As reported Todays Redbrick in the article “Ex Vice President for Education found guilty” an article covering half the story. As my friend and Guild of Students’ Officer Sean Farmelo has been cleared of spurious charges of assault a in case which deserves an article of its own and further than this unreported in this article is the involvement of Guild management in this trial, to secure my conviction.
Despite the protest being found to be completely non-violent, I have been found guilty of section five of the Public Order Act, the lowest public order offence which is for simply “disorder” based as Redbrick reports the march diverting “off route”. Section 5 is a controversial law as it extends “criminal law into areas of annoyance, disturbance and inconvenience. In particular, it covers behaviour which falls short of violence or the threat of violence.”1 It has famously been used against students for barking at dogs (really), the activist Peter Tatchell for displaying signs condemning the persecution of LBTQ groups in Iran and a 89 year old atheist pensioner John Richards who placed a small sign in the window of his home saying ‘religions are fairy stories for adults’. Peter Tatchell has also written an excellent article here explaining why the law should be repealed as a threat to free speech.
Betrayed by my Union
Around 200 students took part in the aforementioned demonstration that went off route, however I have been the only found guilty because I have been deemed the “leader” of the demonstration and therefore creating disorder. Michael Garrett Guild of Students Director of Membership (who had previously gave negative testimony against me that led my suspension as an officer last year from September to January) appeared in court for the prosecution to say I was the sole person responsible for organising the demonstration and it going off the “official” university-approved route was my sole fault. He was the only witness out of 19 prosecution witnesses to allege this. Many other witnesses however reported that the demonstration had been organised by dozens of people in the Defend Education Birmingham campaign and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. However in court Michael Garrett declared he was “not aware” of these groups and claimed that I was “the sole organiser”, a claim that I’m sure any student with knowledge of these campaigns will look at with incredulity. I didn’t even attend the main planning meeting for the demonstration before it was held as I was not in Birmingham on that day, nor was I the one who called the demo or who planned the route. But thanks to my union I’ve been selected as the sole leader.
Since it’s clear to any rational person that the Guild’s claims about the extent of my involvement are highly unlikely, there’s also the political motive to consider. After I was removed as a Trustee I’ve since learned that a motion went to the Trustee Board to give evidence against me in court. Simply put a decision was taken at the highest level of the Guild to pin everything on me.
The very reason we have the Guild in the first instance is to have an organisation through which we as individuals can channel our collective strength to shield us from the malice of the powers we challenge. What has happened here is a union working the wrong way round, channelling the full malice of the authorities onto individuals. Unions like the guild, need to recognise we are strong when we are united, weak when divided.
The story in full
My case began in late April when, over two months after the demonstration, I was asked to hand myself in for arrest on the day before NUS conference started with deadline of the day of NUS elections. As handing myself in would mean I would have to leave conference, I decided not comply with this request and instead handed myself in after the deadline. Upon arriving at the station I was arrested for public order offences (the charges against me were subsequently changed several times before it got to court). I was released and given bail conditions that banned me from entering campus for any activity ‘unrelated to my terms of employment’ without written consent from the university. This amounted to a ban on me engaging in student union activity the university didn’t approve of. So a few weeks afterwards I was spotted leafleting on campus by university manager Stuart Richards, who immediately called campus police who tracked me down to the Guild, detained me and called their legal department asking “I want to know if I can arrest him,” (note, not “I want to know if I should arrest him” the answer to which was presumably “no” since I was then released.
Prior to this the police investigation into the demonstration (spurred by university accusations of serious assaults since dismissed in court) involved 5am house raids to seize photos of the event and several students’ details being handed over to the police by the university so they could be taken in for questioning (indeed some students were informed that they’d been called in for questioning by the police via emails sent by the university). Dozens of students who attended the demonstration got vague letters from the university hinting at disciplinaries calling them in for talks, most likely to pump them for more information in the hope of finding something incriminating.
Meanwhile the Guild managers and a couple of hostile officers decided for a second time to try and remove me from office. Behind the scenes an intense campaign of vicious rumours (for instance a totally made-up rumour that I had seriously assaulted a female member of university staff, despite the university never officially accusing me of any violent act) was waged amongst the board members to pressure them into dismissing me, which was narrowly defeated but resulted in me being removed from the Trustee Board.
I can’t thank my colleagues in Defend Education Birmingham, Defend the Right to Protest and NCAFC enough for their help during this time. For running on mass to the Guild when I was about to arrested for leafing, convincing me not to resign when I was close to doing so and volunteering to give evidence in court despite lawyers warning them they could face similar prosecutions under section five if they came forward to speak of there part in organising the protest .
This struggle for education is still going on. New students need to get involved for this is not merely about education, it’s about the type of society we live in. The chains of events that have led this are entirely avoidable if we organise to make a better stronger union, which uses its collective weight to be stronger together, rather than attack its own members and weaken our capacity to campaign. It’s clear there are consequences to fighting back and taking action, ones which we can’t necessarily predict or control. It’s easy when thinking about the potential consequences of taking action to develop a sense of vertigo which might prevent us from standing up and walking forward, but the likely of effects of inaction will be more detrimental to us all.
- Legal textbook, “The Law of Public Order and Protest”, http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199566143.do#.UHQHWK78nt8