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Earlier this week, Sussex campaigners from Amnesty International gathered at Parliament to lobby for tougher controls on the arms trade. The lobby coincided with the launch of an Amnesty report which revealed how the arms trade fuels human rights abuses and conflict in countries already ravaged by war.
The EDO plant in Brighton is part of the US owned EDO/MBM Corporation which supplies weapons components to governments around the world. The local plant makes bomb release and interface equipment which has reportedly been used in Iraq.
For the past 2 years, a group of committed peace campaigners has been campaigning against the work of this factory, picketing it once a week.
In May last year EDO successfully – and with the support of the police – applied to the courts for an injunction to limit the demonstrations. Controversially, in order to do so, it used the Protection from Harrassment Act, a law originally designed to protect victims of domestic or sexual abuse. EDO claimed that protesters were harassing its employees, an allegation campaigners strenuously denied.
Demonstrations continued and there were several arrests. Campaigners protested their innocence with great tenacity and continued to challenge the injunction through the courts. They had remarkable success.
The injunction was quietly withdrawn in February this year, with EDO agreeing to pay £200,000 of the protesters costs. The criminal cases fell into disarray. Spokespeople from the organisation “Smash EDO” report that of more than 30 cases, a staggering 23 have failed.
John Catt (81) was one of those arrested. Since I first wrote about him, following his arrest on a demonstration just under a year ago, he has become something of a celebrity, achieving national prominence when he was detained under the Terrorism Act for wearing an anti-Blair T-shirt outside the Labour Party Conference
What few people knew was that this was the second time he’d been detained under the Act. Just a few weeks earlier, his car had been stopped as he and his daughter, peace campaigner and lawyer Linda Catt, drove through London to visit his son. They were forced out of the car, questioned and threatened with arrest. Eventually, they were allowed to proceed, shaken and distressed.
No explanation has been forthcoming about why the police held registration details of an elderly man who had been convicted of no crime and had been charged with nothing more serious than obstruction of the highway.
Crude bullying tactics used against elderly radicals do not play well with the British public. Even the right wing press doesn’t like the idea that people can be arrested for wearing non- violent slogans on a T-shirt.
Commentators in the national media have rightly highlighted this and other ‘T-shirt arrests’ as a particularly ludicrous example of how anti-terrorist legislation is being used to silence anti-government protest.
However, it seems possible that John Catt’s detention signified something altogether more sinister. When I interviewed him in May last year, I found it hard to credit that an elderly artist and peace activist who spends his time sketching at demonstrations, had been arrested even once.
One year on, I have woken up to the fact that John has been detained twice under the terms of the Terrorism Act and, in addition, has twice been arrested for minor offences, only to have the cases collapse before they come to court. This begins to look perilously like harassment.
I asked John to tell me about how he came to be arrested at demonstrations in May and August 2005. I listened to his account of events with mounting unease.
The EDO injunction, which was imposed in April 2005, confined protesters to a narrow grass verge opposite the factory, which backs onto a dangerously steep drop down to the railway line some 60 feet below.
On the day John was arrested in May, he noticed there were seemed to be greater numbers of police than was usual. He’d demonstrated outside the factory many times before, doing quick pen and ink drawings in his sketchbook of whatever he saw. He said that this time “There was an entirely different atmosphere. I didn’t recognise many of the police. It was as if they were out to subjugate and frighten people.”
Suddenly, 2 lines of police moved forward pushing protesters onto the verge. The crush was intense. Protesters in the front could not move back for fear of pushing those at the back over the sheer drop to the railway line. Protesters were shouting, the police were yelling and the noise was extraordinary.
John, who is partially deaf, said all he could hear was a “terrible din”. He remembers stepping off the grass. Suddenly, he was surrounded by officers and pushed backwards onto the ground with “real force”, narrowly avoiding hitting his head. He says he was given no chance to get up, but was dragged backwards across the road.
In the process his trousers began to come down and he sustained serious bruising and grazing to his lower back and buttocks, injuries I later witnessed. When I interviewed him, days after the arrest, he was still sitting awkwardly and was in evident discomfort.
When she saw him manhandled, John’s daughter rushed to his aid, but her efforts were in vain. She was herself arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer, though these charges, like John’s, were later dropped.
Despite the fact that John was elderly, had no record of violence and was charged with the very minor offence of “obstructing the highway” he was restrained in handcuffs until he reached the police station. He alleges that throughout the journey “the police officer who was sitting next to me on the bench kept barging me hard with his shoulder. It was painful. I asked him why he was doing it and he said he didn’t want me to fall on the floor.”
John alleges that the handcuffs were so tight that his wrists were bruised and one handcuff had to be removed by means of a screwdriver. He says he requested water at the police station, but was denied it for over 2 hours.
Linda Catt’s view is that the arrest was designed to intimidate her father and other people. She said “After all, if they’d do that to an old man, what would they do to the rest of us”.
John Catt was not intimidated. He refused to accept a caution, for it would have meant admitting guilt. Just 3 months later, he was arrested again, this time at a demonstration in Brighton’s main shopping area, with a helicopter whirring overhead. Witnesses describe the police “corralling” protesters, issuing orders to disperse, but giving people little opportunity to do so.
John says “ I was 6 or 8 deep in the crowd. I saw the police coming through and realised they were headed for me. They grabbed me, twisted my hands up my back and dragged me out. My damned shorts came down again. I was trying to get hold of them, but the police wouldn’t let me. Eventually my shorts were down by my ankles. You might say my private life went public! There were people everywhere, shoppers and protesters. I was embarrassed and humiliated. I didn’t manage to get them up again until I was near the police van.”
John was required to attend the police station several times, but was never charged.
I asked John why he thought he had been treated in this way. He replied “I think it was partly provocation. People have said it really upset the youngsters to see me attacked and humiliated. But they never retaliated.
“I think our opponents also didn’t want people of my age to be at the protests. Our being there made it obvious it was non-violent. I also think that once you’re charged they can keep you waiting on a piece of string. They can impose bail conditions to stop you protesting. It can go on for months.”
“They also do it because mud sticks. There are people I know well who think I must have done something illegal to be arrested. And if people see you as a criminal then they can discount what you say.”
John is in no doubt that he has been targeted, but he is not afraid.
“Resistance is important” he said “What we’re up against is an erosion of democracy. Anyone who stands up to this government runs the risk of being brutalised. They want a submissive society. But we have to stand up to them. We’re ordinary people and we must stand up for our rights. We’ve won a small victory and I’m proud if what I’ve done has helped.”