Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Nothing To See

Merrick, 22nd June 2009ce

INJUSTICE

Injustice is a truly shocking documentary from 2001 about deaths in British police custody. It won numerous awards and had rave reviews in the national press. From the outset, screenings were dogged by police intimidation.

Police contacted cinemas immediately before the showing and said the film libelled their officers and the cinema would be liable to prosecution for showing it.

The film's makers and the families of the dead were the ones who did the alleged libelling, and they would have relished prosecution. Indeed, one of their main complaints was that they had never had the chance to show a court the evidence and accuse the officers of being responsible for the killings.

As it was the relatives who said the 'libellous' things, you'd have thought the police would want to sue them for it. It's like me publishing a libellous book but the police just ignoring me and my publisher and solely threatening WH Smiths instead.

Plainly, the police didn't want to land anyone in court. They wanted the cases hushed up and forgotten. The cinemas, unused to police intimidation, mindful of what being shut down would do to their cash flow, and with only a few minutes to decide, usually pulled out.

But the film was still shown in a few places regardless. In Manchester, scheduled venue the Corner House lent a load of chairs to the OKasional Cafe, a squatted social centre down the road, and they screened the film instead.

Having seen the OKasional Cafe do their screening without hassle, the organizers of Aspire, Leeds’ periodic squatted social centre, thought they’d show it too. After all, the cops know that anarchist squatters are unlikely to be put off by some stern words. And who would they sue anyway? The false names on the squatters’ court documents?

In the end there was no police intervention, and the screening was attended by both the director and Janet Alder. Janet spoke movingly about her brother Christopher's death, one of the disproportionately large number of black men who die in police custody.

The Christopher Alder case

Christopher Alder was assaulted outside a nightclub in Hull in the small hours of 1 April 1998. He was arrested, and by the time the van got to the police station he was unconscious. Officers dragged him out of the van, his trousers and underpants scraping down round his knees, and put him face down on the floor in the reception area, his hands handcuffed behind his back.

The last eleven minutes of his life were filmed on the police station CCTV. He lies on his front, handcuffed, unconscious, occasionally rasping and wheezing as he choked to death on his own blood and vomit, while five police officers stand around, laughing and making monkey noises.

The jury at the inquest returned a unanimous verdict of unlawful killing. The police appealed and lost. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), though, said there was insufficient evidence to charge the officers with manslaughter.

The Alder family had two expert medical reports examining the case. Both concluded that he could have been resuscitated at the station.

In the light of these reports, the CPS had to prosecute five officers. The CPS supplied the CCTV footage but not, for some reason best known to themselves, the soundtrack with the jokes and monkey noises. The officers were acquitted of manslaughter. They were later cleared of any disciplinary offences whatsoever.

After years of the police blocking its release, the BBC obtained an illicit copy of the CCTV footage with the full soundtrack in 2004 and broadcast it. The Independent Police Complaint Commission (IPCC) were forced to look into it. Four of the five officers - some only in their 30s - quickly took early retirement on grounds of ill health, the classic escape route for officers with a lot of evidence against them in serious disciplinary cases. Presumably we're paying their pensions today and for several decades to come.

In March 2006 the IPCC issued what, by their standards, is a stern rebuke, but by the standards of what happened is pathetic. Officers who make monkey noises at a black man are apparently only guilty of 'unwitting' racism.

Faced with such compelling and appalling evidence of mistreatment, the police nonetheless responded by defending the officers. They did not want to do anything except minimise and deflect criticism. The officers involved refused to answer questions in court on over 150 occasions, and refused to co-operate with the IPCC investigation.

The Injustice film has had further screenings with further police threats. No action has ever been taken against anyone who's gone ahead with a screening. Despite the awards and acclaim, no TV channel has shown the film.

If the film really were libellous (and one of the police solicitors alleged it was, even about an officer not mentioned in the film), then someone would have prosecuted.

More recently, a film about the EDO anti-arms campaign called On The Verge has had similar treatment. Like Injustice, it truthfully shows the police in a bad light, and as they cannot successfully sue the film makers they have lied to venues to force cancellations.

THE EDO CAMPAIGN

After the start of the Iraq war, Brighton activists were horrified to discover an arms factory in their midst. On a trading estate less than two miles from the city centre lies EDO-MBM. The factory supplies the bomb release mechanisms used to commit war crimes in Iraq, Palestine and elsewhere. The Smash EDO campaign ran under the slogan, ‘Every bomb that is dropped, every bullet that is fired in the name of this War of Terror has to be made somewhere. And wherever that is, it can be resisted’

Demonstrations outside the factory were initially met with facilitative policing. But as the campaign persisted, police were irked by the ‘financial considerations’.

EDO then hired Timothy Lawson-Cruttenden, the lawyer who helped draft the Protection From Harassment Act. Whilst it was sold to us as an anti-stalking law to protect vulnerable women, it has been repeatedly used by Lawson-Cruttenden to get injunctions against protesters who are, in law, stalking the vulnerable corporations.

In order to secure the injunction, EDO needed proof of harassment. They needed arrests for crimes of aggression. The police obliged and nicked people for Assaulting A Police Officer. Names of people arrested were handed to EDO to be put on the injunction, even if they weren’t convicted of anything. Since when has it been the police’s job to help litigants get private injunctions?

Under this piece of PFI martial law, the ‘protected persons’ in the injunction included EDO security guards. It had become illegal to film them, which allowed them to assault activists with impunity.

When the protesters mounted a legal challenge to the injunction, the Crown was obliged to share information about the collusion between police and EDO’s lawyers. Rather than do this, they withdrew and the injunction imploded.

What’s striking, as with the police collusion with Eon over the Kingsnorth climate camp, is the police presumption that the private corporation is in the right and that protesters are in the wrong.

Yet when activists shut down Kingsnorth, it was found to be a lawful action. By the same token, EDO are making weapons in the certain knowledge that they will be used to kill civilians. This, then, is collaboration with war crimes. As at Kingsnorth, if the police are going to waver from a position of impartiality, it should be on the side of the protesters who appear to be upholding the law.

Certainly, the EDO campaign has been confrontational. Rather than go the route commonly taken by peace activists of ‘bearing witness’ (ie stand and watch, then go home), they made direct action an integral part of the campaign. But even when they were merely standing on the far side of the road holding placards – an activity formerly facilitated by police – they were harried, intimidated, provoked and assaulted.

The EDO case has continued to be the subject of intense state harassment. One protester with no criminal record, John Catt, discovered that his car has a ‘marker’ on the police computer and so he has been stopped and searched by police under the Terrorism Act.

At the Smash EDO carnival in June 2008 police used dogs and batons on a peaceful crowd. Protester Chris Bluemel was beaten to the ground. As is often the case with people assaulted by police, he was charged with Assaulting a Police Officer. It took a year to come to court, where he was then acquitted, with the magistrates citing the ‘vague and contradictory’ evidence of the police.

Still, as the police well know, even an acquittal will have the effect of discouraging further protest. By arresting someone, raiding their house, taking away their computer and having them living under the shadow of losing their job if they were convicted, and with no form of compensation following the acquittal, it requires strength and fortitude for campaigners to risk being the next victim.

The house raid has become a common piece of extra-judicial punishment for disliked political groups. It cannot be right to smash down your door (and bill you for the board-up), search your house, seize your computer (and give it you back broken a year later) all for a suspected crime that, if you were convicted, wouldn’t even see you imprisoned. Like batoning random protesters, it is political policing aimed at discouraging campaigns that have been deemed unacceptable.

In June 2008 it was reported that “Chief Superintendent Dick Barton is in charge of investigating crimes against EDO for Sussex Police. The force declined to comment on his role but the fact such a senior officer - the highest rank below assistant chief constable - has specific responsibility for EDO reflects how seriously police treat the activism.”

It’s not just a high level of scrutiny, it is also an act of sick irony. Barton was appointed to the task shortly after returning from training police in Iraq, dealing with the aftermath of the carnage caused by EDO’s weapons.

On The Verge

As mentioned earlier, a film about the EDO campaign, On The Verge, was made and distributed by Brighton activist news group SchNEWS in 2007. It shows in clear detail the sustained political policing used against the campaign.

Just as the police found the CCTV cameras ‘weren’t working’ at the G20, the shooting of Jean Chales de Menezes, Hillsborough and elsewhere where they behaved abominably, so conversely they despise those whose cameras were working and release the film. (When the Guardian put the film of Ian Tomlinson’s assault online the police went round to the offices to demand it be removed).

A programme of screenings of On The Verge in early 2008 was met with police harassment. The first showing was cancelled two hours before it was scheduled because the council officials threatened the cinema. The screening had been advertised for six weeks but, as with Injustice, the police had left it to the last minute so the venue didn’t have time to think or consult anyone.

The officials said the film couldn’t be shown as it didn’t have BBFC classification. But nor do many other films at free private screenings around the country, yet they don’t get threats to the cinema’s license. The film is not unusual in being a cheap community production shown without a BBFC classification. What sets it apart is its positive depiction of a campaign the state have worked hard to derail, and that it shows aggressive and brutal policing.

After the visit from Brighton council officers, the police reportedly phoned the venue to warn that they should ‘bolt the doors’ as the peace protesters were ‘extremely violent’ and likely to try to force entry.

Punters went to a local pub, where around 140 people (over two screenings) were able to watch the ‘illicit’ film.

Chief Inspector Lawrence Taylor was quoted in the local paper, the Argus, denying any police involvement; ‘We would never get involved with the certification of a film – it is not something we do. It was as much a surprise to us as anyone else’.

The following day Brighton council’s press office confirmed that the police had in fact called them up and prompted their action. The police then changed their story and said it was ‘one bad apple’, an over-enthusiastic junior officer acting on their own initiative.

The spontaneous initiative spread rapidly. In the days that followed five more venues across the country had visits from the police and council officials. Staff at the Arthouse Community Cafe in Southampton were approached on the day of their planned screening and threats were made concerning their licensing if the film was screened. Jani Franck, one of the café’s directors, said ‘I grew up in South Africa and this felt like the sort of thing the police there would do. It felt like political policing’.

Students at Southampton University planned to screen it, but police contacted University officials and the film was banned from the whole campus. The screening in Bath was stopped after a visit from the licensing officer who later told the Guardian that he ‘could not remember’ who had alerted him to the film.

In Hereford a police officer told the landlord of a venue that ‘someone from above’ had said to warn them off showing it. When the landlord was unswayed a formal letter arrived from the Council saying he had no license for such things and he was forced to cancel.

In Leeds, The Common Place social centre showed the film. Shortly after, Leeds City Council revoked their license. The Common Place’s solicitors estimate that Leeds City Council have subsequently spent in excess of £50,000 trying to shut the centre down.

This is part of an extraordinary campaign by the police to crush opposition to EDO and stop people seeing how partisan and aggressive police can be. As a response to political campaigning in the UK, it is matched in tenaciousness and severity only by the Huntingdon Life Sciences campaign.

It's not just that the EDO campaign is important in itself. It has become a battle ground for the right to protest, and with On The Verge that battle has spread to the right to freedom of speech.

Screenings continue around the country in venues that don’t have licensing concerns. If there isn't one near you, why not set one up?

The film is available on DVD from SchNEWS.

You can also download it for free (if you have a Bit Torrent program installed such as the Azureus/Vuze client) from here.

Injustice is available on VHS from here.

Epilogue

In the year since On The Verge film was made the campaign has gone from strength to strength. Numerous times workers have been unable to get into work because people have locked themselves to the gates. EDO’s new parent company, ITT, has been the target of protest and direct action.

In January as the Israeli assault on Gaza raged, killing and maiming thousands with weaponry made by EDO, activists entered the factory and did £300,000 worth of damage. Two of them are still in prison on remand.

Like the Raytheon 9 and the Hawk jet activists who were acquitted for smashing up arms factories, they have a strong defence – they were preventing weapons being exported for war crimes.

The campaign will continue until EDO is shut down, no matter what violence and intimidation the authorities use.

www.smashedo.org.uk