The big pink 'FREE BRADLEY MANNING' banner has been displayed, without incident, all over the place in the past 18 months or so: Wrexham, Cardiff, Bala, Haverfordwest (where members of Brad's family still live), Chester, Liverpool, Oswestry, north Yorkshire, London, the summit of Snowdon. It's designed to be re-used, attached to railings with easy-to-undo tapes.
In Bristol yesterday, at the start of a five day solidarity effort leading up to Bradley Manning's trial which begins in the US on Monday, this banner and another - 'TRUTH ON TRIAL' - were seized by cops who told me they would be destroying them. In fact they had already badly damaged the banners by hacking them off the railings with a knife and ripping them instead of undoing the bows, having refused my offer to remove them. Since the incident led to an arrest and threat of summons, the banners are now in police custody as exhibits A and B, with the arresting cops announcing as they escorted me to the exit door of Trinity Road police station: ' and when it comes to court we're going to apply for a destruction order.'
Welcome to Bristol
I arrived in Bristol at about 3pm, unfurled my banners and a peace flag and put them up on the railings of a footbridge over the M32 above the outgoing Bristol traffic. In huge lettering and only six words in total, the banners conveyed their message clearly and succinctly and were far less distracting than many of the commercial adverts visible from motorways (just try driving along the M6 through Birmingham these days or indeed just a few metres further up the M32). It never occurred to me that there would be any problem with them and I retired to keep an eye on them from a distance. Two small boys looked like they might try and make off with the peace flag, but it wasn't small boys I should have been worried about...
Around 5pm, I spotted a big, range-rover type police car that stopped at the foot of the steps to the bridge on Gatton Road. Two cops, who I've since learned were PC3153 Richard Hignett and PC2051 Russ Tucker, fairly leapt out of it and up the steps. I legged it over and was perhaps 15 seconds behind them as they reached the banners and started ripping the first one off.
- Please don't damage my banners!
- They're advertising. We're taking them down. It's not allowed.
- They're not advertising. I'll take them down. I need them in Wales for the next few days.
- You won't be using them in Wales. You won't be getting them back. These will be going straight in the bin.
Cops wilfully damage my propertyThey didn't even stop for a second to discuss the matter, continuing while this was going on to cut off the TRUTH ON TRIAL banner that I'd spent the last two days painting, drying and sewing. I ran over to the pink FREE BRADLEY MANNING banner which has some sentimental value on account of its message, longevity and brightness, and started to untie the bows. PC Tucker rushed past me, went to the other end of the banner and hacked it off the railings, badly tearing it as he did so. PC Hignett finished taking down the other banner and joined him. I was continuing to plead my case:
- Look, I need those banners. I didn't realise there would be a problem with them, but you've told me and I've offered to take them down. Please just give them back to me so I can use them in Wales over the next few days.Seeing as the peace flag was also prominently displayed on the bridge over the motorway, there's a discussion to be had here about the cops arbitrarily deciding that I could have one but not the other. He handed over the peace flag, having severed the shock cord inside the collapsible poles while cutting it down.
- You're not getting the banners back. They will be destroyed.
- You can't do that - they're mine.
- We can. You shouldn't have put them up.
- I didn't realise, but you've taken them down now. I just need them back.
- You can't have them. I'll tell you what (I think this was Hignett): We'll let you keep your peace flag.
They bundled up the remains of the banners which Hignett stuck under his arm, I had the peace flag and a lone piece of white cord was left on the railings blowing folornly in the breeze. We came down off the bridge, me still requesting the return of the banners and them repeating that they weren't going to give them back, I'd never see them again, they'd be thrown away etc.
By the police car, the discussion got more technical.
- You shouldn't have put them up over the motorway. It's not allowed.
- I didn't know it's not allowed. You didn't give me the chance to take them down when I offered. What about freedom of expression and the right to protest?
- (This was Tucker - derisively): How old are you?
- Well, you should know by now that you're not allowed to put things up over the motorway.
- I've put that banner up all over the place before. I've never had any problems. The police have frequently been past and not told me there was any problem.
- You can't do it over the motorway.
- We don't have any motorways in Wrexham.
- You're not in Wrexham now. This is Bristol.
Spurious claim of danger to traffic
Yeah, welcome to Bristol. He continued:
- It's a danger to traffic.Someone else had joined us by this time, who knows Bristol better than me. She interjected:
- But there are adverts all over the place near motorways.
- There are adverts on the motorway just down the road from here.I pleaded again for the banners back. Tucker started demanding my name and address, with a view to reporting me to the council for unauthorised display of banners on their railings or something. When I declined to give my details he said
- (Tucker again) They're authorised by the council. (To me:) Did you ask the council for permission to put up that banner?
- No. I was exercising my right to freedom of expression and I didn't anticipate any problems with that.
- If you walk away now there won't be any further action, but if you keep on we're going to arrest you for obstruction.As far as I was concerned, to let the cops drive off with the banners was allowing them to take my property that they had badly damaged away for destruction without any record or accountability. They had told me several times by this point that they intended to destroy the banners. So I continued to try to reason with them. They were getting more annoyed with my persistence and I was getting upset. Tucker persisted in asking for my details. I persisted in asking for the banners back, and remonstrated with the cops for the unnecessary escalation of this situation when they could have easily given me chance to remove the banners myself when I offered.
Tucker asked again for my details and I asked if he was arresting me. He said "No" so I said that in that case I didn't believe I was obliged to give him my details, at which point he said "We'll have to arrest you for not giving your details then because when we report you to the council, they need your name and address to issue a summons."
Why bother with procedures when you can lie about it at the station?Hignett said something like "Right, come along then, we're arresting you", took my arm and steered me towards the back seat of their car. Before I got in, I handed over the peace flag to my supporter (fearful that this might also be seized) and sat in the back of the car.
On the way to the police station, it occurred to me that I'd just been told I was arrested and put into the back of the car. Neither officer had cautioned me.
- You haven't cautioned me.There was a bit of a pause.
- (Hignett) It doesn't matter. We can do it now in the car if you like (he didn't).
- I think you're supposed to do it as you arrest me, aren't you?
- We did caution you.I continued the discussion about the pointlessness of this arrest, and several times the cops told me that I still had the chance to just walk away from this: if I would agree to give them my name and address, they would let me go. I said that all I wanted was the banners back. They said that the banners were evidence and I said that they'd previously told me they'd be destroying them.
- No you didn't - you just told me you were arresting me, I handed the flag over and you put me in the car.
- You won't get the banners back either way.To cut a very long story short, I was processed at Trinity Road police station, reason for arrest recorded as 'obstruct police' and 'other (nuisance)'. I told the custody sergeant that I hadn't been cautioned on arrest. The cops said yes she was, the sarge just smiled and said that the police officers said they had cautioned me and I was here now anyway. He didn't record this on my custody record although he did record other comments I made about the banner.
- If they're used as evidence, the court might give them back to me afterwards, whether or not I'm convicted.
- No they won't.
I gave my name and address to the custody sergeant, but had no ID on me and it was decided to take my fingerprints to try to match them with those already on police record, at which point my identity would be confirmed and I would be released from custody back into the 'care' of my arresting officers who, I was told, will "deal with you from there".
Duly identified and released from custody, I was escorted out of the back into the waiting room where the cops told me I'd be summonsed for an offence under Section 23 of the Road Traffic Act 1988. They told me "it's a recordable offence and arrestable", as if that somehow justified their appalling behaviour.
Credit where it's due though: what the arresting cops lacked in lawful behaviour, good manners, reasonableness and sense of proportion, the custody sergeant made up for in disability awareness and accommodation. I suffer from migraines triggered by some lighting, most usually fluorescent strips. Since the custody desk is in a windowless room with a low ceiling, the fluorescent lighting presented a real problem for me, which I explained at the desk. The process took some time and I was beginning to suffer, so the sarge turned off the lights and we continued in near darkness, which was surreal but manageable. I was given a cell with a view, or at least natural light, and in an extended period in the fingerprint room where the machine had trouble with my hands, the in-yer-face lights were also turned off for me.
Resistance is a new banner
Back on the streets of Bristol without my banners, people rallied round and found me materials to make two more, not as beautiful or big, but fit for purpose. I headed out of Bristol into Wales this morning to use them. More to follow...
This is about Bradley Manning
This account has all been about me. It's really all about Bradley Manning, imprisoned without trial for three years, tortured, facing possible life without parole or the death penalty for exposing the crimes of empire and the facts about the real people imprisoned, abused, injured and murdered in the empire's endless wars, along with abuse of power and influence around the world. Bradley Manning's trial begins on Monday 3 June. Please find ways to show your support and solidarity.
Free Bradley Manning. Free Bradley Manning's banners.