‘The truth is obsolete
Only two positions:
Victimizer or victim
Both end up in destruction trusting this crooked system’
Lauryn Hill, Mystery of Iniquity
So many of us hate courts and yet can’t escape them. They are violent buildings where thousands of people appear daily to face a justice that we have to recognise as worthy of hate. Of course not every single case is driven by violent intent or malice on the part of the police or Crown Prosecution Service but the means and ends of the justice system remain set viciously against human life. We see this not only in the punishments they hand out, but through the entire process of who is trusted, who is represented and who is criminalised. Still I want to attend the public galleries of these courts and to be joined by many others because there is no choice left in the matter. Just as defendants can’t choose to be absent from their trials, the ‘public’ is continually invoked throughout the legal process in order to legitimate a brutality. Being in public galleries and supporting people forced into defending themselves at court means not playing along with the grossly malleable role normally assigned to the ‘public’ in justice, but instead providing care, sensitivity and tenderness to those on trial. If we hate courts and want to see them destroyed I think we – their haters and eventual destroyers – have to occupy them each time they try to destroy one of us.
Already these buildings are constructed to separate those criminalised from others. In most courts defendants are locked in a dock with glass windows where the only people sitting with them, if anyone at all, are co-defendants and a security guard who holds the keys to unlock either the door to release them or the door toward the cells. On sentencing the risk is always there that those in the dock will have had their last contact for some time with loved ones before they entered the courtroom. But even then that assumes they had anyone with them at the trial in the first place. Unfortunately it is far from uncommon for people to have no supporters with them in the public gallery. Worse still is when people have been arrested and brought to a magistrates’ court without ever having been released only to have bail refused and be remanded in custody.
A lot of the time this isn’t the situation with the cases many of us may have attended: those of political activists charged with public order offences or other specific laws used to criminalize protest. To these defendants bail is usually given and campaigns are often set up to encourage supporters to turn out. By no means is this always the case, but the contrast between attendance at these cases and those of people arrested on a daily basis because they are black, poor, queer, a sex worker or any of the other undesirable combinations that make arrest, charge, bail refusal, remand and prosecution more likely is distinctly noticeable. No doubt this is because we don’t hear about these cases or we find it hard to acknowledge just how political they are when weighing up our time constraints. A more fundamental reason though is that we don’t attend courts in general. It becomes hard to imagine just how painfully isolating the conditions for defendants are when so few of us take the time to see or talk about what happens to people in front of judges. The smallest insight into that pain is unavailable and hidden away in places we don’t think about and those inflicting the violence of courts are glad we don’t think about them.
In 1932 an anonymous “Solicitor” wrote of attendance at courts:
‘The working classes know of the injustice that occurs in the police courts. Not only are they told by those who are compelled to attend there, but, especially in these days of unemployment, there is nearly always a large audience of regular spectators in the public seats.’[i]
What happened then to the large audiences? Why is it that their presence in public galleries now often induces suspicion – if not worse – from the various functionaries of the court? At two of the three trials of student protesters Alfie Meadows and Zak King – who were eventually found not guilty of violent disorder during the police kettle of the 9th December 2010 tuition fees demonstration where they themselves had received injuries from the police, Alfie’s life threatening – supporters in the packed public gallery at Willesden Crown Court were met by police and security who attempted to control and harass their access to the trial. At the retrial in October of 2012 loved ones, friends and supporters looking down on the room below from one of the elevated glass fronted public galleries at the high security court were joined by several police officers. Of course no regard was paid to the fact that the defendants were victims of police violence or that many of the people who were in the gallery were no strangers to that type of violence themselves. The police claimed to have been ordered to be in the gallery to prevent disorder and soon were joined by their inspector who demanded that seats be given up for the officers to remain through the trial, eventually resorting to picking out people to be forcibly removed. Then when the trial was restarted in February 2013 access to the entire court building was barred to attendees by security in communication with the police.[ii] Both of these refusals of access took place in courtrooms where nominally open hearings were taking place. That is they were in spaces open to the public and therefore under the logic of public order and its policing.
Though the above descriptions sound absurd and excessive, the reality is that public galleries are at all times subject to this logic. Courts demand of those who enter them a cold passivity amenable to the manipulation – nominal and bodily – of the ‘public’ that justice undertakes[iii]. Spirits are crushed as soon as people enter these buildings to be subjected to the scans and searches of security and the crushing continues as you are forced by judges to watch emotionlessly whilst police lie, a defendant worries under the strain of a prosecutors harassment or unjust verdicts are given. When the usual controls of the public gallery are not enough to quieten people feeling, judges have at their disposal ‘contempt of court’ laws; only a justice system that must put in place architecture to ensure passivity from its participants because it breeds its own contempt requires such legislation as to allow judges to summarily imprison people aghast at their violence.
Learning of the damage courts do of course ferments and fortifies our hate for them. As Engels wrote in The Condition of England from 1844: ‘The maltreatment of the poor and the preferential treatment of the rich in all the courts of law is so universal, is practised so openly and brazenly, and is reported so shamelessly by the newspapers that one can rarely read a paper without being filled with indignation.’[iv] The newspapers now seem closer to the “Solicitor’s” description from 1932: ‘The Press is not much help. Very little space is given to reports of any but sensational or unusual cases, and, unless someone makes a scene, irregularities, and even serious injustices, pass unnoticed.’[v] The courts continue to be open and brazen in their mistreatments while the public are absent, foreclosing the possibility of an equally open and brazen response from those who might recognise their injustices.
The riots across England in August 2011 were followed by the twilight courts that dealt an agile tragedy to communities, remanding many overnight based on no evidence. Paul Gilroy, who attended some of the riot hearings at the time, reported at a public meeting:
‘I was sitting in Highbury magistrate’s court this morning, watching the magistrate giving people who had no criminal record months and months before their case would even be heard. And those young people, some of whom were not with their families but were on their own, could not have been defended successfully even by someone like Michael Mansfield. It’s a sham what’s going on down there. For people who’ve been charged with violent disorder, 2 out of 3 of them have been remanded in custody, and that is a scandal, not justice.’[vi]
At appeal the then Lord Chief Justice Igor Judge praised the ‘committed and dedicated’[vii] way in which the lower courts aided in the ‘efficient administration of justice’. His most revealing praise however was noting that the coordination of Police Service, Crown Prosecution Service, Probation Service and Prison Service ‘represents the very end of a system in which these different services have distinct and independent responsibilities.’ The courts those nights were at the heart of maintaining public order alongside the police and they managed it largely unseen by the ‘pubic’ they claimed to be acting for. How many more nights of rioting might there have been if the state’s vicious response was performed in front of full public galleries?
That question is partly answered by the conclusion of the inquest into the death of Mark Duggan in January 2014. An entire courtroom, connected by video link to the main court, had to be used to hold the large number of people that attended to hear the jury’s verdict. Unlike most verdicts from inquests into deaths following police contact the entire country was awaiting this jury’s decisions and when the incomprehensibly unjust ‘lawful killing’ was announced many expected and speculated on the possibility of a repeat of the rioting that followed the initial killing. For whatever reason that didn’t happen but there was an unwilling recognition that witnessing such injustice might lead to disorder.
The fact that people witnessing their version of justice makes the state fear disorder so much is certainly a part of why we should manifest our hate for courts as presence in them. The state would like to act as if it were the only possible form for a collective of people and so when the negative image of its community is demonstrated in courts – where state law is meant to be strongest – as a capacity to support and struggle alongside one another, the threat is clear and victories can finally be had against it. Adrienne Makenda Kambana took a moment to thank those who supported her and her family at the end of the inquest into the death of her husband Jimmy Mubenga who was unlawfully killed by G4S security guards on a deportation flight to Angola[viii]. At times the court used for that inquest was so full that the dock was opened up for members of the public to observe from. Unfortunately at other times there weren’t very many people there at all. It is undeniable that juries are affected by things like the presence of supporters in court. As people co-opted into playing one of the roles of a good ‘public’ by the law, juries are constantly reminded to limit themselves to ‘facts’. Seeing what actual people look like can remind them to go beyond this and consider who is hurt by the processes and their decisions.
In hating the state’s justice and acing outside of the bounds of the positive public it creates we are being negative. The left communist journal Endnotes recently published an article on the 2011 riots that in part looked at justice campaigns that emerge in response to deaths in custody:
‘… [R]esidents do not always remain passive. Indeed, the imposition of such policing can contribute to the formation of at least the negative unity of a community self-organising against the cops: some neighbourhood “defence campaign”, for example, oriented around retribution for the death in police custody of a community member, or the indifference of state and media to one or another racist tragedy. Such things have been persistent, if often submerged, current in London life throughout the decades of capitalist restructuring – decades in which hundreds of deaths in police custody, typically blacks, have not resulted in a single convicted officer.’[ix]
Where Endnotes misunderstand the negativity is inscribing it at the level of the logical form of the collective and not also the feelings that create space for fighting for change. Those who have lost their loved ones, go to court angry, hating and despairing and yet all the while calling for justice. To some there is nothing special about any of those feelings or even the call for justice, but when they are felt in and against courts they represent a call for the end to the order that imposes the current conditions on us.
For so long the courts have been adept at maintaining a positive public as part of positive law. All the while we have hated them and been indignant as public order largely continued. If we want their destruction we have to take the hate and the refusal to be passive where they feel safest inflicting their violence on us: courtrooms.
[i] “Solicitor”, English Justice 1932, p. 2
[ii] An account of this for New Statesman magazine by journalist Petra Davis (who was also barred entry for sometime) is available online at: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/02/trial-alfie-meadows-and-zak-king
[iii] Nina Power has written on and discussed the role of the ‘public’ as a collective subject employed in the law, including a radio essay on courts for the first episode of her Resonance FM show The Hour of Power which is available online at http://libcom.org/library/hour-power-4th-november-2012
[iv] Friedrich Engels, ‘The Condition of England. II. The English Constitution’ in Marx and Engels Collected Works Volume 3 1975, p. 511
[v] “Solicitor”, English Justice 1932, p. 2
[vi] Paul Gilroy’s speech from a public meeting organised by Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts and held in Tottenham on August 15th 2011 is available online at: http://dreamofsafety.blogspot.co.uk/2011/08/paul-gilroy-speaks-on-riots-august-2011.html
[vii] R v Blackshaw & Others https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/Resources/JCO/Documents/Judgments/r-v-blackshaw-others.pdf
[ix] ‘A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats’ in Endnotes 3, pp. 104-105
Originally published in Bad Feelings, Book Works, 2015