Yesterday, I trudged to Woolwich Crown Court, in deepest darkest Plumstead, at stupid o’clock in the morning. It was for an important enough reason: it was the beginning of the third trial for Alfie Meadows and Zac King, two young people arrested for their participation in the 2010 student protests on a charge which was simply stuck there for the police to cover for the fact that they very nearly killed Alfie with their aggressive tactics. I was there to show support as were many others.
There was a small demonstration outside the gates of a complex which housed to the right the court, and to the left Belmarsh Prison, connected to the court by an underground tunnel in a clear illustration of the purpose of the buildings. We turned to enter the court to sit in the public gallery: as members of the public, this is something that we are allowed to do in an open court. The way was blocked by police. They told us we couldn’t pass: not even the families of Alfie and Zac.
It was still early, so we concerned members of the public went for breakfast. During this time, after some cajoling and an attempt to lock the doors of the court, the families and the defendants were finally allowed into court for their own fucking trial. When we returned, the doors were locked.
Woolwich Crown Court is a public building. It’s not the sort of building one would ever choose to go to, just an ugly functional factory for churning out a certain definition of justice. It is a public building, which members of the public can access: maybe they’re lawyers, maybe they’re on trial, maybe they’re witnesses or jurors or work in the canteen. Or maybe they’re journalists, there to report on the trial. Or maybe they’re just there to support someone in court. Literally everyone was locked out of the front of Woolwich Crown Court yesterday morning, because the court security did not want to allow access to those who had come to support Alfie and Zac.
None of the security seemed to understand quite why they couldn’t let us in, just that it was forbidden by the court manager. Direct attempts at communicating with this court manager resulted in a ringing telephone with no answer; apparently he just didn’t want to hear it. Trapped outside were friends of Alfie and Zac, supporters and a journalist. We were hardly a terrifying baying mob ready to make the storming of the Bastille look like a picnic; there were seven of us huddled like penguins. Eventually, a security guard informed us that six seats had been allocated in the public gallery (which held
twelve 18*) for supporters. That meant two of us could go in. It was an easy decision to make, and those closest to Alfie went inside, promising to let us know of any developments. Soon after, the arbitrary proof that the journalist was, indeed, a journalist, was received by the court, and she, too, was allowed in, leaving four of us.
We spent our time shivering and pointing people who wanted to access the court to the door that security would allow them to pass through, since security weren’t exactly making their reasons for locking an entire public court to the public particularly clear. At one point, some police smugly asked us if we were cold. It made me glow briefly with irritation, at least.
It was freezing, and we came to realise that there was no way that we would be allowed to sit in the public gallery of an open trial, and after an hour in what had turned into hail, we decided it was time to head back and warm up. “State-1, us-nil,” I was muttering, just as we got a text from someone inside, who had left the courtroom to text us and tell us the judge had said that the public gallery should be open to the public. I heard later that he had been rather surprised to learn that the doors to a busy public building had been locked to bar our access.
As we walked back past the security a hundred metres from the court the guard asked “Are you protesters?” We didn’t even dignify that with an answer–we patently weren’t protesting anything apart from grumbling about how cold our hands were. Annoyed, and feeling as though he had to do something, the guard continued. “Is the lady of the group taking pictures?” he asked. It was a very silly question. I had my phone in my hand, and I was clearly typing on it. It was pointed at my feet; or, if it were the front camera, would be poised to be taking the least flattering selfie imaginable. He gave me an impotent lecture about how I was not allowed to take pictures. I decided not to tell him off for referring to me as “the lady of the group” as I had more important things to do.
When we returned to the court, the doors were still locked, and the same security guard still wouldn’t let us in despite our assertions that the judge had said so. He hadn’t heard anything about that, he said, and refused to check the information he could have easily accessed. It was only when a second security guard came down and let us in that he conceded. The second guard, apparently forewarned by the man in the hut, once again informed me I wasn’t allowed to take pictures. He delivered this in a wearied tone, unable to even pretend he thought that was the case.
Finally, after the first security guard had nicked my perfume out of my bag (presumably in case I scented the court), we were in and able to watch the–by my reckoning–half hour of court proceedings that happened in between all the hanging around that is commonplace in court.
I’ve supported people in court before and it was always farcical, but this was by far the most absurd of my experiences. Never before have I known of the doors to a public building to be locked like that, and based entirely on the say-so of security going against the judge’s wishes. From the looks of it, they were taking their lead from the police. And why?
Your guess is as good as mine, but it seems to me that this was the state once again exerting its power in any way it could. This has marked the entirety of the Alfie Meadows case: him and Zac are currently on their third trial, as the fact the police nearly killed Alfie kind of looks bad for them. They wanted to hide the level of support–from Alfie, and, perhaps, from the jury. They didn’t want witnesses to the injustice of the whole humourless farce of a trial.
If you’re outraged by this, remember that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Feel that outrage, and understand that things like this happen all the time. Talk about your outrage, the state of the justice system. Familiarise yourself with Alfie’s story, and others that are similar. Know that the state does not act fairly or justly, and share these tales because it’s absurd and it’s repulsive.
And remember that that’s just how power works.
Corrected the number of seats in the public gallery, thanks to Nina pointing it out below. Should also mention that when we got in there, there were plenty of empty seats as the court officials had done such a fine job of getting rid of supporters.