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UK Government Accused of Threatening to Criminalise Black Lives Matter Protests

Its plans to "fast-track" sentencing for protesters has been called "intimidation" and "a racialised decision" by campaigners.

by Ben Charlie Smoke
12 June 2020, 1:09pm

The UK government has been accused of racism and threatening to criminalise and intimidate Black Lives Matter protests, after it announced controversial plans to fast-track criminal prosecutions for protesters.

Today, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland told magistrates to extend court sitting times for protesters involved in vandalism, criminal damage or assaults of police officers, with the police fearing a summer of disorder. National Police Chiefs Council chairman Martin Hewitt is quoted in the Times as saying the combination of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and economic collapse from coronavirus would lead to a "challenging period in relation to violence and disorder".

The plans come amid mounting tensions in London following two weeks of Black Lives Matter protests. The largely peaceful protests have seen sporadic outbursts of violence and the Met have been accused of using heavy handed and unlawful tactics.

Earlier in the week it seemed likely that Saturday could see confrontations between Black Lives Matter protesters and far-right agitators planning to defend statues in London. However, some social media accounts promoting Saturday's BLM demo have now said it is postponed. High profile far-right activist Tommy Robinson has released a video saying he will not be coming to London. It is unclear how many activists from either side will turn out.

According to Metropolitan Police figures, at least 86 people have been arrested in relation to the London Black Lives Matter protests as of Monday. A weekend of largely peaceful protests saw a police horse charge, widespread use of containment tactics and isolated violent clashes between the police and demonstrators.

Sam Grant, Policy and Campaigns Manager at Liberty, said: "This is the latest step by the government to undermine protest rights by threatening protesters with heavy-handed criminalisation. This move prioritises channelling people into the justice system over ensuring their rights to protest and due process are respected. This is particularly worrying given major protests have been called off as organisers are so concerned for the safety of participants. Instead of trying to intimidate protesters, the government should be doing everything possible to facilitate protest and ensure the rights of protesters are upheld."

Griff Ferris, legal and policy officer at Fair Trials, a criminal justice NGO, said: "Fast-tracked justice is a fast-track to injustice. The government's political pressure on the criminal justice system to speed up trials will inevitably lead to defendants' rights being overlooked and increase the chances of people being wrongfully criminalised and unfairly convicted, with courts already suffering a significant overload due to austerity and COVID-19 restrictions.

"These measures were also used in 2011 when people were similarly protesting police violence against black people, yet they weren't implemented in response to the recent widespread Extinction Rebellion protests, which indicates that this is a racialised decision."

Justice Minister Robert Buckland and Home Secretary Priti Patel have announced plans modelled on the controversial tactics implemented in the aftermath of the 2011 riots, which saw widespread unrest across the country in the wake of the shooting of Mark Duggan by police officers in Tottenham, north London. Buckland has already written to magistrates courts asking them to extend their sitting hours, promising to see "violent criminals" behind bars in 24 hours.

Plans from the government also include holding a consultation on doubling the maximum sentence for assaulting an emergency service worker to two years.

Campaigners, lawyers and human rights groups have all expressed concern over the plans to mimic the "conveyor-belt justice" of 2011.

The "fast justice" plan in 2011, brought in under the tenure of then Director of Public Prosecutions and now leader of the Labour party Keir Starmer, was widely criticised at the time. The plans saw 24-hour courts hear the cases of more than 1,700 people in a month, many of them first-time offenders and minors.

At the time, solicitors criticised the courts for meting out rough justice through the night. One solicitor told the Guardian, "They were bringing 13, 14, 15-year-olds into court at two or three o’clock in the morning. I was really annoyed. How are they meant to understand what I'm saying and understand what they have to do, understand what the evidence was and what was going to happen to them?" Another solicitor gave an example of a 14-year-old boy who was arrested for saying "fuck the police" within earshot of officers. "There wasn’t any parent there," the solicitor said. "I took him home after the hearing in the middle of the night because I was concerned."

The moves come amid calls for the full implementation of the Lammy Review, which found that those from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds were more likely to be charged, tried and punished by the justice system. Those involved in the justice system have raised concerns about repeating the mistakes of the past and further entrenching those disparities spelt out in the Lammy review.

Mike Schwartz is a partner at renowned protest law firm Hodge, Jones and Allen. He says, "The 2011 model of fast-track justice, in response to the death of another black man at the hands of the state, was as damaging to the integrity of the criminal system as it was to the individuals who passed through it. The government should think twice before it considers a repeat of what many felt was rough justice pursued for political expediency. I fear it won't."

VICE UK has contacted the Ministry of Justice for comment and will update this piece if we receive a reply.

@bensmoke

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