Stop The Chutzpah

7 Mar 2010 by CST

A meeting was held in Parliament on Tuesday, organised by the Stop The War Coalition (STWC), Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and the British Muslim Initiative (BMI), to protest about the fact that people who committed crimes on the anti-Israel demonstrations in January 2009 have received what they consider to be heavy sentences. The meeting was also "supported" by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

According to Andrew Murray of the Stop The War Coalition, "This is political justice for a political purpose of the most brazen sort. These sentences are extraordinary for the crimes alleged to have been committed. Every single protest had some degree of police harassment beyond the scale we have had before."

According to the Liberal Democrat Baroness Miller, "people's right to protest should be recognised by the courts and I think they have not caught up with what is a new attitude to legitimate protest."

One of the main speakers at the meeting was George Galloway, who condemned the British police for what he considered to be unduly rough treatment of demonstrators. Yet Galloway works for Press TV, which is owned and run by the Iranian regime - which has in turn killed large numbers of political protestors in Iran in the past year. The idea that STWC's meeting was called to defend democratic rights for all is a rather sick joke.

The website of the Manchester branch of STWC carries a report of the meeting, written by one of their supporters. According to this report, the meeting decided on the following set of demands:

  • Release all those already in prison
  • Drop all charges
  • Hold an independent enquiry into the policing of the demonstrators
  • Hold an independent review of all complaints raised against the police from the demonstrations
  • End the criminalisation of the Muslim community
  • Defend the right to peacefully demonstrate

(my emphasis).

If this is an accurate record of the official position of the meeting organisers then it is, frankly, a disgrace. Calling for all charges to be dropped goes much further than questioning the sentences: it is a call for complete immunity. Any responsible organisation whose activities led to over 70 arrests for violence ought to be undergoing a serious bout of introspection and a review of their working methods, to try to ensure that the same thing does not happen again. If not, then you have to question whether they should be allowed to organise similar events in future.

The right to peacefully demonstrate is indeed a fundamental right in any democracy, but the only people undermining it are the ones who think it should include the right to throw missiles at policemen and smash up branches of Starbucks. The idea that this kind of violence represents "a new attitude to legitimate protest" that the rest of us are just a bit slow to catch on to is farcical.

David Aaronovitch has it right:

In January 2009 someone sent me a link to footage taken at one of the Gaza protests in London. Taken by a demonstrator, and 10 minutes long, it showed a thin cordon of policemen being, in effect, chased from the edge of Trafalgar Square to the Hyde Park end of Piccadilly.

For the entire distance, men with faces covered were throwing traffic cones, sticks and anything that came to hand at the retreating officers, while shouting "Run, you f**** cowards!" The only time this mantra changed was when the police, briefly, put up a fight, when the shout became "you racist bastards!"

I don't know whether it was at this demo, or a subsequent one, that a crowd laid siege to the Israeli Embassy, an occasion that ended in the trashing of a Starbucks and battles between police and demonstrators, who used metal crash barriers and sticks as weapons. When I saw those scenes I knew - as an old demo-person - that, if caught, someone would go to prison.

The CPS guidelines lay out "aggravating and mitigating factors" in sentencing for public order offences. Aggravating factors include a setting in a "busy public place", a large group, people put in fear, injuries/damage, violence towards the police and disguises (ie faces covered). The only mitigation would be the impulsive nature of the action.

Sure enough, a number of those convicted of taking part in these disturbances have received short jail terms. The result has been a triumphant yell of "Islamophobia" from parts of the old Left.

The most egregious example was provided by Seumas Milne in the Guardian. In an article characterised by more than the usual amount of elision, evasion, lack of evidence and amnesia, Milne asserted that the sentences confirmed that "young British Muslims" were being singled out for "special treatment in the land of their birth".

In a comment on this piece, the former MCB spokesman Inayat Bunglawala drew a parallel between the "disproportionately stiff sentences" given to "young Muslims", and the immunity of Israeli officials from arrest in Britain.

It is clear from the original footage that those who took part in violence at the Gaza protests were operating under the assumption that their "anger" created some kind of impunity. But the British state has never allowed such a feeling to persist. Were the officers who were accused of brutality towards Countryside demonstrators in 2004 ruralophobes? Or, when they arrest EDL anti-Muslim thugs, are they Islamophobiaophobes?

Of course not. So whatever the intentions of Messrs Milne and Bungawala, their words are practically incitements to further violence.

I don't know precisely which videos David Aaronovitch saw last January, but they are likely to be similar to the ones below, all of which are from anti-Israel demonstrations in January last year:

STWC and the rest must take people for complete fools, to argue that their supporters should be able to attack police officers and destroy random shops without being prosecuted, while self-righteously claiming to be defending the right to peaceful protest! Generations of political protestors, and football fans for that matter, could have told them that attacking the police is not a cost-free exercise. I doubt there are many ordinary members of the public who have any sympathy with those violent demonstrators who now find themselves before the court.

But there is something more dangerous at work here than an infantile refusal to take responsiblity for their own misbehaviour. Underlying these complaints is the idea that events in Gaza somehow legitimised or excused the violence in London; that there is a continuum between the prosecution of violent British protestors and the non-prosecution of Israeli politicians, and that all are parts of the same wider conflict. This is the same kind of thinking that fed the wave of violence and intimidation against British Jews in January last year. It is irresponsible and dangerous, and  it has to stop.

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Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis
Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth