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Why Were Two Scottish Independence Supporters Arrested For Their Peaceful Stand in Glasgow?

Two Yes campaigners who were surrounded by angry unionists in George Square after the independence referendum could still face a day in court or a fine.

by Liam Turbett
12 January 2015, 2:00pm

Yes and No supporters face off in St George's Square on the day before the vote. The following day No supporters reclaimed the square (Photo by James Turner)

When Glasgow city-centre was overrun by rampaging unionists the day after Scotland voted against independence from the UK, the stand of two young, Yes-supporting women who were surrounded by a hostile mob went viral. It's only now, several months later, that their full story has become clear – including how they were picked out for arrest while violence broke out around them.

Depending on your opinion, Scotland was either an exciting or nervous place to be in the days leading up to its independence vote, with referendum hype and dread touching every part of the country. An expectant media had spent days beaming out photos of hopeful Yes campaigners, with the thousands of young people camped out in Glasgow's George Square providing some of the most iconic images of the campaign.

Less than 24 hours after the polls had closed, the world was still watching as clashes broke out in the same location, as a group of emboldened No supporters descended on the square, determined to take it back. Spurred on by Facebook fascists Britain First, hundreds of loyalists – the kind of folk usually seen tagging alongside Orange Order parades – began gathering from early evening. Flares were set off, police horses called in and – for a couple of hours at least – hyperbolic online reports were depicting the city as a war-torn, riot-ravaged hellhole. Twitter went into a predictable meltdown, and a lot of people got very pissed off at BBC News for posting a "joke about bananas" on their Facebook page when there was a mini-riot taking place in Glasgow.

It was amid the scenes unfolding around the square that images soon materialised of a last stand from two young women. Sisters Sophie and Sarah Johnson, aged 16 and 20, weren't looking to be the centre of attention when they headed to the square, as they had also done in the days ahead of the vote. But, they told me, they would soon find themselves in the "complete polar opposite" situation: as Yes supporters in the middle of an increasingly volatile crowd of tanked-up loyalists.

Grainy mobile photos show them standing their ground with a saltire, as a handful of outnumbered cops watch on. When 16-year-old Sophie's flag was wrenched from her grasp by a hostile, mostly male mob, laden with union flags, Vine footage captured by an onlooker would come to define perceptions of what had gone down in the square that night. In the febrile atmosphere of the 19th of September, with passions running high, this imagery – of a young women standing up to a group of bullies – had an emotive pull. For many still reeling Yes supporters, it seemed to sum up everything they'd just been through.

"We didn't want to be pushed away. They [No supporters] were shouting at us to get out of the square and spitting on us," Sarah told me, explaining why they stuck around in the square for so long. "We had just as much right to be there and we weren't going to be cleared off just by them telling us to."

However, they soon would be moved on when both were arrested by the police, accused of obstructing crowd control efforts. While Sarah and Sophie insisted they were simply using their right to peacefully demonstrate, the police soon grew tired. "We were led away, smiling, while the unionists cheered", Sophie said. "We were taken off to Cathcart police station. They couldn't take us to a nearby one as that's where No supporters were being sent. It was quite a long drive so we kept ourselves entertained by singing Flower of Scotland."

Being stuck in the cells overnight, they had little idea of the extent of their newfound online notoriety, although there was one early clue. "While we were getting our fingerprints done, one of the police officers told me that some of his friends had seen the video of the flag being taken out of my hand", said Sophie.

They were released on bail and are still waiting for further news, but they could be in further trouble. "The report has finally gone through to the Fiscal [the public prosecutor], so we're waiting for a decision, which could be a fine or a court date", Sophie told me. If it came to it, a fine would likely be hundreds of pounds. They could theoretically be jailed for a breach of the peace conviction but with their lack of previous the chances are slim.

Just over a week ago, a pro-independence Facebook page finally managed to identify the pair who had remained anonymous until now, having put several appeals out. When it emerged that they were both facing potential charges following their arrest on 19th September, a petition was soon started, which came "completely out of the blue" for them. Almost 10,000 signatures have since been gathered, demanding that they each receive an apology from Police Scotland for their arrest, and that all charges are dropped.

Only four other people were arrested on the day. Since then, follow-up inquiries have led to the arrest of around 15 more people, all of them believed to be No supporters. Both are now hoping that the case is not taken further. "Obviously we don't want a record for doing something – peacefully protesting – which we had the right to do. I don't think we should have been arrested for it, especially as the police saw people throwing things at us, yet we were the ones taken in," said Sophie. As for the flag which was snatched from Sophie's grasp, her sister managed to seize it back, after leaping on top of it. "I think the fact that I managed to grab it back shows that Scotland is not ready to give up yet", said Sarah.

@parcelorogues

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