or ‘kettling’. The guidelines stipulated that suspects “in possession of a weapon at the time of the offence” should face greater likelihood of prosecution. But the category of “weapon” rather than “offensive weapon” is so broad that it could conceivably cover any object. A mobile phone, placard stick or water bottle could all be used as weapons. One student, Frances Fernie, was sentenced to 12 months in a young offenders’ institution for throwing two placard sticks which didn’t hit anyone.
The vast majority of the students who pleaded not guilty to charges of violent disorder were acquitted (18 of 19). Of those who pleaded guilty, 12 received prison sentences. It’s important to keep in mind that there is considerable pressure placed on those charged with offences to plead guilty – the severity of the charges, a sentencing discount, the absence of knowledge of legal rights and the lack of legal representation or advice at police stations. There’s a real possibility that people were wrongly charged, convicted, and sentenced or imprisoned. In fact, the figures suggest the CPS and the police failed to prove that students at the 2010 protests engaged in unlawful violence, and that had more protesters fought charges of violent disorder, more acquittals may have followed.
The use of serious criminal charges against those who engage in protest poses a threat to the right to protest. The danger lies not only in the criminalisation of those exercising their fundamental rights to free expression and association, but also the risk that those who might engage in protest activity could be deterred from doing so for fear of being criminalised.
Starmer’s guidelines paved the way for crushing assaults on protest by consecutive governments, culminating in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. The legislation is a sweeping attack on our civil liberties, including granting the police oppressive new powers, creating a buffer zone around parliament, criminalising one-person protests, and creating an offence of wilful obstruction of the highway.
These new powers come to the police at a time when, following the Black Lives Matter uprising of 2020 and the police kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard, the police have been found – yet again – to be institutionally racist, sexist, and a danger to the public. Despite growing calls for police abolition and defunding, the government – foreseeing significant resistance to the burgeoning climate and cost of living crises (much as Starmer did at the outset of austerity in 2012) – has responded by clamping down on protest.
As Meadows said on receipt of the apology and settlement from the Met:
“It beggars belief that they [the police] continue to receive public money to abuse the public. […] The current government’s response has been to provide them with even more draconian powers to crack down on protest. Without fundamental change, we will see no end to injustice at the hands of the police.”
Nadine El-Enany is professor of law at the University of Kent and author of (B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire.