Woollard vs Thomas: Sentencing our youth

Two high-profile cases have ended with young people being sentenced to years incarcerated in young offenders’ institutes recently, one for 2 years and 8 months the other a total of 15 years. “So what?” I hear you cry “young people are incarcerated every day!”. Well, yes they are and what does that say about our society? But I want to compare the sentencing of these young people, one 18 years old, the others 19, 20 and 18.

The first of these, if you haven’t already worked it out, is Edward Woollard, the sixth-former who threw a fire-extinguisher from the roof of the Conservative HQ during the student protest. Whilst this was a monumentally stupid thing to do that could very easily have ended worse than it did, it was not a deliberate attempt to hurt anyone, let alone kill.

His sentencing of 2 years 8 months, with parole at 1 year 4 months, will see him spend the rest of his teenage life incarcerated for getting carried away and making a stupid mistake. The judge acknowledged the harshness of the sentence, justifying it as “…a deterrent” to others. Despite 30 character references, no previous convictions, turning himself in and pleading guilty from the earliest opportunity, the judge still saw fit to make an example of him. So the judge’s message here is “don’t be a generally decent person that occasionally gets carried away”.

As Deborah Orr said in The Guardian:

Woollard was not a seasoned activist… He wore no hood. He wore no mask. He had brought no billiard balls. He didn’t even liberate the fire extinguisher in the first place. He clearly had no awareness that the media would be filming the “trouble”, and that identifying him as a culprit would therefore be easy. Woollard had no idea that within a couple of months the judiciary would be “making an example of him”, and nor did his mother, Tania Garwood, who, after the event, drove her son to a police station so that he could make a statement at the earliest opportunity.

The second case is that of 19 year old Ruby Thomas and her co-defendants Joel Alexander, 20 and Rachel Burke, 18, who were found guilty of beating gay civil servant Ian Baynham to death in 2009. They received 7 years, 6 years and 2 years respectively. Much of the media has focussed on Ruby Thomas who is supposed to have delivered the fatal kick to the head after Alexander had punched him to the ground. The incident started when Thomas had been “flirting with passers by” and took offence at presumably being ignored by Baynham and his friend after which she shouted “fucking faggots” at them. The judge stated Thomas had “a previous conviction for drunken loutish behaviour and… demonstrated hostility towards Ian Baynham based upon his sexual orientation or presumed sexual orientation”.

Thomas clearly demonstrated an aggressive, homophobic attitude, regardless of whether she knew Baynham to be gay or not. The assault that followed was, therefore, motivated by this hatred.

Edward Woollard, a young man with no previous convictions received nearly half the sentence of Thomas and more than her co-defendant Rachel Burke. Woollard made a mistake, Thomas, Alexander and Burke deliberately attacked and killed someone they perceived to be gay, their intent to cause serious injury if not to actually kill. I am no supporter of custodial sentences, particularly for young people, but I do believe that the way courts sentence people in high-profile cases reflects as much of the feelings of wider society, as it does ‘justice’.

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ACPO: police “may be required to commit crimes to achieve the aims of the government”

The Mark Kennedy/Stone case has been in the news, particularly the Guardian, a lot but the police statements have rather confused me.

I first heard about Mark back in October through a friend of a friend and, whilst I was a little stunned that it had been someone so involved, I was not surprised there was an undercover cop in the movement (in fact I earned the nickname “Paranoid Pete” in SFTUK for worrying about security and infiltration). Someone I consider a friend and committed activist in the US is an ex-informant, so I am well aware they exist.

Call me cynical but what did surprise me was the quickness that everyone, from the Guardian to the Daily Mail, from George Monbiot to former undercover officers seemed to roundly condemn parts of, if not all of the operation. I was positively gobsmacked with the speed at which it was announced that the three baines of every protester in the UK; the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (NETCU) and the National Domestic Extremism Team (NDET) would be moved from the unaccountable and opaque Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and into the Met “as a direct result” of the Mark Kennedy case. Well, I was for a while, until I read that this had been on the cards since November last year. So what was pitched as a punishment for mismanagement is in fact a pre-planned merging of units conveniently timed. So no one wins here, except the police who escape with not so much a slap on the wrist but more of a tickle under the arm.

What I am really worried about now is what the new “…domestic extremism command…” in the Met will be. Police never give up a power once they have it, I find it hard to believe anything will really change.

Something caught my attention in an article on the Guardian’s website today; ACPO stated:

Historically, there appears to have been a reluctance for anybody else to take a role in the authorisation of undercover officers and informants in circumstances where they may be required to commit crimes in order to achieve the legitimate aims of the government.

It was the last part of that statement “they may be required to commit crimes in order to achieve the legitimate aims of the government”. This is interesting for two reasons: 1) it appears to be the police advisory body ACPO stating that the government can break the law to get its way and 2) it is remarkably similar to the definition of civil disobedienceA symbolic, non-violent violation of the law, done deliberately in protest against some form of perceived injustice.

It would appear, initially, that these are very similar ideas and that I am hypocritically justifying protesters breaking the law and castigating police and governments for it because I am sympathetic to the protesters’ cause. But there is a key difference in when a protester breaks the law and when a government does it.

It would be great if the law could apply to everyone, universally. But so often there are exceptions that have to be made for one reason or another. What differs between when activists break the law to prevent a greater crime or highlight injustice is that they do it clear in the knowledge of the legal repercussions they face and full willingness to accept them. That is where the power of non-violent civil disobedience comes from. When the police frame, beat or kill protesters, when MPs make fraudulent expense claims, when ministers, lords, businessmen and companies evade tax they use every excuse and every loophole to wriggle their way out of facing justice.

When governments and police break the law they do so to control, to abuse and to distort.