As an anti-war activist I’ve seen my fair share of court rooms. While appearing in court is never routine, Monday’s pre-trial hearing at Westminster Magistrate’s Court should have been fairly straight forward; a chance to plead ‘not guilty’ and for the court to set a trial date for our action at Downing Street to mark ten years of war in Afghanistan. An exception to the usual process was that my co-defendant, Fr Martin Newell, was in prison having being sentenced to 24 days in Pentonville prison for non-payment of a fine in relation to a previous anti-war action at Northwood.
However the ‘routine’ nature of the appearance was interrupted by the sudden appearance of two plain clothes policemen in the waiting room who announced they needed to talk to me in private and then promptly served papers on me saying that they intended to apply to the court for an anti-social behaviour order (ASBO). The papers say that the terms of the order sought are as follows:
The defendant must not:
Enter or be in the City of Westminster except while passing through as a passenger on the London Underground.
Carry with you or be in possession of any can of spray paint, tin of paint, marker pen, chalk or charcoal in anyplace outside the city of Oxford.
Carry with you of be in possession of bolt croppers in any place outside the city of Oxford.
For a period of 10 years.
The policemen said they would be serving more papers on me after Christmas and then promptly left. I was a bit shocked to say the least and the court hearing was a bit of a blur. As Martin wasn’t produced from prison a further court hearing was set for 9th January.
The papers served on me state that I have “acted in an anti-social manner, that is to say, in a manner that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress….” That is of course nonsense. The behaviour cited in the papers – fourteen anti-war actions that I have taken part in since January 1991 - have all been completely nonviolent and focused on resistance to war, nuclear weapons or the arms trade (14 actions in almost 21 years – not a particularly high rate either – much less that once a year).
In all the anti-war actions cited I have used paint – or sometimes charcoal – to expose what is happening at that location. I have never been, I admit, particularly eloquent. ‘The Arms Trade Kills’. ‘Trident =Death’. ‘Stop this bloody business’. Again, not particularly poetic, but “liable to cause alarm or distress”? I don’t think so.
Since 1991 the UK’s armed forces have bombed, killed and tortured with seeming impunity in the so-called national interest. Iraq and Afghanistan have been devastated, with communities destroyed and families ripped apart. Thousands of civilians have been killed and millions injured. Over the past twenty years too, billions of pounds have been wasted on the continued use, maintenance and development of new nuclear weapons - which threaten to incinerate us all – while the UK’s arms industry thrives by researching and developing new and more lethal ways to slaughter people.
But seemingly it is me (and my spray can) that is the ‘anti-social’ one.
My wife, Virginia, works with people with learning disabilities and daily sees the impact of spending cuts on social care, not just in her area of work but to all aspect of our social services. Along with our three children, we have taken part, along with thousands of other families in campaigns to keep local libraries and swimming pools from being shut as part of the wider public spending cuts. Other members of our extended family and friends struggle with care for elderly relatives as, again, social services are being cut. All the while our government continue to bail out the banks while letting large corporations off their tax payments. But again I am the one that is being ‘anti-social’.
But I suppose the real reason I am being threatened with this ASBO is that for more than twenty years I have refused to accept the social order that we have. I, along with countless others refuse to accept that violence and war is acceptable to defend ‘our’ lifestyle and ‘our’ interests. I refuse to accept that the death of innocent men women and children is an acceptable price that we must pay in order to keep ‘our’ economic system going, and to keep ‘our’ oil flowing. Rather than being consumed with The X-factor, ‘Strictly’ or Kate Middleton, (as we are encouraged to be) I am consumed with anger and outrage at what is being done in our name and in the name of ‘peace’.
It is accepted that in the name of some dubious ‘peace’ it is legitimate to spray bullets in Iraq and spill blood in Afghanistan. I, on the other hand, have spilled paint on the Downing Street pavement and sprayed paint on the MoD walls. Which behaviour do you think is really anti-social?