Police bail conditions are used to attack anti-fascist protest – challenge them in the courts and on the streets.
Police bail is used as a key means of restricting protest and paralysing political movements. In ‘political’ cases the police use bail conditions as much as they can to shut down public expressions of dissent, to freeze our political networks and processes and at times as a form of harassment or extra-judicial punishment. It is an attack on our individual and collective freedoms.
Anti-fascist protesters swept up in the recent mass arrests at the Westminster counter-demonstration against the BNP were bailed with conditions that they must not “protest or organise” in any context OR enter areas within central London under threat of re-arrest. None of those protesters had even been charged with an offence. Their perceived ‘crime’ was suspected (not proven) breach of Section 14 Public Order Act 1986, protesting outside of an ‘approved’ zone. Those protesters who had the temerity to legally challenge these excessive conditions remain ‘banned’ from attending anti-fascist demonstrations within the M25. A number of them continue to challenge these conditions.
The cops also use police bail to ‘ban’ activists from associating with each other, either in public or at all. At the anti-fascist counter demo against March for England in Brighton a number of known anti-fascist activists were given police bail conditions ‘not to publicly associate’ with each other. This type of condition prevents contact at political meetings or demonstrations, but could also prevent attendance at social gatherings or even walking in the street together. None of the activists concerned were ultimately charged.
Other oppressive restrictions used against protesters have included requirements to reside in a particular place, not to enter certain areas, requirements to report daily or several times weekly at a police station and curfews.
WHAT IS POLICE BAIL?
Police bail concerns the conditions the cops agree to release you on following arrest. The process usually occurs at the police station, whether or not the arrestee has been charged. Unlike breach of court bail or failing to surrender to bail on your stipulated date, actual breach of the police bail conditions is NOT a crime. However if a person is believed to have been found in breach by the cops, they may choose to re-arrest them in which case they must do so at the first available opportunity. Following re-arrest the cops must then choose to either release the arrestee on the same conditions or to charge them and then either bail or bring them to court the next day. It is almost unheard of, for courts to remand people just for a breach of police bail. This does not necessarily mean that the cops will choose to arrest for breach of bail at all – this could depend on their personal whim, how much they want to harass you individually or their wider objectives. But the mental pressure of police bail can be very difficult for people, and can cause them to restrict their own behaviour, sometimes for understandable practical reasons. Lawyers will often instinctively advise their clients not to breach police bail, rather than fully explain fully the nature of it so that an objective choice might be made. All of us, wherever possible, must fight against police bail conditions, whether in the courtrooms or on the streets, and to support all our comrades to do the same.
WHY IS POLICE BAIL SO BAD?
In political cases, the key objective of police bail appears to be to shut down further protest or expressions of dissent. At this stage you may not even be charged and may never be. The cops do not care about your freedom to protest and frequently view your perceived failure to comply with societal norms of the mainstream as some sort of pathological issue or antisocial behaviour. Either you must be mad or bad. The cops may do this by blanket bans on protest or organising, or by banning you from attending specific demonstrations or types of demonstration. Many of these conditions are so broad as to be open to legal challenge. In his recent report on freedom of peaceful assembly and association in the UK, UN special rapporteur Maina Kiai highlighted police bail with excessive conditions against protesters as concerning,
‘…as these conditions are imposed with a view to deterring them from further exercising their rights…’
He recommended that such stringent bail conditions should not be imposed and that where conditions are imposed they should be subject to review before a protest ombudsman. Full report here.
The overt use of bail conditions to restrict protest has recently been used following arrests at a number of different political demonstrations, perhaps most apparently from the Stop G8 London protests, where many arrestees were banned from protesting for the remainder of the duration of the Stop G8 week of action. Police bail is a cost-effective means by which the police can seek to control us. The Network for Police Monitoring states
These measures are attractive for the police as they are cheap and easy, usually involving none of the expense and inconvenience of dealing with legal process
As well as restricting where we go, police bail may also seek to restrict who we may associate with. The chief purpose of this appears to be to attempt to disrupt and paralyse political networks. But also it appears to be effectively used as a form of extra-judicial punishment. The people we organise and protest with, especially those who are members of affinity groups, are necessarily some of the most trusted and often close people to us. Activist security culture frequently necessitates this. Our close comrades are the people whose decisions we rely upon to protect our liberty and safety, and are so logically include those trusted people we might also choose to come to for support or guidance in a crisis or when times get really rough, such as when we have just been assaulted by the cops, bailiffs or fascists, or are potentially facing scary charges. Being banned from associating with the very people we need is disproportionately cruel and can be extremely mentally distressing.
By its nature, police bail disproportionately affects those in more vulnerable situations, re-arrest risk could have devastating consequences for those with childcare or carer commitments and no strong and immediate support network, for those in vulnerable employment and likewise those surviving mental illness or trauma related conditions. Travel costs to answer bail can themselves be devastatingly expensive to those on low incomes.
Police bail is often massively disproportionate to the offence protesters are accused/suspected of. It is ridiculous that a power of arrest, a very real threat to liberty, can be imposed with respect to non- imprisonable offences such as where the maximum sentence is itself a fine. Such is the case with the large number of protesters recently arrested on suspicion of breach of Section 14 at the counter-demonstration against the racist BNP earlier this month.
Police bail is indeterminate in length – unlike other aspects of the arrest process which are governed under strict statutory timelines, police bail can drag on for many months or sometimes years. Data recently obtained by a Freedom of Information request shows that at least 57,428 people are currently on bail. Of those, 3,172 have been waiting for more than six months for a decision on charges. Last month the Law Society called for a review of police bail practices and said there should be a statutory time limit on police bail of 28 days.
The terms of police bail are very often extremely unclear, and this is to the benefit of officers rather than protesters. For example, how wide does ‘central london’ extend if you are banned from this area, and where do the boundaries fall? If you are banned from ‘protesting and organising’ what activities constitute a breach – delivering legal support? Accessing arrestee support? Banner painting? Skill sharing? Blogging about forthcoming events? Attending meetings? If you are banned from ‘publicly associating’ with named others – how far does ‘public’ extend? Different solicitors may give different answers to the same question. The answer ultimately appears to be whatever the cop dealing with it thinks, because he will be the one in the position of power over your liberty when he takes that decision over you.
WHAT WE CAN DO FACED WITH POLICE BAIL CONDITIONS?
Ultimately whether or not protesters choose to adhere to police bail conditions has to be a matter of personal choice. Breach of police bail is not itself a crime. It is frequently not in the police’s interest to arrest for breach of police bail. As such, it is often the case that protesters will choose to defy police bail conditions. It is not always so easy, particularly for those protesters in the more vulnerable situations as listed above, but those who do choose to defy police bail conditions must absolutely be supported in doing so. In cases of mass arrests with similar bail conditions, there may be safety in numbers where a significant number of people chose to defy those conditions and return to the streets. The more of us that do this, the more protected we all feel. If all attendees at demonstrations take steps to maintain our individual privacy, such as masking up, refusing to give our personal details to the police, maintaining ‘no comment’ in the face of police questioning, not allowing the intel-gathering Police Liaison Officers to penetrate our blocs, then the harder it is for police to identify and place those individuals at demonstrations who may be in breach of police bail.
A certain level of perspective must also be maintained. In the current climate where protest is increasingly criminalised and any individuals may be swept up into kettles and mass arrests, merely for being in the wrong place at re wrong time, anyone who attends a protest may be at risk of arrest. Similarly, many protesters attending demonstrations in visible breach of police bail are not arrested. The worst case scenario for most people attending a demonstration in breach of police bail (especially in the absence of other aggravating factors) is only likely to be arrest, as is true of anyone else attending the protest. For many people this is an acceptable risk as compared with the alternative of letting the police effectively paralyse their ability to voice their dissent or disrupt important political work. Protesters should seek individual legal advice if they have any specific concerns or questions about their own situation.
It is frequently the case that broad or repressive police bail conditions can be successfully legally challenged. The first stage in this process is that the arrestee or more likely their lawyer will write to the Custody Sergeant responsible for the bail conditions, requesting that they be changed. Sometimes this can prompt the police to respond that they will take No Further Action on the case. Alternatively the officer may agree to much reduce the scope of the conditions. Should the officer fail to amend the conditions to the satisfaction of the arrestee, they may then apply for a court hearing on this matter, which in London may be heard within roughly a week or so. The arrestee usually has little to lose in this situation as it is unlikely that bail conditions will be worsened. In situations where more than one person has been arrested, successful individual challenges improve the chances of others’ bail being successfully amended too, as it is less easy for the officer or judge to decline further similar applications. This is one important reason (of many) where it is useful for those caught up in mass arrest situations to get in contact with each other via groups such as Green and Black Cross or other Defendant Solidarity groups. An advantage of going to court to challenge oppressive police bail conditions is that political groups can choose to ‘politicise’ this hearing, by taking steps such as press releasing or protesting the treatment activists have faced and reiterating the circumstances of arrest and subject of the protest or action concerned. This also serves to add to wider debates concerning the increasing criminalisation of protest.
Whilst police bail conditions can be used by the state to stifle protest and isolate us from our political networks, to an extent they only hold as much power as we give them. In many cases individuals will choose to defy them. In most cases it is worth exploring whether they may be the subject of legal challenge. As ever, knowledge is power.
Fuck police bail! ACAB!
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