When philosophy student Alfie Meadows set out to protest against rising university fees on December 10, 2010 he could never have guessed that by the end of the day he would be close to death.
That day he was hit over the head so hard – allegedly by a police baton – that he needed emergency brain surgery. But when he woke up the nightmare was not over. Not only did he have to fight for his recovery, but against a criminal charge for violent disorder.
His trial began on Monday morning and protesters have gathered outside Kingston Crown Court in London to demand the charges against him be dropped.
‘The right to protest is under attack in this country and the trial of Alfie Meadows is just one striking example of this,’ says Owen Jones, author of Chavs, who is at the court hearing. ‘He could easily have died from his injuries and yet, as ever, there is a failure to hold the Metropolitan Police accountable for their actions on demonstrations.’
Already at least 20 protesters have been imprisoned in a round of deterrent sentencing that followed the student revolt against fees in 2010. These include James Heslip an arts student who was sentenced to 12 months for smashing a window at Millbank, Demi Wilson-Smith who received 10 months for waving a stick and Zenon Mitchell sentenced to 15 months for throwing two flimsy placard sticks. Alfie, who is in court with a number of other protesters, is being charged with threatening violence that could cause those present at the scene to fear for their safety.
‘Alfie Meadows is one of a large number of young student protesters of good character charged with violent disorder,’ says Matt Foot, a lawyer who has represented many students involved in the protest. ‘This seems to be a blanket policy by the police and prosecution to deal with protesters with one of the most serious offences available.’
But what is even more worrying about the Alfie Meadows case is the use of criminal charges against an alleged victim of police brutality in what could be seen as an attempt to legitimize the initial (alleged) police violence.
‘It seems that a very clear pattern is emerging of people being on a protest, being on the receiving end of police violence and this is followed up by the police arresting them and criminalising them,’ says Hannah Dee, spokesperson for Defend the Right to Protest, which has been supporting Alfie’s cause from day one.
Outside the court, supporters will gather to both protest Alfie’s innocence and – as no one has been charged in connection with his attack – demand those responsible for his injuries are held to account. They will include Marcia Rigg whose brother Sean died in police custody, Merlin Emmanuel – nephew of Smiley Culture who died during a police raid – as well as protesters who have fallen victim to ‘total policing’, ranging from London Occupiers to pie thrower Jonnie Marbles to UK Uncut activists.
‘The arrogance and brutishness of the Met and CPS show up clearly in the charges against Alfie,’ says Fortnum & Mason Occupier Robert Stearn. ‘Their confident expectation that Alfie can be prosecuted for violence the police committed must not be satisfied. The charges should be dropped; his attacker should be tried.’
These double standards have been linked to a wider attack on protest by the coalition government as it struggles with widespread public opposition to cuts and tries to deal with new forms of protest. This Monday for example, will also see a further ten UK Uncutters face sentencing for their role in the kind of high street occupations that recently forced a retreat from the government over their welfare to work schemes. They are charged with ‘aggravated trespass’.
The suspension of a Cambridge University student Owen Holland last week for reading a dissenting poem to Universities Minister David Willetts suggests that students are now also falling victim to attacks on protests on their own campuses.
Within this environment of criminalizing and punishing dissent in all forms, Alfie’s trial takes on wider significance as it becomes not only about the rights of this single protester, but about the right to protest itself.
‘The trial of Alfie Meadows will shape the future of protest in Britain,’ says Hannah Dee. ‘If the courts convict a protester who narrowly avoided death at the hands of the police on a demonstration they will be sending a clear message that while protesters are to be criminalized the police are above the law.’
Photo of Alfie Meadows by Milena Nova.