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Judge backs false imprisonment of May Day protesters
THE JUDGEMENT in the May Day case, delivered on 23 May, made it a sad day for democratic rights. Judge Tugendhat ruled in favour of the police, saying that their containment of up to 3,000 protesters on May Day 2001 was lawful.
By a socialist reporter
The May Day detainees always maintained that the containment was illegal and that human and civil rights were denied. On a cold, wet day protesters were held with no water, food or toilet facilities.
The police's court defence claimed that a breach of the peace was so imminent when the containment was first put into effect, that no other tactic was open to them but to hold the crowd this way. They said they used 'breach of the peace' powers under common law to justify this action.
The police said the crowd's behaviour in Oxford Circus when the cordon was put in place, was such that containment, a 'draconian tactic' (in one police officer's own words), was necessary.
The May Day detainees always said the police's actions exaggerated the danger of violence before, during and after the demonstration. The police's own logs, from officers stationed in Oxford Circus before and during the containment, describe the crowd as "bored but calm".
In fact, the minutes of police meetings deciding operational policy on May Day show that no other strategy, apart from full-scale containment of the whole group, was ever discussed. As far back as February 2001, the minutes show the police had decided that containment was the tactic they would use on Mayday, three months later!
May Day detainees wondered how the Met's 'thought police' could have known what the crowd's mood would be this far in advance? How could they claim that containment was due to an imminent breach of the peace? Did the police have no tactic ready for use other than containment, one of the most extreme and authoritarian tactics for dealing with demonstrations - a truly Orwellian tactic!
The judge ruled that the containment was not unlawful under the Human Rights Act, even though it clearly states that the police can only detain an individual to arrest them and bring them before a court. Clearly all 3,000 protesters were not arrested or brought before a court.
The most worrying thing about this judgement is that the police will see it as giving them the green light to use containment on future protests. Will they now feel even more confident to imprison protesters falsely at July's G8 summit in Gleneagles or on future anti-war protests?
The judge argues that experienced protesters should have known that there would be a violent contingent on the May Day 2001 demonstration and cannot be surprised when they are held along with them. The police also argued at the trial that non-violent protesters and political activists acted as a cover for violent protesters.
May Day detainees believe this criminalises protesters. The overwhelming majority of May Day protesters were peaceful. Most of the crowd, to their credit, remained calm despite police provocation and their irresponsible tactic of pushing everybody closer together into the centre of Oxford Circus, risking a crush.
To say that because some protesters were violent, all demonstrators had to be treated the same, or that they acted as a "cover for violence" is an outrage.
There is more violence at an average football match or town centre on Saturday night than there was on May Day 2001. Do we ban all football matches? Or imprison all Saturday night revellers? This judgement could hit demonstrators now and the trade union movement when protests grow in future.
The detainees still maintain this was false imprisonment. This judgment is designed to strengthen police powers when dealing with protesters. It aims to put people off coming on future demonstrations.
Certainly on May Day 2001, rows of riot police brandishing truncheons and shields, photographing and harassing young people as they left the containment was clearly enough to frighten any first-time protester.
For the detainees, all this talk of violence diverts attention away from the political issues. The anti-capitalist movement, involving tens of thousands of people globally, has been motivated to take action against third world debt, poverty, environmental destruction and now war and occupation.
The legal and political establishment want a muted opposition. This judgement, they hope, will go some way to give them that. In the current post-9/11 climate of a strengthening of state powers, like detention without trial, it seems the powers that be believe legislation to impede the right to protest can go through unchallenged.
The detainees will continue to challenge undemocratic laws and restrictions on our right to protest. They have been given leave to appeal and are considering doing just that.
In The Socialist 2 April 2005: