Lawyer Greg Foxsmith
A cycling safety protest in King’s Cross earlier this year
Published: 10 August, 2012
by ANDREW JOHNSON
A LEADING Lib Dem councillor has warned that “heavy-handed” police tactics are threatening the lawful right to protest.
Writing in the Tribune today, Greg Foxsmith – a criminal defence lawyer – condemns the arrest of 120 cyclists on the opening night of the Olympics as “draconian” and their subsequent bail conditions – which prevent some from riding a bicycle – as “unlawful”.
He added that the arrests were more reminiscent of what happens in China, and argued that the lack of media coverage was worrying.
Many of the cyclists arrested are from Islington. They were on a peaceful Critical Mass bike ride, which takes place once a month through London. Some are now being represented by Cllr Foxsmith.
They were arrested because they were using the so-called “Zil” lanes reserved for Olympic dignitaries. But there has been widespread condemnation at the heavy-handed police tactics, which included “kettling” and holding the cyclists overnight.
Cllr Foxsmith, who represents Hillrise ward, said that the arrests were on flimsy grounds – “for not doing what the police wanted” – and will deter ordinary people from joining demonstrations in future.
by GREG FOXSMITH
THIS month a British man started his ninth year in prison despite never having been charged with an offence, and 120 cyclists (including Islington residents) have been arrested and released on onerous bail conditions although not charged (and unlikely ever to be) with any offence. Are these events connected? And does it matter?
Despite my frustration at an inability to secure any tickets for events, I’ve been really enjoying the Olympics.
It is not incompatible to have reservations about aspects of the Olympics – the cost, sponsorship arrangements, branding, Zil lanes and so on – but at the same time celebrate and welcome the sporting events and the achievements of competing Olympians.
Sadly, there has been one tragic accident leading to loss of life. On August 1 a young cyclist was crushed to death by an Olympic bus in Stratford, at a site where campaigners for road safety had highlighted the dangers.
This loss of yet another cyclist on London’s roads illustrates the dangers that still exist until road designs are improved and other road users are more cycle-aware.
For nearly 20 years, cyclists have gathered in London on the last Friday of the month for the “Critical Mass “ ride. A huge throng of cyclists assemble near Waterloo, and when secure and safe through strength of numbers, ride around the streets of London.
I’ve participated in several Critical Mass events, and found them enormous fun.
On Friday, July 27, while the eyes of the World were on Danny Boyle’s fantastic opening ceremony, and at about the time the director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabti, was carrying an Olympic flag inside the stadium, the police arrested around 120 cyclists on their monthly Critical Mass ride. The arrests were for allegedly breaching a notice served under s12 Public Order Act – basically for not doing what the police wanted – and involved the kettling of cyclists in a police cordon for hours, the confiscation of their bikes, their transportation by buses to police stations, and their detention overnight.
There has been no public interest or outrage at this. The incident has not been widely reported and there seems to be a collective shrug of disinterest. If this had happened four years ago in China, the British press would have condemned police over-reaction as an example of excessive policing in a dictatorship.
And why should anyone care about a group of cyclists being inconvenienced anyway?
These arrested cyclists are not terrorists. These are unarmed British citizens. On bicycles. As threats to the state go, I can imagine worse.
Secondly, policing policy.
The police are deemed to police us by consent, they are paid by us to protect us from crime and investigate and help bring to justice those that have committed crime.
We want the police to catch robbers, rapists and burglars.
They are not able to do so when they are arresting and investigating more than a hundred cyclists whose only “crime” was to cycle in an “Olympic highway” reserved for IOC officials, fat-cat executives or the banks allowing them to shuttle from one corporate freebie to another.
The police should be impartial, but there is history between the Met and Critical Mass. The Labour Government from 1997 onwards introduced hundreds of bills and laws to control and restrict freedom of assembly and expression. One such measure required any group wanting to demonstrate or protest to have to apply to the government for “permission”.
The Met have controlled, kettled or banned marches or demonstrations ever since, and they soon turned their attention to Critical Mass, saying it was a “demo” and required permission. CM disagreed, pointing out it was not organised. And the police squandered tens of thousands of pounds of tax-payers’ money fighting their case all the way to the House of Lords, where they were defeated, thanks to a small band of committed lawyers including top Islington-based barrister Emma Dixon.
Many believe the police have been spoiling for a chance of revenge ever since.
Fourthly, the consequences.
I am advising (without charge) a number of those arrested. Each are people of good character, with no history of offending, and all in employment. They have now had their names, details, fingerprints and DNA taken.
They have been held for hours, then released without even being interviewed. Released, but on strict conditions which if not kept could lead to further arrest and detention. Conditions such as “not to be on bicycle”.
Ironic, you may think, at a time when as a nation we are celebrating unprecedented cycling success at Olympic level.
I will be arguing in court that these conditions are draconian, onerous and unlawful. But I will be facing the combined might of the Metropolitan Police Service and the Crown Prosecution Service. They will claim there is evidence, undisclosed and therefore impossible to challenge, that these Critical Mass cyclists may pose a danger to public safety.
But whatever the outcome of the case, the long-term effect will be that heavy-handed tactics of the police will deter citizens in future from joining a Critical Mass cycle ride, or ANY demonstration, fearing the inconvenience of arrest and bail conditions. And, sadly, without Critical Mass, there will be more cyclists killed on the roads.
If as a community we stand by and take no notice, because it doesn’t affect us directly, does it matter?
This month Babar Ahmed, a British citizen of Muslim faith, started his ninth year in jail, despite being charged with no crime. He is imprisoned awaiting extradition to the US, although the crimes he allegedly committed could have been tried here years ago. He was tortured by “anti-terrorism” police in 2003, who had to pay him £60,000 damages, and his private conversations with his MP were illegally recorded by police in 2008.
Imagine being locked up, without trial or sentence.
Once that is tolerated, it is a small step to start controlling other groups by using bail conditions on the unconvicted with terms as onerous as an Asbo.
Sooner or later, greater numbers of people will fall into one or more group to which the police can apply punitive sanctions, and our failure to speak out for others will mean we allow that to happen.
• Greg Foxsmith (pictured above) is a Lib Dem councillor on Islington Council and lawyer.
• Visit www.criticalmasslondon.org.uk