THE BLOG
16/07/2011 06:58 BST | Updated 14/09/2011 06:12 BST

Protester Sentences are Disproportionate and Politicised

I can recall with unpleasant alacrity the first time I was kettled, indeed the first time the tactic was deployed in the UK. On an emotional night in 2001 I looked around Oxford Circus at 3,000 other criminalised individuals, including petrified shoppers and Japanese tourists with no idea what an anti-globalisation demonstration was

I can recall with unpleasant alacrity the first time I was kettled, indeed the first time the tactic was deployed in the UK. On an emotional night in 2001 I looked around Oxford Circus at 3,000 other criminalised individuals, including petrified shoppers and Japanese tourists with no idea what an anti-globalisation demonstration was (let alone that they were part of the "radical" heart of it) striving desperately to cling to some kind of dignity as they were forced to urinate amongst their humiliated huddle. Needs must after seven hours indiscriminate detention.

Had I looked harder, I may have seen Lois Austin, another passerby who despite repeatedly pleading with officers was refused permission to leave to collect her baby from nursery. Austin's eight year battle for justice will reach some kind of conclusion this September when the European Court of Human Rights will rule on the use of kettling.

Our own High Court too is also busy with police kettling; three children presented a case for judicial review a fortnight ago. They were detained in school uniform for five hours without access to food or water during the 24th November student fees protests. The human rights group Liberty has taken up another case of two teenaged girls who were held against their will, the younger of whom broke her foot when trying to leave.

And then there is the naked violence. At the same demonstration, 20-year-old Alfie Meadows was hit with a police baton and required emergency brain surgery. These baton and mounted police charges - I can personally testify - occur without warning at sickening speed, often into densely packed groups of disorientated, exhausted and yes, very, very angry people.

The morning after the Meadows assault, the police were asked if armed (batons are weapons) mounted officers had charged into squashed crowds: their spokesman stated that horses may have been used "to help control the crowd for everyone's benefit [...] no, they did not charge the crowd."

A few hours later, video footage of armed mounted charges into a trapped mass which included terrified school pupils, a pregnant woman and two mothers there to collect their children appeared on you-tube. The same spokesperson then described that charge as "appropriate and proportionate."

Appropriate and proportionate are not terms one can apply to the sentences of student protesters Francis Fernie, or I would argue Charlie Gilmour. Last week, Fernie, a student of "exceptional promise" with no previous convictions, and who according to his local newspaper "worked for a range of charities and good causes, including Oxfam, York Environment Centre, Snappy and the Brunswick Nursery, a gardening organisation for people with learning disabilities" - was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment for throwing 2 balsa placard sticks at heavily armoured and shielded police officers, in retaliation for violent charges.

Gilmour - the villain of the piece of course - who stupidly dangled from the cenotaph and threw a bin at Prince Charles motorcade, was given a 16 month custodial sentence yesterday. Gilmour also has no previous convictions.

There are two striking aspects of these sentences. Firstly, their severity: in stark contrast to students of previously good character throwing sticks or a bin at armed/armored men or heavily fortified royal protection vehicles, six Reading footballers recently received sentences of two years each for raping two twelve year old girls; and a few years back, again by way of illustration, soon to be quadruple murderer Mark Hobson received a community service and a probation order for stabbing an unarmed man in the street.

And secondly, in sentencing Fernie, Judge Nicholas Price QC explained that the courts must "punish those who inflict violence or acts of fear on the public or inflict violence on the police, but also to deter others from behaving in such a way." It can quite clearly be argued that if any party is guilty of inflicting fear on the public it is the Metropolitan Police, but it is the "making an example" factor which must receive urgent public and political scrutiny.

At a time when unprecedented public anger is being expressed - especially by younger people - at government policies they see as unfair, penalising of their lives and without any democratic mandate, other state actors, from the highest echelons of the judiciary and crown, right through to the adrenaline charged copper with a lead baton, have decided to act.

They have decided that young people who have perhaps acted impulsively and stupidly (I very pointedly do not mention the cretin who hurled a fire extinguisher from a rooftop) or in complete distress and fury at the brutality of the police must be made an example of, but with an urgency denied to the family of Ian Tomlinson, unlawfully killed by police at a protest over 2 years ago.

A serious danger has been presented, but not by impassioned students. The police of England and Wales swear an oath of allegiance to "well and truly serve the Queen in the office of constable, with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality, upholding fundamental human rights". They are succeeding in the first part, but singularly failing in all the rest.