Arrested for protesting austerity - A report from Norfolk PA's David Peel

This struggle is bigger than all of us. The point is to be in it, not watching it. Action is the life of all. If my experience brings just one person into that struggle, for whatever reason, then that experience has not been lost.

Arrest is a sobering experience. And I am not referring to alcohol. It happened to me on Friday 17 January at around 6.30 in the evening, shortly after Prime Minister David Cameron swept into The Forum in the centre of Norwich for a television interview with BBC Look East after his visit to Norfolk.
Norfolk People's Assembly had found out about the trip just a few days earlier, and in line with our policy of protesting against visits by Government Ministers we prepared to meet him to make clear our concerns about the austerity which is destroying our country, its people and public services.
We were tipped off that he was attending meetings at a nearby plush hotel earlier, and so a few activists met his convoy there. We were close to him as he climbed out of his armoured government Jaguar car and called out "Mr Cameron, can we talk to you please".... "Mr Cameron will you speak to us please"....and "We mean you no harm". We even held up placards to that effect.
He ignored us, as all Ministers we have met so far have done. Engagement and involvement are management consultancy buzz words which Cameron and his Ministers love to trot out, but which they never mean.
So we retreated to the Forum, where we were astonished to see around 100 activists from all organisations who had responded to our call, and to others, at extremely short notice to demonstrate. All entrances were covered. He could not just stroll in waving and smiling for the cameras, without a murmur of protest from anyone. 
By the time he arrived at the entrance I had expected him to use, it was dark, and we had a number of police with us. He swept passed again, refusing to engage and determined to take only the sort of easy interview he knew he would get from a regional media still seemingly in thrall to "Ministers up from London". 
I was arrested at that entrance initially on a charge of attempted criminal damage to the prime ministers car. It was alleged that my placard, a hand held piece of cardboard with Norfolk People's Assembly written on it, and no stick, had been thrown by me at the car, and had hit it. 
I was taken to a nearby police station, and kept there for an hour. Then I was driven out into North Norfolk, where the only holding cells were available - there are none in the city, thanks to, yes you guessed it, the cuts! I had to smile. But it was rueful. I had effectively been taken out of the demonstration I had helped call and organise. There was no "solidarity demonstration" outside of supporters. I was....alone, and as usual in these cases, about to be taken some way from home and family, for hours and hours, with only one opportunity to make one call.   
Once at the station in a north Norfolk market town called Aylesham, it was the usual lengthy procedure of booking in, removing and bagging valuables, removing belts and shoes, watches and jewellery (my red star earring!), mobile phone, and going through my wallet. They glanced at my Communist Party membership card, emblazoned with a picture of one of my heroes, Communist MP Willie Gallagher, himself arrested in the legendary battle of George's Square Glasgow in January 1919.
They took my "No Comment" booklet published by anarchists and which I had remembered to bring to a demonstration for the first time since I had been given ironic. It turned out to be a good piece of advice which I singularly failed to follow. And that's no disrespect to my many anarchist comrades and friends.
I was questioned and finger printed and swabbed. I signed countless electronic forms. And then it was down to the cells. A comrade of mine who has experienced this before warned me there is no sound like that of a cell door banging shut. He was right. The closing of that door, the silence that followed and the sense of being completely alone, abandoned even, is a familiar one to millions of people the world over. But it has a poignancy way beyond the usual when your "crime" is political. 
I recalled all the books I had read and films I had watched about this moment, all far from my experience of course, but useful. I paced the cell, as they had done. Six paces long, at its longest, and four paces wide. A toilet in the corner. A water dispenser that filled just four cups, so as to frustrate any attempt to flood the cell. An all-seeing CCTV in the corner to spy on my ablutions, but also to monitor me should I try suicide as a way out. The all-pervasive Crimestoppers number, painted on the ceiling. A "bed" area, with thin blue plastic bedding which I lay on to try and rest. It had been a long and exhausting day. I didn't sleep. I just...waited.
I was given a duty solicitor and I set out my case. He gave me sound advice, and so we entered the interrogation under caution and on tape or CD of course. I responded honestly and with the advice of my solicitor. Then it was over.
I refused the offer of a caution on the criminal damage charge, and a lesser charge under section 5 of the public order act, a charge that will be familiar to many before, and I suspect, many who will follow in the months and years to come as this government tightens the laws to stop legitimate democratic protest.
I said I would be pleading not guilty to that charge. And so, shortly after, the ordeal was over and I went home.
Last week, I attended Norwich Magistrates Court for the preliminary hearing. Thanks to comrades, I had been put in contact with Imran Khan solicitors who had spoken to me about the case and expressed an interest in representing me.  They are as concerned as we are in the People's Assembly about the new draconian and anti democratic laws being used to stifle public concern about austerity policies, which are killing people....and destroying public services. 
For me this isn't about David Peel. He is just another victim in the ebb and flow of growing public anger at the cuts, and the Coalition Government's response to anyone who raises their voice against them. This is about the People and its voice - the People's Assembly - versus David Cameron.
I have written letters to the house newspaper of the People's Assembly - the Morning Star - twice now, setting out David Cameron's appalling failings among other things, but particularly regarding the floods. This out-of-touch, aloof and weak Prime Minister leading a "couldn't give a damn" Coalition is cold hearted and callous when it comes to the sufferings of anyone outside his family circle and circle of rich friends. It's the clue to his behaviour in most situations. 
Now that I had been arrested, I was determined to bring this case against David Cameron to court. When asked by the court clerk how I would plead, I said in the clearest and most determined voice I could muster - Not Guilty. But as I stood there in the dock on Valentines Day, 2014, while comrades watched from the public gallery - they had turned out in the cold and rain to show solidarity and support - the prosecution expressed concern about the evidence of the police before them, and asked for time to review it. My solicitor and I exchanged bemused looks.
The magistrates turned to me and after saying they agreed and suggesting they all return to court on7 March to consider next steps - I was told it was not necessary for me to turn up for that hearing if I did not want to. It was almost as if the prosecution and magistrates were embarrassed about this having got so far, and that they were sorry for the inconvenience caused.
I left the court and after a hurried conference with my solicitor, returned home, and made a cup of tea. We don't know what will happen on the 7th of March. It could be that the case is dropped, or it could get worse for me.  I am not going to prejudge the outcome. 
What I do know is that being arrested and charged is an unpleasant experience with potentially very serious consequences. It can ruin you financially and harm your future and career. It scares and upsets your family and especially your children.
It sorts your friends and comrades into "fair weather" and "firm", and sometimes, it can turn them into enemies. It can move you from the spokesman for your cause in the media, to that "idiot" who took the media spotlight off all those many people who came in peace.
And it affects you personally in ways you cannot fathom. Your responses vary from withdrawal into a kind of inactive shell, or to over-activity as compensation, and all points in between. And the sublimated stress of it can seriously damage your health.        
But like your heroes before you, you come to accept it as a kind of occupational hazard. You don't have to be guilty of anything - especially these days - for it to happen. You just have to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time. It was ever thus. Standing up for the vulnerable and poor, and making your voice heard, is enough.
If your heroes are rebels and revolutionaries, well, it comes with the territory. Whether they be Jesus, Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Lenin, Guevara or Nelson Mandela....arrest, and much, much worse, have been their fate. In this country we have an astonishing tradition of rebellion and revolution. We are standing on the shoulders of giants, whether it is peasants revolt leader and Lollard priest John Ball, Digger leader Gerrard Winstanley or in Norfolk, Robert Kett, the Higdons of Burston or the rick burners and wage rioters who followed "Captain Swing".  
It is this perspective which sees you through the trauma of arrest and charge. And for me, I need only consider for a second of the 20 plus people with acute mental health needs who have died in Norfolk because of the cuts, or those homeless on the streets, or the million young people rotting on the dole, those dying in A and E, the disabled taking their lives after ATOS has forced them back to work....need I continue? 
This struggle is bigger than all of us. The point is to be in it, not watching it. Action is the life of all. If my experience brings just one person into that struggle, for whatever reason, then that experience has not been lost.
If you are reading this, or you think others might be encouraged to join the People's Assembly and become part of this great struggle, share it with them. Join the People's Assembly movement today. Be part of the fight against this shameful austerity which is ruining our public services and wrecking millions of people's lives.
Let's build a better society for ourselves, and those who will come after us... one we can be proud of. 

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  • David Peel
    commented 2014-03-10 19:29:28 +0000
    Update for comrades:

    The Crown Prosecution Service has dropped its case against a protest organiser, arrested outside the Forum in Norwich during a demonstration against the visit of Prime Minister David Cameron. The demonstration (17 January) was attended by over 100 activists called together by Norfolk People’s Assembly at around 24 hours notice. Their aim was to protest as David Cameron arrived for a television interview following a day-long visit to the city, and the county of Norfolk. As his armoured Government car swept into the Forum car park, activists from the People’s Assembly and other anti austerity groups called out “Stop the Cuts” and “You are ruining this country”.

    David Peel, Norfolk People’s Assembly publicity officer was the only activist arrested. He was taken to Aylsham police station in North Norfolk, where he was initially charged with attempted criminal damage to the car after a cardboard placard was thrown. This was subsequently changed to a Section 5 public order offence. Following an initial hearing on 14 February, where the prosecution solicitor asked for time to review the evidence, a new court date was set for 7 March. The CPS announced it was dropping the case on Wednesday 5 March. David Peel said:

    “We are saddled with a Coalition, which has no popular mandate and is destroying our cherished public services and wrecking millions of people’s lives.

    “In Norfolk the cuts are doing untold damage to our communities and to the lives of local people, especially those who are vulnerable and less well off.

    “Standing up for people and services is our responsibility and our right. We will not be deterred by current or future draconian restrictions on our freedoms.”

    He added:

    “The People’s Assembly is the fastest growing movement against austerity in Britain. It is the voice of all those suffering from the cuts and its activists will not be intimidated or silenced by politicians and their unjust laws.”

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