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.
To make up for the lack of recent bloggage, here’s a whopper. In fact, it’s such an epic that I’ve divided it into two parts. Here’s the first!
To begin, we need to refer back to a blog I wrote just before the national strike of November 30th last year. Entitled “Got To Do Something” it set out my reasons for supporting the upcoming day of action and wanting to be part of it myself. The fact that much of what follows derives from a statement I produced for my legal team in preparation for a court case might give you some inkling as to how things panned out.
So let’s do the blurry screen thing and go back to central London on November 30th 2011.
I was there to show my support for the public sector workers demonstrating against cuts to their pensions and express my more general outrage at the increasing national and international tendency to squeeze the majority in order to enrich the wealthy. As a supporter (more than participant) of the Occupy movement I knew that people from the London camps and other like-minds would be sharing my aims. Having seen a rendez-vous mentioned on Twitter, I turned up at Liverpool Street Station at 7.30am. A group began to form at around the same time as a banner was displayed. I joined the group as it moved out of the station and we began to carry the banner, which carried the slogan “All Power To The 99%”. This slogan chimed eloquently with the kind of feelings I was keen to express so I was delighted to help convey it. Over the next few hours we displayed the banner in various significant or photogenic locations and linked up with some of the pickets that were taking place. Eventually we wound up at the Occupy camp at St Paul’s and went our separate ways for refreshments.
A little while later I returned to St Paul’s to find a large group gathering, ready for the feeder march to the main TUC meeting point at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Again, I made my way to where the “All Power To The 99%” banner was and took hold of it, along with a number of other people. We carried the banner to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, then along the main march route, all the way to Victoria Embankment. If you were on this march yourself, you’ll no doubt remember that it was a calm, jovial affair, marred only by light drizzle and oppressive policing (remember the ring of steel at Trafalgar Square / Whitehall? The horses and Alsatians at opposite ends of the Strand?)
By this time a message had been put out on Occupy’s Twitter announcing a rendez-vous at Picadilly Circus for 3pm. Word went round that we should make our way there independently. I was keen to make sure that the banner got there and I know a couple of knots, so I folded it up tightly and tied it up. On arrival at Piccadilly Circus, it was very unclear what was going on. There was a significant police presence, including a ring of blue-hatted officers standing round Eros, but also a large contingent of PAOK Salonika fans, gathered in London for their match at Spurs that evening. (I now know that the cops in blue hats were members of the Territorial Support Group – TSG – and their role that day was not to watch over Greek footie fans or even particularly to keep an eye on Occupy but to ensure the safety of plain-clothes rozzers in case they got rumbled. However TSG are also the go-to guys for any kind of running around action so we’d see them again later.) The atmosphere was a bit random but cheery enough. A bit of asking around led me to the conclusion that our aim would be to undertake another “public repossession” of an empty building, in the vein of the “Bank of Ideas”. (The BoI was an office building, owned by UBS but unused and empty for years, which Occupy put to use as a resource centre, hosting talks, gigs, workshops and local community activities.) I figured that the “All Power To The 99%” banner I’d spent most of the day hauling round London would be an ideal accoutrement to this new Occupy venue.
After maybe 15 minutes, I heard someone say the banner needed to be opened out. Aware that I’d tied it rather securely, I scampered over and began to undo the knots. Even as I was finishing undoing the last bits of rope, one end of the banner was being pulled away from where I was, in the direction of Haymarket. I grabbed the loose rope at my end and began moving with the banner towards, and then into, Haymarket. The samba band, which I’d last seen early in the morning, had reappeared and was creating a carnival vibe as we fanned out across the road to display the banner clearly. About 100 yards down Haymarket I could see numbers beginning to concentrate around the entrance to a side road on the left. Somebody held a red flare aloft and moved towards the entrance to a building. People rapidly congregated and then I felt a tug on the banner and heard cries along the lines of, “Go on.”
A gap opened in the crowd and again the banner moved away from me as before. Absurdly, I was still trying to get the loose rope organised in my hands. We moved through an open door, to the side of some revolving doors, briskly but walking rather than running. Passing into a kind of atrium, we turned left and began ascending the stairs. After maybe 5 or 6 floors the stairs came to an end and I spotted daylight through a small door. Stepping through the door, we came out onto the roof and, walking round a pathway, came to an open area where the building fronted onto Haymarket. The roof parapet consisted of a lowish wall topped by a sturdy railing just below chest high. The banner was placed outside the railing, pulled tight and tied at each end. I was at the right hand end, holding the top rope, so I tied it securely with a round turn and a slip-hitch. I used a slip-hitch (basically a loop knot) because it would be easier to get undone and it saved having to haul through several feet of rope. I then set about tying off the bottom rope and gathering and re-coiling the loose ends.
As I was doing this I became aware of a TSG officer grabbing at a young lady to my left. He seemed to have completely lost his temper and was tugging very roughly on her arm. Slightly outraged but trying to remain cordial I said, “Hey, steady on”, which sounded ridiculous the moment it left my mouth. He carried on struggling for a bit until more police arrived. They seemed calmer and it looked like they removed their irate colleague from the scene. By this time the banner was being pulled back over the railing and gathered up so I began undoing the rope at my end. Before I could finish, I was grabbed by another TSG who tried to pull me away from the railing and the banner that I was untying. My instinctive reaction was to grab something solid (ie. the railing) to steady myself and then to indicate to the officer that I was in the process of removing the banner. The cop was then joined by some colleagues and together they hauled me away from the railing and spun me round, grabbing at least one of my arms in a lock. Someone was shouting, “On your knees! On your knees!” I couldn’t think why on earth they needed me to be on my knees but I was conscious that I was standing on a wet bit of roof. A few feet to my left the surface was quite dry so I said, “Can I have a dry bit of floor please?” The response was, “On your knees!” I then said something like, “If you let me onto the dry, I’ll be happy to kneel down.” It’s important to stress that, despite galloping adrenaline, I felt quite serene at this point. I had no desire to fight back against the police, I just wasn’t prepared to be bullied or dehumanised. (I’m also really, really fastidious sometimes.)
My serenity took a bit of a jolt as some police officer stamped a foot down between my legs and threw me, judo style, over his leg. So now I was lying face down on the wet roof. One arm was forced up behind my back. I tried to relax and stay supple, rather than tense up. Then I felt a knee pressed heavily into my back. It was in exactly the right location to push my solar plexus against the ground, giving me the feeling of being winded and making breathing uncomfortable. Also my phone charger, in my jacket pocket, was pushing against my ribs. All this was too much. I felt as though I was now being thuggishly assaulted (probably because I was). Although I was unable to look round to see who was kneeling on me, I was able to say, in a short-winded rasp, “Get your knee out of my back you [insert very bad word].” I’m not a heavy swearer but it was the least he deserved. I’ve no idea if he heard me or not but anyway he got off and a few moments later I was cuffed behind my back and then helped to my feet by the first TSG who began the arrest formalities, while I looked down and realised that my left trouser leg was ripped open from top to bottom. There’s just no conceivable justification for that kind of physical violence from the police. I got off quite lightly – some of the others on the roof sustained genuine injuries in the form of sprains and heavy bruising. Glasses and other property were broken, many of us were forced to lie in puddles. And yet we posed precisely zero threat to the police and would have left as calmly as we arrived if they had simply asked us to. It makes you wonder what they get told in their briefings to make them so frightened and confrontational. Or maybe they’re just simple. Who knows?
Anyhoo, I was told I was being arrested for aggravated trespass and criminal damage. All thoughts of withholding my name were undone by a wallet containing about fifteen different forms of ID, so I just went along with the whole dreary procedure. I wasn’t actually that bothered when word buzzed through on the police radios that they should re-arrest us on a charge of burglary. The situation was now firmly in the realm of the surreal. I was photographed on the roof and then we were led down to the top landing inside the building.Unbeknown to us at the time, outside in the street hundreds of police were engaged in their usual wrong-brained tactic of kettling the rest of the group who had come down from Piccadilly. See YouTube for all the usual footage of officers clobbering passers-by and one lighter moment as a plain-clothes snitch is identified and ironically kettled by the crowd. Unfortunately this all resulted in a rather boring afternoon for those of us inside as the cops had decided we needed to be removed, in a rigorously secure operation, to various police stations outside central London. After at least two hours we were taken to the ground floor, photographed again, and then led out through a swarm of flashbulbs and questions onto a waiting coach. My arresting officer got into the aisle seat next to me and eventually we moved off in motorcade fashion, shepherded by at least four police motorbikes.
After the fastest journey through London’s fashionable West End I’ve ever had, I was plonked out at the back entrance to Harrow Road nick, along with my inseparable arresting officer and about half a dozen other arrestees. The time was now 6.30pm and although the drizzle had largely eased, the late November evening air was relatively brisk, especially where it flapped in and out of the remnants of my left trouser leg. Gradually we were moved, one by one, first into a locked cage surrounding the door, then through the door itself and into the booking suite. I got inside at 10.30pm. Tired and cold doesn’t begin to describe how I felt. Moments later the arresting officer of the last guy still outside got permission to bring him in because he was worried about him getting hypothermia. The only thing that made the waiting and the cold remotely bearable was the fact that all our arresting officers were there too. I pointed out that they could have all been at home if they hadn’t arrested us. I also felt it was only kind to mention that there were plenty of more interesting, more socially productive things they could be doing with their lives. “I sell and mend bikes,” I said. “I help people have fun.” At this point the Sarge suggested I be quiet and almost seemed to imply that until I opened my mouth we’d all been getting on fine and I’d had to go and spoil it for everyone. At least this made me smile and it helped to while away the hours.
Once inside, thing speeded up a bit. But not much. The Desk Sergeant booked me in, somebody took my outer clothes and boots (but fortunately I was able to keep my base layer, fleece and thermal socks) and finally I was photographed (again!), fingerprinted, DNA sampled, and tested for crack and heroin. “What?” you say. Well, burglary is a “trigger charge” wherein abuse of heroin and/or crack is thought to be a major driver, so for statistical purposes all burglary suspects are tested. Or, to put it another way, by charging us with burglary not only was there the stain of a more serious accusation but also the possibility of uncovering some scandalous drugginess. Or maybe I was just suffering institutionally-induced paranoia by this time. So finally, at 12.30am, I was shown to my cell and given a rubber lasagne to chew on. Frankly I would have eaten my own foot and slept in a bucket so I was actually quite upbeat. I used the T-shirt I’d been given to cover the pillow bit of the rock-hard blue mattress and folded the blanket so it was under as well as over me and just about got to sleep in time to be woken up and asked if I was OK.
Now I’m an introvert; I like solitude and my own company. Plenty of that in the clink, so, time to ponder, to philosophise, to gain perspective. Fortunately, a couple of days previously, I’d read an excellent blog by the wonderful @Scriptonite (www.scriptonitedaily.org) about her experience of being arrested at a demo and bunged in the cells. The knowledge that other people had trodden the path before me made it much easier to deal with. Of course I was aware of many other folk from other times and places who had gone through infinitely worse ordeals than anything I’d faced. I couldn’t compare myself with them for a moment but I could at least draw strength from their perseverance. Scriptonite’s experience was similar to mine and therefore more directly applicable. I was cheered by the thought that there were probably people aware that I and the others were in there and that possibly they were even waiting for us outside. I had no proof but I had the hope that there might be, and that helped enormously. I didn’t feel fearful, I didn’t feel guilty. I felt calm and fulfilled and I slept the sleep of the just.
Next time… How I woke up all achey, but fought on regardless. Hurrah!
As a result of certain goings-on last November 30th, I’m not currently best placed to say everything that I might like to about certain topics. However, I’d love it if you could subscribe so that when I can stick more thoughts on here, you’ll be alerted to their presence.
Ta. JR. 🙂