New Statesman & Society, 30 September 1994
In a Brighton courthouse, the government is being put on trial for its Criminal Justice Bill. It has the right to remain silent – but not for much longer. Steve Platt and Paul Anderson report
“Order!” demands the judge. “Disorder!” shouts a man with a mohican haircut in the public gallery. And the jury cracks up laughing – followed by the judge, who is wearing a bright blue mask and a fake leopardskin rug for a robe.
Then the counsel for the defence joins in too, along with the witness in the witness box (who looks a little the worse – or should that be better? – the wear for drugs). Everyone in the public gallery cheers and whoops. A large black dog barks wildly and runs around the courtroom floor wagging its tail. “Everyone should get mellow and party,” says the man in the witness box, and the cheering and whooping in the public gallery start again.
Not Alice in Wonderland, but a courtroom in Brighton, opposite the Royal Pavilion. The setting is authentic enough, but the old courthouse hasn’t dealt with the usual round of drunk and disorderlies, prostitutes and petty crooks for five years.since a new courthouse was built up the hill. The “trial” taking place opposite the Pavilion has no legal status – indeed, under the provisions of the Criminal Justice Bill, which, barring a political earthquake, should complete its passage through parliament next month, it could itself be an illegal act. For the courtroom has been squatted, and the trial participants are trespassing.
Which, of course, is precisely the point. Brighton’s old courthouse was squatted a fortnight ago in protest against the Criminal Justice Bill by Justice?, a local campaign collective, which, in less than 72 hours, transformed it into a social centre with a vegetarian cafe, meeting and exhibition spaces and regular film, music and poetry events. More than 600 people passed through its doors in the first few days afterits occupation. The “trial”, with the government in the dock, is being staged by the squatters, with the help of a handful of outside witnesses (Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes, down in Brighton for the Lib Dem conference, is one) as an alternative to a boring public meeting. As with the other events organised by the old courthouse’s new occupants, it works. Some 200 young people turn up to pack the public gallery – and they love it.
One of those present is Clara, 16 years old and, with all of three months experience now behind her, a hardened campaigner against the bill. She comes from a council estate in Nottingham, where 600 turned out for a protest march last Saturday. Her grandfather used to be “something to do with the Labour Party”, but she “hadn’t had a thing to do with politics” until someone told her that the outdoor party she’d enjoyed so much earlier this summer would be illegal under a new law going through parliament, and the people organising it would be liable to arrest and imprisonment, and their vehicles and equipment seized by the police.
Now she can recite chapter and verse on the bill’s provisions. “Did you know that if 20 of you get together to have a protest against what they’re doing, the police can ban it – and stop anyone coming within five miles? You could be having one in the town where you live arid they could stop you going home. That’s like China or Haiti orsomewhere.”
Her friend, Millie, pierced lips,Lycra leggings and a lurid pink T-shirt, is slightly less well-informed but no less articulate. “If you’re homeless, they can arrest you. If you’re arrested, they can fit you up. If they fit you up, they’ve got new prisons waiting to take you in. And all because they don’t like your way of life. What’s so good about theirs that they take all this trouble to stop us living ours ?”
She offers a leaflet, all swirling patterns and packed text. “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything,” it announces. It’s a “Free Information Network” publication, listing more than 200 events for September alone, music mixed with anti-motorway protests, a “Glastonbury Tor Gathering” with a “Walk for Wildlife”, a demonstration against the occupation of Tibet in London, a “Buskers Against the Bill” parade in Guildford. A list is printed of Lords to be lobbied: “Write now to the Lord of your choice!” it reads. “(But don’t ALL write to the ones with silly names.)” The address given is “The House of the Living Dead”, London SW1A 0PW. “It’s got the postcode, so they’ll get the letters,” says Millie.
Another leaflet comes from a similar stable: “There is a need to dance. There is a need to travel. There is a need to squat. There isaneedfor protest. There is a need for open spaces. There is a need to celebrate. There is a need for community. There is a need to communicate. There is a need for tolerance. THERE IS A NEED to be heard.”
Sixty thousand people made their voices heard against the bill earlier this year, when they turned out for a demonstration in London (see NSS, 29 July). On 9 October, perhaps twice as many again will express their opposition – including ten double-decker-buses-full mobilised by Justice? in Brighton. (We know it will be that big because the police have said so, refusing the organisers permission to rally in Trafalgar Square because “it won’t hold 100,000 people or more”.)
As with the last march, the organisation is proceeding along two rather different models. The first is a loose, often anarchic alliance of groups and individu¬als, many of them linked through the Freedom Network, which coordinated “DIY Week”, a series of events around the country last weekwhose aim was, according to the Network, “to alert communities to the dangers of the Criminal Justice Bill. It is also designed to show the government that we are not dole-scrounging drop-outs but the voice of a new generation, which has more vision than all of the Tory cabinet put together. We feel we have been totally abandoned by this gov¬ernment and the only way we are going to get our voice heard is through peaceful direct action and encouraging people to become part of ‘DIY Culture’ – ie, ‘There’s no point in complaining about things. If you want change, you’ve got to get offyour arse and Do It Yourself.'”And people do – from a beach party in Scarborough to a banner drop in Archway.
The other organisational model is provided by the more traditional left, with the Socialist Workers Party – and, more recently, the whole gamut of other, smaller, left groupuscules – to the fore. It makes for interesting juxtapositions – the crustie traveller and the besuited trade unionist, the hardened raver and the committed anti-racist.
“Jimmy Knapp might be willing to speak at the demonstration,” says a Labour left diehard at one of the organising meetings. “Who’s he?” asks a man who’s come to see how many sound systems they’ll let him bring into Hyde Park. While one group of people talk about trying to get trade union backing for the Coalition Against the Criminal Justice Bill, another is planning to “squat” Hyde Park for the weekend of the march.
SWP national organiser, and Coalition steering group member, Weyman Bennett has mixed feelings about the organisational abilities of some of the newer activists involved in campaigning against the bill. For every successful event organised by the likes of Justice?, there is another that flounders in anarchic inexperience. “Sometimes they don’t put the work in. They don’t realise that protests don’t just happen, even if people are angry about something. They’ve got to be organised.”
Bennett and other opponents of the bill have spent a lot of time trying to get across that it’s not just about ravers and travellers. They’ve tried to emphasise the abolition of the right to silence, the new police powers of stop and search, whereby if they believe a “violent incident” may take place in an area, they can search any person or vehicle without giving a reason, and the anti-terrorist provisions, whereby the possession of information or materials that may be of use to terrorists could result in prosecution.
Clara again: “Did you know that you could have a fishing line, scales, a clock and some harmless chemicals and you could be charged with ‘going equipped for terrorism’ and get ten years, and that it’s up to you to prove that you weren’t going to use them to make a bomb?”
Clara needs no lessons now about the far-reaching nature of Michael Howard’s ragbag of prejudices. “They’ve united us all against them, haven’t they?” she says. The government has been put on trial over the Criminal Justice Bill – and it’s not only the young people of Brighton who are finding them guilty.