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British justice – class justice

Police "apprehend" a man in london

The vengeful sentencing after the riots have revealed the true nature of the capitalist state. Jeremy Dewar calls for a campaign to defend all the detaineesThe British courts, the police and the political establishment are conniving to bang away as many people as they can in revenge for the riots in August. For a very long time.
It may be your first offence. You may have only walked through an open door and taken a drink. You might just have accepted stolen goods as a gift, made a provocative statement on the internet or merely live with someone who took part. But the state is after you and your family.

Before all the flames had died down, the Home Office, police chiefs and magistrates decided on a – probably illegal and unconstitutional – plan: search through 20,000 hours of CCTV footage, arrest thousands in dawn raids, rush them through the courts before they know where they are, deny anyone bail and hand down stiff custodial sentences by suspending guidelines.

This was soon complemented by investigation into suspending benefits of suspects and moves to start evicting their families from council housing. How making people homeless and penniless will set them on the path away from criminality is not explained because this is not the aim. The aim is to clamp down on everyone associated with the riots, to criminalise those who went out to vent their anger at police brutality and racism, and to intimidate anyone thinking of fighting back in the future.

Other high profile policy suggestions included:
• 12 and 18-hour curfews in working class areas
• Banning individuals from, or temporarily shutting down social networking sites
• Giving police water cannons (they already have use of plastic bullets)
• “Zero tolerance” – i.e. police swamping our estates and using stop-and-search powers to arrest and charge anyone suspected of the smallest crime.

The first detainees were rushed through the system, with courts opening at the weekend and sitting through the night. Ian Kelcey of the Law Society explained, “The main problem is that you are working through the day and they want to get people in from 12 in the evening to six in the morning… When you get rushed justice, you can end up with rough justice.”

Another lawyer, Julian Young, said he went 38 hours without sleep, as did his clients, some as young as 14, who were then “asked to make decisions that might affect the rest of their lives and consider and decide complex issues”. Legal defence activists say that some youth were “advised” to plead guilty straightaway, without even seeing the “evidence” or they could receive harsher sentences later on. This reverses the basic premise that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, a travesty of justice that played on the defendants’ youth and inexperience.

As we go to press, over 3,000 people have been arrested, 1,600 charged and 1,400 appeared in court. The judiciary in Britain – or any democracy – is supposed to be independent, but Camberwell magistrate Novello Noades revealed her instructions from the Ministry of Justice: “Our directive for anyone involved in the rioting is a custodial sentence.”

Ms Noades went on to say: “What was happening on our streets last week was anarchy. The very fabric of society was at risk, and anyone involved must be dealt with as severely as we possibly can.”

In addition, a leaked Met document, titled Operation Withern, explains that “in all cases an application will be made [by the police] for remand in custody both at the police station, and later at court”.

As a result, 60-70 per cent of cases have ended in custody, either on remand awaiting tougher sentencing at crown court or as a jail term; the normal rate is 2-3 per cent. A Guardian survey revealed that sentences are on average 25 per cent longer than usual.

David Cameron has praised the courts. But those closer to the prison system have real concerns. With a record 86,821 inmates and 100 a day arriving from the courts, there remain only 1,500 places in UK’s prisons. These are the classic conditions that provoke prison riots, the strengthening of the criminal fraternity, and sadly suicide by those who cannot cope with the bullying and isolation.

It is vital that a broad based defence campaign, covering all those charged with or serving sentences for offences arising from the uprising.

Of course we don’t defend the despicable criminals who used the occasion to attack passers-by and emergency service staff, burn down workers’ flats or run down Asian men defending their community. But this is a politically motivated campaign to isolate and demoralise working class youth. Our response must be to raise the slogans of unity and solidarity, not to somehow sit in judgment over every case before we decide to defend them.

We demand: drop all the charges and release all the detainees. Trade unions, community organisations, Labour parties and anticuts groups should come together to place these demands on the government and keep the issue in the public eye.

Wansworth’s Tory council and – disgracefully – Southwark’s Labour council have already started procedures to evict the families of those charged or convicted with riot-related offences. This is effectively collective punishment and probably contravenes international law.

Start the fightback now
However, we can neither wait for nor rely on legal challenges. We need to organise lobbies, mass petitioning of the estates and physical blockades to stop bailiffs. Activists in Wandsworth and Southwark have already launched lively campaigns.

By evictions of council tenants and withdrawal of benefits of claimants brought before the courts, the establishment is breaking two other legal tenets: that one is only punished once for each offence; and that everyone is treated equally. Why should unemployed workers and council tenants receive additional punishments? Why should their families, including their children, suffer?

Flash occupations of Job Centres and council offices should loudly denounce this war of attrition against the poor. Trade unionists should refuse to implement the decisions. We should link the cause to fights against job cuts and closures, like that at Camberwell Job Centre.

The truth is that the state machinery – the government, the courts and the police – have overshot their repression. Millions of people, many of whom may not have been sympathetic when they saw the (biased) coverage of the riots on TV, will recoil at some of the injustices. If we can reach out and connect with them, explain the connection with the increased poverty, service cuts and attacks on education, arising from the austerity, we can rebound this offensive on the government.

That must be our aim. No justice – no peace!

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