Cold Inhumanity at Newbury Magistrates Court.
Yesterday I was at Newbury Magistrates Court to support some friends of mine who were being tried for obstruction of the highway “without lawful authority or excuse” following the blockade at Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) earlier this year. It was fascinating to watch an English Court in action, as my previous experiences are limited to Scottish Courts, and while the arguments of the defendents were inspiring, I found it incredibly disheartening to witness the cold and inhumane way the court responded to these eloquent and passionate statements, and the manner in which the Magistrates and the Prosecutor fetishised the concept of State Law, placing it above and beyond any and all other considerations.
In turn, each of the defendants put forward the reasons for their actions on the 10th of April this year. First up was Susan, who argued that her actions were inspired by her deeply held Catholic beliefs. She argued that the authority for her actions derived from Holy Law, which in her eyes was a higher Law than State Law. Susan argued that weapons which have the potential to kill tens of millions of people are contrary to to the teachings of Jesus, and the Word of God. But the Prosecuter was having none of it, telling her we are in a secular society and that Holy Law has no place in a Court of Law. If she did not have lawful reason or excuse under State Law, then she was a criminal. Which left me wondering why people are still asked to swear on a Bible before taking the stand?
Following after Susan it came the turn of Pat, Shirley, Andrew, and Angela to put their respective cases. And each they did very well. Pat argued the illegality of the Trident system, citing it’s incompatibity with a host of international treaties and conventions, which she reasoned gave her ‘lawful reason’ to commit a minor crime in order to try and prevent a larger crime. After embarrassing himself by questioning Pat’s grammar, the Prosecuter replied back that “mere possession” of Trident was not illegal, but only it’s “threat or use”. He seemed unaware that Britain’s nuclear weapons are out on constant threatening patrol, and have been dangled with menace by UK governments in Iraq, as well as during the Falklands conflict. The UK does not just “merely possess” nuclear weapons. Pat also attempted to argue a defence of necessity, that it had been necessary to act that morning to prevent harm. In a rather surreal moment, the Prosecuter dismissed this line of argument by stating that the defence of necessity is only valid when facing an immediate danger of harm, for example when there is to be an imminent nuclear strike. That this would be too little too late seemed neither here nor there to him.
Shirley then argued that her actions were motivated by a desire to prevent crime, “namely the criminal and immoral manufacture of weapons of mass destruction which have the capability to destroy life on earth.” She argued that when our so-called democratic government is carrying out barbaric and illegal policies, then citizens of conscience “have a right, if not a duty” to non-violently resist. She reminded the court of the 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice, which ruled that “the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally run contrary to International Law.” Shirley went on to explain the incompatability of the UK’s policy on Trident replacement with it’s commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Shirley concluded her defence by stating she was not the criminal, those defending Trident were because nuclear weapons “stand opposed to every moral or legal code devised by man, both religious and secular.“
Andrew outlined the background to our actions that day. It followed a vote in the House of Commons on Trident Replacement, which was heavily whipped to ensure it’s passage through Parliament. Andrew had stood in Parliamentary elections, lobbied MP’s, written to the papers, attended meetings, gone on demonstrations, and had a belief in democracy. On a Saturday before the Trident vote he had a meeting with his constituency MP, Nick Brown. According to Andrew, Mr Brown agreed that Trident should not be replaced, but went on to vote with the government anyway. He had been whipped to vote against his own judgement, and against his constituents. Disturbed by the lack of democracy in this nation, he felt justified in taking non-violent direct action to disrupt the governments obscene plans. He pointed out that under the Law one is entitled to use “reasonable force” to prevent a crime, or apprehend a criminal, but that he, along with the rest of us, used expressly peaceful means. He reiterated the illegality of the UK’s Trident deployment, telling the court that “mere possession” of nuclear weapons would imply they are kept in a concrete bunker strictly for emergency, but that that is not the case at all. The UK has a submarine at sea at all times, armed with massive nuclear firepower. It is an active and permanent threat to the world, an eternal Sword of Damocles threat to our very existence which makes it necessary to act in order to resist it’s continuation. He went on to talk of proliferation of nuclear weapons and the ever increasing risk of a nuclear exchange. He asked “at what point do we stop the juggernaut rolling out of control down a hill?”
Despite all these fine and reasonable words, the Prosecutor and the Magistrates were quite unmoved. It seems one needs express written permission in State Law in order to fight against Evil. The same cold logic in a different time and place, would see people arrested and imprisoned for laying down on the railway tracks to prevent trains getting to Auschwitz. After all, the concentration camps etc were perfectly legal under Nazi State Law! And so at the end of the day all five were found guilty by the unanimous verdict of the three magistrates of “wilful obstruction of the public highway without lawful authority or excuse”, and were each given 18 month conditional discharges and fines of £250. Some of the five have already declared their unwillingness to pay the fine, or be of “good behaviour” for 18 months. They are quite prepared to go to prison for what they believe in. If only more of us were like them.