8 months of police harrasment, finally behind me.
Last week, Sean Farmelo was found not guilty of violent disorder at a student protest in February. Here is his shocking account of what happened: a story of fabricated evidence, police lies and a university trying to silence rather than protect its students.
Since the 15th of February, unknown to many of my friends I’ve been being pursued by the police and the university on spurious charges of assult that collapsed in court yesterday. I can’t describe the overwhelming feeling of this finally being over and I can’t thank my parents and certain friends enough for their support. It all began when I participated in a demonstration against a now famous injunction banning sit-ins on my campus, the injunction (which was condemned by Amnestly International, Liberty and Index on Censorship) has become since the subject on much enmity between students and the university.
I was wrongfully arrested on the charge of violent disorder, which was later changed to assault and subjected to six months of extreme stress. My trial finished last week with a Not Guilty verdict at Birmingham Magistrates court after major contradictions in prosecution testimonies and film footage showing me not assaulting anyone.
At the time a spokesperson for West Midlands Police made the claim that ‘a 20-year-old man from Edgbaston was arrested on 15th February on suspicion of assault after a security guard at the University sustained a broken foot.’, something which was later proved in court to be an outright lie, with no supporting medical documents.
The injunction was taken out by the University of Birmingham in a special High Court sitting costing upwards of £10,000 on Nov 25th to break up a peaceful anti fees sit-in taking place in abandoned gatehouse on the edge of campus. During the occupation a colleague of mine, Simon Furse, was assaulted by a security guard and a university disciplinary was brought against him.
Given the national outcry against the injunction and its attack on freedom of expression; the implications it might have had for other universities across the country and the disgraceful treatment of Simon Furse by a maniacal university management; a national demo was called by NCAFC, Defend the Right to Protest and the Education Activist Network and backed by the NUS for the day of Simon Furse’s disciplinary. The Guild of Students, my students union, later pledged its support for the march.
On the day of the march we successfully disrupted Simon’s disciplinary and then gathered by the students union for speeches and the march. We ignored the illegitimate A to B route unilaterally imposed by Guild and University management days before and instead marched around campus on our own route. During the march I helped keep a door open at the back of a building on campus, we were unsuccessful in keeping it open as a security guard slammed shut the door on my foot crushing it and causing me to scream out in pain.
My foot was eventually released and the march continued and held a successful sit-in in the corporate management suite of the university. When the sit-in finished and exited the building we found the police attempting to arrest a protestor I didn’t know. After being talked to they agreed to have him come in for questioning tomorrow (with the threat of arrest if he didn’t).
While this was going on I naively approached a police officer standing off to the side and asked him why they weren’t going to arrest the security guard who crushed my foot in a door. The police officer asked for my name and said I was in the same position as the other man, and when I said ‘forget it’ and walked away he then forcefully arrested me. I had absolutely no idea why and was in deep shock as I was arrested, it was the first time anything like that had happened to me. There were around 30 witnesses crowding around as I was cuffed and dragged off to a police car. The officer later accused me of ‘struggling’ upon arrest which is wholly untrue, my mind was absolutely blank and I was too scared to struggle.
I was taken to Kings Heath police station and held for five hours in a cell. My charge was then changed to Violent Disorder, a particularly scary and repressive piece of criminal law I’d learnt about in legal training put on by the Guild and that I’d read about in the Alfie Meadows case. It is a nasty New Labour invention that is often used as a catch all protestor offence and its vague description makes it very easy to convict non-violent people with. In my interview I answered ‘no comment’ and gave a prepared statement denying assault and violent disorder, following the advice of my lawyer. As if it were a practical joke the police accused me of assaulting a security guard and severely injuring his foot – the exact thing I initially said had happened to me!
When I was released into the cold February night without my hat, jumper, bag or shoes I was overjoyed to find a whole host of my friends waiting outside the station in solidarity.
However there was a total lack of Guild presence, apparently their ‘duty of care’ doesn’t extend to giving any assistance whatsoever to their members who’ve been wrongfully arrested at a Guild-backed protest on campus. When I was in the police station, in my cell and asked which solicitor I wasn’t sure so I asked them to call the Guild and get in contact with an officer who I knew would be able to tell me which protest lawyers to go with – however no one in the whole building picked up, and after getting back home I found Guild officers had been on Facebook all day attacking the student protesters rather than helping me. My shock at seeing that a “student’s union” can abandon someone in such a dire situation is what motivated me to run for an officer position to change the institution for better.
My criminal case quickly became a farce, with my charge being changed multiple times and several other friends being taken in for questioning. I was in and out of the police station around seven times in the next two months for interviews and a botched identification process that later helped destroy the prosecution’s case. I was missing lectures, seminars due to the police appointments and was very stressed. I did very badly in my course around then and failed modules as a direct result of my treatment by the police. I felt unable to go to either the Guild or the University for help with my academic troubles as I was aware they were both in collaboration with the police over my case. However Guild Council did strongly condemn the university’s disciplinaries over the protest.
The trial was eventually scheduled for 1st of October. The main witness against me, the security guard who slammed my foot shut in the door, claimed in the witness box that I was the ‘ringleader of the stampers’ and that my ‘repeated and vigorous stamping’ had given him ligament damage and lasting back pains. I’m not the biggest man and I think it was becoming apparent to the judge that the claims I’d severely injured a bulky 6’5 security guard were spurious, especially given the fact my foot was propping open the door the entire incident so it would have been impossible for me to stamp on him. The defence footage filmed by a Green & Black Cross Legal Observer clearly showed me cowering away from the security guard and with my foot on the door, it didn’t show me jostling him or stamping on him, things he specifically claimed I did.
When it came to the verdict the judge dismissed the prosecution’s evidence against me due to the numerous contradictions in their witness testimony. A security guard who was said to have been “pushed” to the ground by students conceded in court that she had in fact fell over herself, and her witness statement saying she was wearing flat shoes was contradicted by photographs of her wearing high-heels. The security guard I allegedly assaulted had said I was wearing black pimsols, however the shoes presented by the police confiscated from me on the day were described as “green boots.” This security guard claimed to have identified me months later at an ID parade at the police station from his memory of the incident, however neglected to mention that he walks past a massive banner with my name and face on it on his way to work every day and later admitted that he already knew who I was from me being a public figure on campus.
But most importantly, video footage of the entire incident filmed by a legal observer contradicted many the main prosecution witnesses’ claims and clearly showed me not having assaulted him or anyone, and had in fact stood still backing away throughout the entire thing.
With this incident now behind me, I’m looking forward to moving on with my studies and carrying on the fight for education and all public services, against privatisation, tuition fees & cuts. Our movement increasingly effective and powerful as it is faces increasing pressure from the police, university and government who want to stop us. Activists shouldn’t be scared, we should get prepared. We need to be careful and get well acquainted with our legal rights as we face real danger from a police force that is systematically targeting political protestors. Although I have been found not guilty many other innocent protesters are falling victim to injustice such as Alfie Meadows and also the Fortnum & Mason occupiers. I would strongly recommend activists attend or organise Green and Black Cross legal training sessions . The important thing is not get put off taking action despite all this I believe it is worth the risks and I hope see more actions taking place this year at the TUC national demo on October 20th and NUS National Demonstration on November 21st.