In January 2009, a London protest against the Israeli war on Gaza became aggressive and violent, and ended with protestors being "kettled" by police, a technique of penning protesters in that would soon reach national attention with the G20 protests and the tragic death of Ian Tomlinson. 78 men have recently been sentenced following incidents on that day, and all but two of them were young Muslims.15 have been convicted for sentences up to two-and-half years The arrests themselves were carried out in unnecessary dawn raids, where police smashed down doors and handcuffed family members.
While I believe in reprimanding violent acts, these charges and convictions are completely disproportionate in themselves and do not allow for mitigation. It sends the message out to British Muslims that British laws apply to them differently and more severely.
I attended that Gaza demonstration on a very cold winter’s day. I arrived late afternoon to see swarms of riot police all decked in riot gear storming onto the scene, as though we were on a battle scene. From the protestors’ end, I saw the smashed windows of Starbucks and the throwing of the bottles - which I would describe as pretty juvenile stuff. I arrived, however, too late to discern whether some of the violence was in response to inappropriate tactics from police. I was assured by some of the protestors that it was.
Before I knew it, I was contained in. We stood like this shivering for about one hour, after which six or seven people were permitted to leave at a time. I was made to stand in front of a camera and asked to give my details. I simply refused, said I did nothing wrong, and that it was my human right to protest. I was then patted down and my bag searched. My personal details were recorded.
It was a chilling experience to say the least.
I remember thinking that this sort of police behaviour might deter people from demonstrating, which was completely unhealthy for democracy. It would make protesting a dirty word, and something no longer virtuous to do in the face of injustice. So now imagine my serious concern when I hear about the sentences of 15 young men, each being given a sentence, utterly out of proportion to the seriousness of the crime, of between eight months and two a half years.
It’s hard not to agree with Seamus Milne that what we are witnessing is the deliberate harsh treatment of Muslim protesters by our police and judicial establishment in order to send out a warning to other Muslims thinking of engaging in political activity, the justification being the tiny minority of Muslims that engage in indiscriminate violence against fellow citizens to protest Britain’s wars. This is combined with a more general approach by law enforcement which confuses legitimate political activity, such as protesting, with terrorism by handing police sweeping anti-terror powers to harass and intimidate those attending demos.
If people have committed criminal damage they shouldn’t get off scot-free, but these draconian sentences ignore the fact that people were angry, hurt and provoked. They over-reacted in the heat of the moment to what was, undoubtedly, a grotesque injustice committed by Isreal against the people of Gaza. (I will never forget hearing about the death toll rising every day, until it reached beyond 1000, and feeling physically sick.) Many of those sentenced were also clearly very young and naive. It was not cold-blooded violence on their part.
The judge in the case said he intended to send out a message to deter others. No doubt the message many will hear is that Muslims are to be punished more severely than others when they step out of line. Smash a Starbucks window and the state will come down on you like a tonne of bricks; smash a poor and desperate people with bombs and bullets and government barely murmurs.
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