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The trial of the 'Man on the Bridge'

Manos for IMC Cambridge | 19.06.2004 13:03 | Anti-militarism | Repression | Cambridge

Nine months after the events, and after a first trial that collapsed, the Man on the Bridge was on trial again. He faced public order charges merely for putting up a banner and shouting anti-Bush slogans. After a sequence of spectacular failures of the justice system, it was deemed imposible to give him a fair trial, and the charges were dropped!

On Friday 18th June was the retrial of the Man who climbed the footpath bridge, near the Cambridge train station, on the 11th of November holding a banner saying "Stop Bush". The protest, held a few days before the state visit of US president Bush, was encouraging people to participate in demonstrations organized. The Man on the Bridge was arrested as soon as he got off the bridge, by two transport police officers. They originally charged him with 'causing a public nuisance'.

Since they had got their hands on him, and since he looked like an anti-war protestor, they also decided to charge him with criminal damage of the war memorial that was grafittied the night before (the grafitti on the war memorial was a picture of Banksy's monkeys holding a sign saying 'stop war'). The criminal damage charges were dropped, but only after the police raided his room, and told him during interrogation "You are quite a little activist!". An officer told the Man on the Bridge (off the record), that they were under pressure from the 'people above' to make an arrest related to the incident, to issue a positive press release.

Eventually the 'public nuisance' charge got changed into 'section 5' of the public order act: using threatening words or behavior, or disorderly behavior, likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) believed that this had a chance to secure a conviction, and that pursuing the case would be in the public interest so the trial proceeded (the first trial as we shall see).

More background:

Activist on Bridge urges Commuters to STOP BUSH
Bridge Activist Arrested...Again!

The First Trial

As is customary, the prosecution started by presenting the case. The prosecution stated that the facts were not likely to be disputed. It was simply the interpretation of the facts that was in question, and it was up to the magistrates as to whether or not they would support the case. A video was then shown (taken by an Independent Media Center Volunteer from Cambridge) of the Man on the Bridge, with banners and loud speaker, not doing anything too controversial. The prosecution stated that although the short clip was not comprehensive it gave a 'good flavour' of what happened.

Going into more details the nature of the protest was explained: It took place on the 11th of November, a date of some significance since it is Rememberance Day. It was held on top of the pedestrian bridge that crosses the rail tracks, 50ft from the power lines, over the station car park. A banner was held with a slogan saying 'stop bush'. Esisodic (not continuous) slogans were also shouted down a loudspeaker for 3-5 hours (up to 11am), that made reference to Bush and the war, urged the public to arrest Bush on sight and were generally hostile to toward Bush's and American policy in general.

The prosecution's argument was that these actions fell under 'section 5' because the message could be considered unacceptable, and the proximity to the rail line made it unacceptable. In more detail: his behavior was disorderly because of his proximity to the rail line, and the live electrical line over them. The magistrates are then called to define what causing alarm means in this case (it is not defined in the act, but it is meant to have its ordinary meaning). At the same time it must be established that there was intent to act like this, that the Man on the Bridge was aware that his actions would or would maybe lead to all this. The previous case of a woman desecrating an American flag while American troops were looking on was mentioned. It is not clear why this case was brought up since, aside from stating that such situations must be judged on a case by case basis, the woman was acquitted!

To summarize the argument: 11th November was a special date, the proximity to the lines was disorderly because of the dangerous position, and likely to cause alarm. To whom? The station manager, who was the first prosecution witness.

The Station Manager was clearly a bit scared of being in court, but still managed to describe what happened on the day. His duties were to maintain the safety of the railways. Someone mentioned to him that there was a Man on the Bridge, and he went to see for himself. Although he did not speak to him he observed his behavior: he was on the first third of the bridge, 25-40 ft from the first set of lines. Overhead the lines the cables carry 25.000V of electricity that could cause severe burning or death and the paralysis of the rail system (Bad Stuff (TM)). He pointed out that if the Man on the Bridge had moved further or had fallen there would have been a severe problem. Although he did not attempt to make contact with the Man on the Bridge, he contacted the transport police and got in touch with the delivery service to tell them that they might have to suspend service.

The defense questioned the witness and established that the Man on the Bridge could have been closer to to the lines, but stayed at 50ft. Despite his angst the station manager did not talk or warn the Man on the Bridge not to move further or get down!

The second witness was an `aerial bridge engineer'. He described the characteristics of the bridge, including that there is no public access on its top, and the the metal frame can support the weight of the person without any damage. It apparently cost 82 quid to have the banner taken down after the man on the bridge was arrested.

The third witness was a police officer with the transport police. He stated that the Man on the Bridge was wearing an orange boiler suit, and was carrying a megaphone and a banner. He spoke to him and established that he was alone on the bridge; after expressing worry about his safety, and the safety of those walking below, he was reassured that the Man on the Bridge and his megaphone were on a safety line, and therefore out of danger. The Man also reassured the officer that he won't move. The officer was asked by the prosecution to give a public order assessment of the situation: he said that the Man on the Bridge was in a dangerous position, 'addressing people who did not wish to be addressed'. He also said that his behavior has 'polite'. Things changed (apparently) when the man on the Bridge started mimicking the station announcements, which might have confused commuters. The defense established that after the officer was reassured that the Man on the Bridge would not move, he indeed did not move.

The fourth witness was the other police officer. He described the tone of the messages as 'inciting people to join a protest'. The prosecution clearly embarrassed by that statement as it suggested that maybe he was simply 'inviting' people to participate in the protests. He was also 'inviting' people to arrest Bush on sight and saying that Bush was a terrorist. The officer's assessment of the public order situation was that the Man was interfering with the comfort of the public, and 2 or 3 people gathered, that were dispersed before any public order situation emerged. The prosecution clearly not satisfied this this (still no evidence for section 5), pressed him to describe the behavior of the Man on the Bridge. The officer considered that he was acting disorderly, he was causing a nuisance which is a common law offense (that he was arrested for), and was likely to cause alarm. The defense established that it is legitimate to invite people to join a protest, that he stopped shouting when genuine station announcements were on. The officer persisted by saying that the Man on the Bridge was asked to come down and stop shouting and did not do so.

At this stage it was the turn of the defense to proceed. It had three witnesses that were present at the car park and the station. The Man on the Bridge himself was ready to confront the accusations laid against him by testifying. Strangely the magistrates excused themselves for a few minutes to have a private chat. When they came out they said that they had just considered whether there was a case to answer, and decided that there was! This caused a stir: since considering whether there is a case or not is a point of law, it should have been debated in open court, after hearing the case from the defense and the prosecution. Furthermore the defense had voluntarily opted to not pursue this strategy.

After a short break it was decided that there was no way of mending this situation. The trial could not continue, since justice must not simply be done but also 'seen to be done' (sic) and therefore both prosecution and defense asked the magistrates to disqualify themselves. They did, and everyone was bound to pretend that nothing had happened.

Despite the fiasco, namely the case being so feeble that the magistrates decide themselves to consider if there is anything there, the CPS still maintained that there was a realistic chance of winning it, and furthermore that it was in the public interest to pursue it. Therefore the second trial was organized!

The second trial

The second trial started on the morning of the 19th of June, nine months after the original events on the bridge. Everyone was there, including all the defense witnesses and spectators and supporters of the man on the Bridge. Only one person was missing, a crucial witness for the prosecution and a material witness for the defense: the Station Manager. He had emigrated to North Carolina in mid-April. It had to be explained to the magistrates, who had heard nothing of the case, that he was the person likely to have been caused alarm. Therefore he was quite vital to the case. At the same time the prosecution itself recognized that he presented quite a different picture of the man on the Bridge from the police officers (he did not seem to bothered except when it came to the electricity lines), and therefore without him the chances of a fair trial for the Man on the Bridge were slim. Confusion followed: the prosecution lawyer was not sure what to do, since all the CPS staff that could instruct him were on an away day (team-building outing probably).

An obvious remedy to this situation would have been to use the clerk's notes, from the previous trial. Unfortunately these were lost, due to a court service cock-up. They were never found. Choosing between delaying the trial for an undetermined period or proceeding, the magistrates decided to proceed. At this point the prosecution said that it would not be possible to secure a fair trial and the charges were dropped!

It is interesting to note that amidst the mess, the magistrates heroically attempted to maintain the dignity of the court by preemptively asking a middle-aged man not to drink from the bottle of water he was holding. The spectators were then reminded not to eat or drink in court, despite none of them having ever done so. At the same time the security personnel were providing the adequate environment for the trial to take place: the father of the accused had a flexible tape measure taken away from him. It could apparently be used to strangle someone. Strangely shoe laces and the magistrates' ties were not confiscated.

Overall the CPS and to police managed to waste six court hearings, and a lot of time and money for their staff and the justice system staff, to follow a case that had evidently no hope to lead to a conviction (a political protest on a bridge is simply NOT disorderly behaviour). The case collapsed on its own, even before the defense made a single argument about the legitimate rights to protest, human rights, freedom of speech, etc. At the same time one can argue that the case had the effect that the police and the CPS want: it wasted a lot of the Man on the Bridge's time and resources. Most spectators left with a clear impression: if justice can only be seen to be done in a court room, and not in the street policing or the harasmsnt tactics of the CPS, then justice is not done!

Manos for IMC Cambridge
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