After Getting Nicked
Before you get going on this, you might want to check out Part 1 to see how I wound up in the clink.
Well, there we go – I spent a night in a police cell. I was referred to throughout as “the prisoner” and forced to wear some really whack plimsolls and bright white jogging bottoms. I’d been told that it would probably be mid-afternoon before I got out so when dawn began to creep greyly through the curtainless window I figured I should eat some breakfast and try and collect my thoughts.
Collecting my thoughts didn’t take long. I didn’t really have any, apart from a sense of guiltless ambivalence. Breakfast was an altogether tougher challenge, in every sense. I suspect it had been microwaved, then left in hot sunshine, then sealed in a slightly leaky bottle and thrown from an ocean liner, then found some years later by a Hebridean and dried on a washing line, before being posted to Harrow Road Police Station, microwaved again, allowed to cool, then delivered to my cell. Nothing else can explain it.
So it was with a feeling of hunger, more than anticipation, that I finally got to meet my legal representative. A quick plug here for the excellent Green and Black Cross legal helpline – you know, that number you see on bust cards? When I’d finally been booked in at nearly midnight, I was allowed to make two calls. I rang a colleague to say I would be, at best, late for work. I also rang GBC. A very reassuring young woman answered the phone and told me not to worry, not to say anything to the cops and to ring Bindmans solicitors. She also said that there was someone waiting outside the station, although she couldn’t guarantee they’d be there all night. In one quick conversation she raised my spirits dramatically and I thanked her warmly for being there. If anyone reading this has got a tiresome problem of too much cash, I’m sure GBC could put it to good use.
My legal rep, Matt from Bindmans, met me and we went into a meeting room. He was a friendly guy and told me he’d been involved in representing people from a number of demos I’d heard of. It was very pleasant to be able finally to talk openly to someone about everything that had happened. Most interestingly, he filled me in on the detail of the building at which I’d been nicked. It was called Panton House and was home to the UK offices of Xstrata. That name rang a faint bell and when Matt told me that apparently the Xstrata CEO Mick Davis was the highest-earning boss of a FTSE-100 company, I recalled reading an article that mentioned him. It had struck me when I read about it that I’d never previously heard of Xstrata and it struck me again as notable that their UK HQ was so anonymous that I’d been able to walk in its front door and up onto the roof with no evidence that I was even in a working building. Why so secretive and stealthy?
However, no chance to dwell on that now; it was time for me to go downstairs and be grilled by the feds. Or in my case, chatted to by a very mild pair of WPCs. Here’s a hint for anyone who finds themself in a similar situation: making no comment in a police interview is good common sense. If the CPS decides to press charges and it ends up in court, you’ll have a chance to say your piece. By then you’ll have been able to gather your thoughts and work out in your own mind what you think happened and what you think you did. The cops will have been able to examine their evidence and the whole thing can be dealt with in a calm and considered manner. There’s a good chance it won’t even go that far and you’ll have no case to answer. In the interview, however, the cops are looking to achieve two objectives: they want to gather evidence and they want to obtain a confession. There’s no reason why you should help them with either of these. They know that, so they’re subtle. My cheery WPCs made it seem like it was hardly an interview at all, engaging me in chit-chat as we walked to the room – the weather, that sort of thing. I’m by and large a polite bloke; I don’t like to ignore people and when people are affable with me I like to return the favour. It was really hard staying silent throughout the interview, which was full of leading questions such as, “didn’t you realise…?” and, “surely you would have known…?” Salvation came in the unlikely form of a filing cabinet, sitting against the wall opposite me. I stared at the Bisley logo with Zen-like intensity until, after 55 questions, the rozzers had had enough and that was that. The tape recorder was switched off, I left the room, collected my possessions and departed through the front door of the station.
Of course it wasn’t that simple. Arrest and detention of protestors, although ostensibly about evidence gathering, is primarily used (in my opinion) as a form of extra-judicial punishment and as a deterrent to future action. So I was given back my wallet, my (now expired) travelcard, my phone charger, my keys and some general pocket fluff. But I wasn’t given back my phone, or my shoes, or my coat, hat, gloves or even my ruined trousers. In other words, I had to make my way home across London wearing ill-fitting plimsolls and an insane pair of white loons, carrying my worldly wealth in a transparent plastic bag. Hardly safe or dignified but it could have been worse. I’ve since heard of teenagers being let out of stations in the middle of the night with only paper overalls to wear and no idea of how to get home. Disgusting.
Back to reality and the prosaic concerns of sorting out a replacement phone, buying some new shoes and putting up with my colleagues laughing at me, my main concern was what would happen next. I assumed there would be a court summons, possibly leading to a fine and a criminal record. However, I didn’t really know; all this was new territory for me. Thank goodness once again then for GBC. They organised an arrestees meeting, attended by two of the lead solicitors who would represent us, Mike Schwarz from Bindmans and Raj Chada from Hodge, Jones & Allen, both of whom have long track records of defending freedom of expression and the right to protest. The meeting was a chance not only to hear about the legal procedures that would likely take place but also simply to catch up with fellow banner carriers and to finally put some names to faces. On the morning of November 30th I hadn’t known any of these people but now we were able to make some more relaxed introductions and actually get to know one another. Of course, because of what we’d been through, we already felt like old comrades in arms. Did we want to contest the charges against us, we were asked. Of course we did. Did we want to meet together again and make a campaign of it? Hell, yeah! Of course, nobody actually said, “Hell, yeah!” but in the film version I’m sure somebody would.
Cheered by each other’s company and support, we began to meet semi-regularly in a pub near St Paul’s. We got to know each other better, realising just what a diverse group of people we were in terms of age and background but how much we felt united by the concerns which Occupy embodied. It quickly became clear that we were not stereotypical spiky activists. Arrest, for most of us, was a complete novelty and not something we’d expected or sought. All of us were, to varying degrees, upset or annoyed to have not been made blatantly aware that we risked arrest by entering the building. That said, none of us felt the arrests were justified and we managed not to let the annoyance detract from our determination to fight the charges. We were also intrigued by the choice of Xstrata as a target for the protest and decided we needed to know more about the company. It didn’t take long at all to realise that the grotesque pay of its CEO was one of the vast mining company’s less serious breaches of good corporate behaviour. A litany of tax avoidance, worker exploitation and environmental carnage rapidly revealed itself as we came to see that this was a particularly dirty player in an unusually filthy sector. Have a gander at this.
We had all been bailed to return to Albany St Police Station on January 19th or 20th but on 5th we received some unexpected news. The police had contacted our solicitors to inform them that they would be taking no further action in respect of the charges against us. If we wanted to collect our property, we should attend our bail date. Otherwise, we were free to go on our own sweet way. Well of course there was a sigh of relief big enough to affect weather systems but somehow it didn’t quite feel right. Less than 24 hours later, our qualms were justified. The CPS, it transpired, had come to the conclusion that although “the crown” stood no real chance of securing a conviction for such heinous crimes as burglary, criminal damage or even aggravated trespass, it wished to pursue charges under Section 5 of the Public Order Act. So we weren’t off the hook just yet. There was a weary resignation as our solicitors told us that “they always do this”. Section 5 is seen as a bit of a catch-all charge in protest cases. Originally formulated to tackle the quaint olde worlde phenomenon of rival groups of football fans hurling abuse at each other across the street, S5 criminalises the use of threatening or abusive behaviour in the presence of others who would be likely to suffer alarm or distress. See here for a more thorough explanation. It’s now regularly employed as a way of criminalising peaceful protest. Essentially, the assertion now was that, in entering Panton House as part of a group and making our way to the roof, we’d caused harassment, alarm or distress to folk working in the offices there. And that we’d been aware that we were doing such.
While on one level, there was relief that we were no longer in any danger of prison time, we were now on a charge that offered a much greater chance of conviction and, significantly, no right of trial by jury. We had no doubt that a jury would find the evidence against us far too flimsy to deliver a guilty verdict but a single District Judge, able to apply a fair amount of personal interpretation, could easily take the view that we were malcontents who should be taught a lesson. Although we only faced a maximum £1000 fine, none of us wanted a criminal record. The cops, ever keen to help and serve, made it clear that we could avoid court by accepting a caution. No fine, no costs, no court case and no conviction. Sounds great. Where’s the snag? Well, to receive a caution, you have to admit some form of culpability and, although you don’t have a conviction on your record, you still end up with the caution hanging round your neck. This can create hassle down the line when applying for jobs, insurance etc. Not something you really want if you can avoid it. Some, however, felt they’d reached a watershed. The logistics of fighting the case were simply too difficult or the threat of a hefty fine + costs bill was keeping them awake at night. Others simply wanted the whole thing to be over. So some of us refused the caution and some, reluctantly and with a strong sense of injustice, accepted it. Those who refused and battled on felt only sympathy for the folk who had to stop at this point. It must have been a horrible decision. As I rolled up at Albany St nick, eager to get back my phone and clothes, which the cops had inexplicably held onto until now, I met two fellow arrestees. One, like me, refused the caution and we went for a beer and to compare photos on our recharging phones. The other, I assume because I haven’t seen her since, accepted the caution. If you ever happen to read this, I truly hope you’re OK and that the whole carry-on hasn’t shaken your determination to speak up for things you hold dear.
This is getting lengthy and I want to give folk a chance to read it before October 20th so you’ll just have to wait for Part 3.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t get executed.