Dissent in the UK – Criminal inJustice Act
In November 1994, the United Kingdom’s then Tory government passed the Criminal Justice Act, one of the most repressive measures in recent British history. Besides cracking down on squatters, New Age Travellers and Ravers (Free Party People), the CJA bans most forms of protest and strips away the defendant’s right to silence. Now housewives and schoolchildren are joining vegans and crusty punks at the barricades to challenge the law
An overview of the CJA and implications LINK
“It’s best to do it in pairs, or with cameras around. Otherwise they’ll torture you till they get you out,” says Allison, a soft-spoken 22-year-old squatter with paint-splattered dreads. A veteran anti-roads protester, Allison was explaining the mechanics behind the “sleeping dragon”–one of the many tactics that she and 350 other demonstrators used to stave off police and wrecking crews during the 4 1/2-day siege on Claremont Road in east London.
For weeks, protesters had strategized to defend the block of 35 squatted houses–declared the Independent Free Area of Claremont– that was slated for demolition to make way for a 3 extension of the M-11 link road. They filled the ground floors with rubble, concealing an underground network of tunnels and bunkers, where some buried themselves to create a living barrier against the bulldozers. They built fortified treehouses and erected a 100-foot scaffolding tower, then welded themselves inside a metal cage at the top. They flung themselves on cargo netting strung up between houses and nearby trees, dangling 20 feet in the air to escape the reach of bailiffs sent to the rooftops to arrest them.
And several, like Allison, cemented their arms into the road using “sleeping dragons”–steel tubes embedded in concrete. Each tube has a metal rod in the centre so the protester can slide her arm inside and clip on with a carabiner (a hiking clip). “It’s good to mix scrap metal in the concrete, so they have to use both hacksaws and a jackhammer to cut you out,” Allison advises. Unless, of course, the cops resort to simple coercion. “They try to wait till no one’s looking then yank your arms. It can get pretty painful,” she added standing in the cluttered front room of the squatted flat that was temporary headquarters of the anti-road campaign. On the wall behind her, amid a flurry of newspaper clipping and fliers, a slogan was scrawled in green magic marker: “The State will Wither As Green Rage Emerges”
It took more than 700 riot police, 200 bailiffs, and hundred of private security guards to evict the Claremont campaigners, at a cost of over £2 million–the most expensive and lengthy eviction of squatter in post-war British history. There were 47 arrests and several injuries as police tore into the netting and dumped piles of rubble and urine down the bunker holes. And it wasn’t just hardened crusties and eco-savvy hippies at the frontlines. Local housewives, high school and college students, a record producer, even 93-year-old Dolly Watson, born and raised in one of the homes, all took part in the campaign–outraged at the government’s plan to tear up a community for the sake of shortening the commute time to London by seven minutes.
The Battle of Claremont reflects the mounting opposition to the government’s £20 billion road-building scheme, which would ultimately put a fifth of Britain under tarmac. But it’s also testament to the increasingly militant–albeit non-violent–protest culture that has arisen with the passage of the Criminal Justice Act last December. When it was first proposed, Home Secretary Michael Howard touted the CJA as a “comprehensive program of action against crime” that would restore social order to the countryside. In fact, by taking on travellers, ravers, squatters, and virtually all forms of protest, the government has unwittingly united a wide range of single-issue groups into a growing movement of direct-action style dissidents who feel increasingly emboldened to challenge the law.
This is pretty much a revolution going on. A non-violent revolution,” says Stevidge, a member of the Freedom Network, a broad coalition of activist groups which formed last year to combat the CJA. One of the chief proponents of DIY (Do It Yourself) culture, the network encompasses squatters, environmentalists, housing and animal rights groups, even soccer fans–all united under the credo “Deeds Not Words.” “Everyone is doing what they can to push the law, bend the law,” Stevidge says. “They’re rebelling all over the place. But they’ve learned, this time–they’re doing it a la Martin Luther King or Gandhi.
Last summer, as the law was being debated in Parliament, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in a series of mass demos that rivalled the popular uprisings against the Poll Tax in 1989. Protesters clashed with police in Hyde Park, overtook Trafalgar Square with a bicycle-powered sound systems, and scaled the walls of Parliament. Since then, there have been a series of mass trespasses at the homes of conservative ministers–including the country estate of Prime Minister John Major.
These mass actions were aimed at challenging the “public order” provisions of the law which give the police vast discretionary powers to thwart protest. The CJA creates a whole new category of offence called “trespassory assemblies,” which allows police to ban gatherings on both public and private land which they “reasonably believe” might cause serious disruption. Anyone that the police “reasonably believe” might be heading to such an assembly can be turned away under threat of a three-month jail term or a 2,500 pound fine. In addition, individuals who go on land with the perceived intention of intimidating others or disrupting lawful activity can be arrested for “aggravated trespass.”
The government claims these provisions are aimed primarily at ravers who take over empty property for all-night electro-pop bacchanals and hunt saboteurs–animal rights crusaders who disrupt fox and hare hunting parties. In fact, the CJA can be applied to a wide range of peaceful protests, including trade union pickets, road actions, and anti-nuke demos. “In effect, it criminalizes most forms of legitimate dissent,” says Andrew Puddephat, general secretary of Liberty, a civil rights lobby.
During the mid-80s, the Thatcher government used very similar public order laws to cripple the massive miners’ strike by setting up road blocks and arresting labour leaders. Courts later ruled that the government had acted illegally. But now, police are allowed to stop and search persons and vehicles if they reasonably suspect that “incidents involving serious violence may take place” in a certain area–regardless of whether they believe the persons intend to take part in such incidents.
The CJA also explicitly targets raves, defined by the Act as 100 or more people playing amplified music characterised by a “succession of repetitive beats.” If police suspect that as few as ten or more people are preparing to set up a rave, they can be ordered to disperse and have their vehicles and sound systems seized. Cars and individuals suspected of heading for a rave can be turned back for up to five miles. Refusal to comply can bring up to three months in prison or a £2,500–even if the event has full permission of the landowner. As if to dampen the party mood even further, the CJA also quintuples the fine for simple possession of marijuana and amphetamines, from £500 pounds to £2,500 pounds.
The rave crackdown may reflect more than just noise complaints. A report released last year by the Henley Centre, a private think tank, estimated that £1.8 million of young peoples’ drinking money was being diverted annually to raves–presumably for more than just vitamin-jolted smart-food drinks. And Britain’s giant brewing companies have long been some of the Conservative Party’s most generous financial donors.
For further info on the Criminal Justice Act and its consequences see:
“Sound Advice” LINK
and yet more sensible advice:
“The Right to Party” LINK
The restrictions on gathering and protest are part of an overall attack on all forms of counterculture–anyone who bucks the nine-to-five role. Critics say the CJA is tantamount to “cultural cleansing.” Perhaps the most dramatically affected by the law are gypsies and New Age Travellers, who roam the country in vans and buses, working the land and setting up free festivals. The CJA revokes the 1968 Caravan Sites Act, which required localities to set aside sites with facilities to accommodate Romany gypsies and Celtic tinkers. Now police can throw any gathering of six or more vehicles off the land–even common or public land–and arrest the owners if they don’t comply. Smaller gatherings may also be evicted if “damage” (by the cops’ estimation) is done to the land. Police may also impound the travellers’ vehicles–confiscating or even destroying the travellers’ homes along with all their possessions and means of support.
There’s been a constant trend of eviction,” says Steve Staines, founder of the Friends, Families, and Travellers’ Support Group. “We get routine reports that certain police forces are using the powers extensively.” Last year, as the passage of the CJA approached, attacks on travellers by both police and local vigilantes, sometimes acting in concert, increased. Travellers have had their homes petrol-bombed and blasted with shotguns, and had their dogs maimed or blinded by angry farmers. With free festivals all but banned, this itinerant culture is losing its economic livelihood. Thousands of travellers have already migrated to Ireland, southern France, Spain, and Portugal. Others are seeking housing or moving back into squats–although there’s not much security there.
The CJA ends what had been a relatively tolerant policy towards the estimated fifty thousand people living in abandoned and unauthorised property in the UK. It’s still actually legal in Britain to squat properties not in use. But now, landlords may gain an eviction order without squatters even knowing about the case; if the squatters don’t disperse within 24 hours, they may be jailed for up to six months. In addition, the CJA authorises owners and bailiffs to use “violent entry” to displace squatters. Housing advocates fear the law will be used by unscrupulous landlords against legal tenants and subletters, noting that the tenants will not be allowed to present their side in court until after they are evicted.
Taken as a whole, the CJA makes a profound attack on the notion of public space. Stevidge of the Freedom Network compares it to the Enclosure Acts of the 1760s, which forced the peasants off the common lands that they had farmed for centuries, rendering them disenfranchised paupers. “From the moment the bill became law, almost completely it became illegal to be anywhere that you don’t own or rent –even if you had permission to be there.”
At many protests, authorities have seemed reluctant to implement the new regs for fear of exciting further unrest. This year, over 1000 people have been arrested during protests against the export of live calves. But instead of busting demonstrators under the CJA regs, police have charged the animal rights campaigners using an older public order act. “I think it’s because so many of the animal rights people are middle class. It would make the [CJA] too controversial,” comments George of Justice, an anti-CJA clearinghouse in Brighton. A lot of the traveller sites and squats are starting to get evicted, but the police are mostly going through the old laws–which just means they have to go to court to get people out,” George adds. In some parts of the country, police forces have complained that they have neither the money nor the manpower to take on such wide-ranging powers. Others have found its easier to simply harass squatters and travellers than to actually arrest them.
That’s likely to change this summer, warns Camilla Berens, a former Fleet Street journalist who’s now editor of POD, a pro-active journal of DIY culture. “Police forces are waiting for the summer months to organise big mobilisations to stop travellers, stop parties, stop squatters,” Berens says. “It’s going to get very nasty in some areas, but the good things will outweigh the bad. The spirit is so strong.”
Her prediction is echoed by Chief Constable David Wilmot of the Association of Chief Police Officers, who warned in a recent article in the Police Review Journal that “Unless the social problems which underpin the traveller phenomena are tackled, the police and public could be caught yearly in a summer pincer movement of urban and rural violence.”
The expanded police powers are particularly ominous given the CJA’s concerted attack on the rights of the accused. Under the CJA, the defendant’s right to silence would essentially be eliminated, allowing judges and juries to infer guilt if a suspect declines to talk. Previously, arresting officers were required to warn suspects “you do not have to say anything unless you wish to do so, but what you say may be given in evidence”–much like the Miranda rules in the U.S. Now, officers would no longer be required to inform suspects of their right to silence. instead, they would be warned that their refusal to talk could be used against them in court.
The CJA also extends police powers to forcibly take DNA samples from suspects arrested for both violent and non-violent crimes, regardless of whether the samples are needed to investigate the crime. Previously, police were empowered to take so-called “intimate samples”– blood, semen, urine, pubic hair–only when investigating serious offences such as murder or rape. Now, persons charged with offences as minor as shoplifting or resisting arrest can have hairs plucked from their head or a swab of saliva taken from their mouth, without consent. (The CJA also restricts a person’s right to have their fingerprints or samples destroyed, even if they are never charged with or convicted of the offence.)
The stated aim behind the expansion in DNA sampling is the creation of the world’s first national database of DNA profiles. In November, the government announced that it was allocating £1 billion for a new police computer system that would cross-reference DNA samples with criminal records. Authorities expect to take 140,000 samples over the next year alone.
Many will undoubtedly come from demonstrators. With the end of the Cold War, British intelligence is increasingly using computer surveillance to target domestic dissent. Last summer, the government initiated Operation Snapshot to monitor and record the movements and personal data of travellers and festival organisers. Since then, Scotland Yard has directed the Special Branch–the agency responsible for gathering intelligence on threats to nation security–to assemble computerised files on activists–including animal rights groups, “environmental terrorists,” and members of the Freedom Network.
The increase in surveillance and restrictions on right to silence have provoked a storm of opposition from top magistrates and the leading law societies. But like the Democrats in the U.S. with Clinton’s Crime Bill, the British Labour Party did not actively oppose the CJA for fear of seeming “soft on crime.” While a few progressive members campaigned against the bill, the leadership chose to abstain.
Liberty’s Puddephat believes the CJA marks a trend in “punishment culture, spreading from the U.S. to Britain and propelled by what he calls a “market approach to crime.” “Increasingly the crime debate is being shaped by the interests of those who have something to sell in that environment–police, the security industry, the media, etc.” He points out that in Britain, just as in the U.S., the expansion of police and judicial powers is coupled with a move to privatise prisons.
The CJA authorises private firms to design and manage prisons, including new “youth training centres” for juvenile offenders. The CJA also permits the use of privately-run prison ships and allows the Home Secretary to declare any building a prison if necessary.
This trend toward for-profit incarceration goes along with a growing tendency by the government to employ private security guards to police demonstrations- -particularly anti-road demos. The government has also begun contracting private detective to identify activists so that the state can bring criminal charges or sue for damages. The Department of Transport spent over £400,000 on private detectives at Claremont Road alone.
Underlying the CJA is a fundamental effort by the Tory Party to reassert tradition values as a palliative to social unrest. Although the Tories like to paint themselves as the party of law and order, they’ve presided over the biggest increase in crime in this century. The addition of the CJA powers has only polarised the public further. The clampdown on squatting and travelling comes at a time of rising homelessness in Britain–particularly among young people, who can no longer receive government assistance if they’re under 18 and leave home or drop out of school. The Tories are also seeking to gut the Homeless Person’s Act, which requires localities to provide housing to homeless people. Worse still, new regs introduced by the Department of Social Services would allow the government to deny public assistance to anyone with “dishevelled hair and clothing” or “the appearance of an alternative lifestyle” (e.g. dreadlocks and piercings).
The Tories have made such a mess of the economy, they’re trying to find a common enemy. So they’re focusing on travellers, squatters, ravers–those people who represent an alternative lifestyle, ” says Mark Chadwick, lead singer of the Levellers, a rock group that takes its name from the 17th century rebels who advocated the abolition of private property in Britain.
But now, the government’s scapegoats are biting back. Over the spring, the country was rocked by increasingly violent protests by animal rights groups intent on blocking the transport of live calves to Europe. Police are now calling groups like the Animal Liberation Front the biggest threat to security on the mainland since IRA laid down arms. And while the government likes to portray the activists as “eco-terrorists” and “professional agitators,” many school governors and old age pensioners have also taken part in the blockades.
Now, instead of big demos against the CJA, activists have spread out to a multitude of causes. There’s a growing land rights campaign–last April, several hundred people took part in a week-long campout to protest the privatisation of public lands. In May, 300 occupied the sacred stones of Stonehenge to challenge the public restrictions on the site. In addition, bicyclists have mobilised a burgeoning “Reclaim the Streets” movement to protest “car culture.” Bikers in cities across the country are orchestrating “critical mass” bike rides–despite the angry response of motorists, who have already smashed several bikes. (One in 7 kids in the U.K. suffers from asthma, yet most of the country’s cars still run on lead fuel.)
What we’re really addressing is our social and environmental decline–because they go hand in hand,” says Berens. “There’s no point in pinning your hopes on any political party. Just focus on what’s causing you the most anger and take direct action, because that’s the only way we’re going to get change. We’ve got nothing to lose.”
It’s almost as if the government set out to give Britain’s disparate subcultures a cause to unite behind. What’s significant is how the young protesters have been able to transform their disenfranchisement into a defiant, yet surprisingly celebratory resistance movement. Ross is a 24-year old Scot who’s been squatting and living on the road since his parents kicked him out of the house when he was 16. “A few years ago, everybody was just hanging out getting out of their heads,” he told me, warming his hands by a fire at an abandoned dairy where he and the other Claremont Road demonstrators had retreated after the eviction. “Now everybody’s getting together and fighting. It’s good. We’ve become one big family.”
A brawny kid with a tousle of ratty dreads sprouting from the top of his shaved head, Ross seemed an unlikely convert to the ranks of non-violent road protesters–or “fluffies,” as the more militant punks like to call them. While he defends those protesters who hurled bricks at police last summer as acting in self-defence, he emphasises something different. “We’ve got to fight ’em,” he says. “But it’s got to be peaceful. Any other way and you wind up with what they’ve got. And we don’t want what they’ve got. They want what we’ve got…” And what’s that? I asked him. He paused, then flashed me a gap-toothed smile. “Love.”