Public Order in the Gallery

Whilst several long weeks in the ‘public gallery’ of a courtroom cannot even begin to compare to the pain of those same weeks in the locked glass box defendants occupy, the experience warrants a critical engagement – both as witnesses to and participants in administered bourgeois justice.

These reflections on the public gallery emerge from the trial of Alfie Meadows and Zak King, two young men perused by the police and the CPS for charges of violent disorder (an offence under s. 2 of the Public Order Act 1986) at the 9th December 2010 student demonstration in Parliament Square. After two years on bail, a trial and an aborted retrial, their case was heard at Woolwich Crown Court from February 2013. After a month of this third iteration of the trial the jurors found the defendants not guilty.

This piece can not be a report of those proceedings* – I am neither skilled enough nor strong enough for such a task – but must instead be a reckoning of my engagement with the trial, as a friend to the defendants and their loved ones and, at least in name, an observing member of the public. An image from the first trial serves as an interesting point of departure for this.

As reported by Petra Davis in the New Statesman, supporters of both defendants had initially been denied entry to the entirety of Woolwich Crown Court on the day their trial was to begin. Parents, partners, friends and supporters were locked out in the early February snow by the order of a nameless ‘court manager’, purportedly in the interest of maintaining public order. The gallery of this nominally open trial was shut on his command and those excluded were told they could only be granted leave to enter as and when the manager saw fit. This example of the managerial character of courts and their exclusionary processes served as the radicalisation of a previous brutal attack on supporters. In the first iteration of the retrial the elevated glass box that was the public gallery of one of the high security courtrooms at Woolwich was supervised by two police officers. In order to maintain public order in the least public of spaces they insisted that two seats be reserved for them, over the defendants’ supporters.

It is important to remember that both defendants on trial had been attacked by police before their arrests – famously Alfie Meadows fought for his life after a police baton to the head. Many in the public gallery had suffered alongside them or indeed attended out of solidarity as they themselves were victim to police attack. The result of sharing a box with these officers was only added trauma. Yet how are we to comprehend both these efforts to exclude the public from the gallery? One may think that the risk of a riot in a courtroom is minimal, if not an absurd suggestion. A cursory search of news archives shows that this is true, but the fact remains strange.  Why, when a day in a magistrates’ court reveals the state’s naked destruction of lives – racist, gendered and in the service of the bourgeois class – is order not more routinely breached? Why do the traumas of observing in a courtroom not erupt violently? They are instead carefully managed in the space of the public gallery. The absurdity of the police presence at court was not that they were concerned about public disorder, but that they did not realise it was already prevented.

Passivity is the demand made of all those who visit a court. From the invasive investigation by security guards on entering the building, to the constant reminder from judges that no emotion should be exhibited and no expression should creep across one’s face lest the jury notices that somebody loves the defendants, is disgusted by a barristers attempt to smear a witness or thinks that the entire process is a great injustice.

The prosecution made their case in the first two weeks of Alfie and Zak’s trial mostly by calling on police witnesses. In succession they lied and contradicted one another (despite admitting to discussing their statements before writing them). In the weeks that followed the prosecution barrister embarked on bizarre distortions and torturous cross-examinations of the defendants – each suffering days of repeated questioning. Through all this the public gallery could not comment, refute a lie or exhibit the pain one feels when video footage is shown of police officer after police officer hitting protesters on the head with batons. It would have been ‘Contempt of Court’ to do any of these things, a crime that allows judge’s to summarily imprison members of the public; there is a sort of recognition in this law that courts breed their own contempt.

Of course those who bear witness in them cannot achieve the passivity that courtrooms demand. An active critical relationship is constantly maintained and this cannot be masked in the juridical structures enacted by wigged and gowned major and minor functionaries of the court. Anger, pain, suffering and misery compose the theoretical engagement with the courts barbarous treatment of human life. No matter how many times one is made to stand and bow before the judge – who relishes in acting the sovereign-like role – the public in the gallery engage in a struggle with the brutal reality of the law.

It is such a shame then that most verdicts are returned and most sentences are handed down before empty galleries. Whilst once public galleries were relatively full, now it is a shock to judges to see them occupied. Defendants are left to struggle against crushing state mechanisms alone. The courtroom exchanges that should ferment public disorder – imagine for a moment how many more nights of rioting we would have seen in August 2011 if the galleries of those all-night courts had been full and the herding of the ‘feral underclass’ had been witnessed – remain unchallenged by the ‘public’ that can undermine and interrupt the smooth administration of bourgeois law.

We should fill the public galleries then so that defendants are not alone in confronting the law with humanity, so that judges are confronted with the social bodies that they hold in contempt and so that disorder returns to the gallery.

* A number of journalists attended the trial and have written accounts. Petra Davis and Glen Mcmahon both came to court regularly and have reported on it exceptionally.

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Public Order in the Gallery

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