Bail conditions used as a tool to limit political dissent: An interview with Pete Simpson
This is an interview with Pete Simpson, an anarchist activist who was prosecuted and remanded in prison for violent disorder and assault of police officers after an occupation of HSBC bank, as part of the 2015 Mayday commemoration in Cardiff. Pete and fellow activist Josh Howe were found not guilty by a jury in Cardiff in January 2016.
After Pete and Josh’s arrest in May 2015 they were remanded for several days in Cardiff prison. The judge only agreed to release them on the condition that they move away from their homes in Cardiff, sign regularly at a police station, keep to a strict curfew and wear a tag. These conditions can only be described as political, aimed at restricting Pete and his co-defendant’s ability to be involved in political activism. Throughout the trial the police and prosecution tried to use the anarchist character of the protest against the defendants.
Bail conditions (i.e. conditions you are forced to comply with in order for the court to release you from prison or police custody) are only supposed to be used to prevent further ‘offending’ and stop people from absconding. However, the use of draconian bail conditions against Pete and Josh, and others like them, amount to a punishment by the courts against people who have not been convicted of any crime. Bail conditions are increasingly being used to prevent people from being involved social movements that threaten capitalism and the state, particularly people involved in direct action networks.
We interviewed Pete about his arrest and prosecution:
Corporate Watch: Can you tell us about the day you were arrested?
Pete Simpson: It was on 2 May 2015, a break-away demonstration was held after a TUC May Day march. That day is a traditional part of the broad left in Cardiff and has anarchist origins. It was damp that year but spirits were high. The main march was about 120 people, but people from a few groups were part of the breakaway that split off to occupy HSBC bank. Twenty or so people followed the banner into the bank and occupied for about half an hour.
CW: Why HSBC?
PS: The newspapers had recently reported that only one person had been investigated by HMRC for the bank’s tax avoidance. HSBC bank is also a symbol of capitalism, as with any bank. The protest was against capitalism and austerity.
CW: Can you described what happened inside?
All the customers had left the bank so there were only demonstrators and bank staff left and it became clear that the bank was shutting down because of the protest. The police weren’t attempting to get people to leave, and people started congregating in the foyer as there was no need to stay in the bank. We had no other plan but to head towards the exit – feeling that the protest was done and it was time to go. For a few moments we were standing with the banner, waiting for the right moment to leave. Josh wanted to rejoin the protest. He said that he came through a gap where there were three police stood by the door. The next thing I knew, people fell into the banner and a police officer was on top of him. Two of the cops that were there were grabbing people and I saw one cop throwing three punches in a row whilst holding a person by the shoulder, punching their kidneys. The same cop grabbed another guy and threw him to the ground without supporting his fall.
A police officer had Josh’s neck under his arm and Josh was saying that he couldn’t breathe. There was another cop also putting his weight on Josh.
I reached out towards Josh. The police officer turned round and elbowed me in the face, throwing me up against the wall and strangling me. Straight after that, the other officer came over and hit me with a ‘knee-strike’ in the part of the leg just above the knee. It’s apparently something they are trained to do to make someone fall to the ground, but they grabbed both of my shoulders and threw me to the ground anyway, head first. Then bent me in the middle somehow. My forehead hit the ground. My leg was suddenly really injured.
They attempted to arrest me. I didn’t think they should so I stood firm and got into a position where it was hard for them to put the handcuffs on. When the taser arrived I must have panicked a little bit as I said “alright, don’t taser me” and then I was handcuffed. At the court case a lot was made out of this, about me supposedly resisting.
I was aware that they were arresting me but I didn’t hear what for. I had a carpet burn on the side of my face and my leg was in a lot of pain. I couldn’t walk for 48 hours. They had to drag me towards the van. I was lifted up and put in the cage in the back of the van, on my side, with my hands handcuffed behind me, all in front of lots of people who had by now gathered outside the bank.
I was kept at Cardiff Bay Police Station until the Monday. I got interviewed at 1am for four charges: one count of violent disorder, three counts of assault PC and one charge of causing actual bodily harm of a Police Officer.
CW: What happened at the bail hearing?
PS: We gave our name and addresses. At the time I was in process of moving out of my address, which was an anarchist social centre, but had no other address to give so I gave it as my address as it was where I had been staying. That was referred to as a “squat” and they said that it wasn’t a legitimate address. There were a lot of people there in the public gallery. Two people had volunteered alternative bail addresses in Cardiff but they said they didn’t want us bailed to Cardiff. We both got remanded to prison at that hearing on 4th May.
CW: How did you feel when you were remanded?
PS: I was a little worried that it would take months before we were free again, but usually I am an optimist, and was hoping that we would get bail relatively quickly. What they had said about me wasn’t true, and I didn’t know what I could be guilty of but I knew that I certainly wasn’t guilty of violent disorder as I had just been stood in the bank foyer waiting to leave, and I felt that this would become apparent at some point. But I didn’t know how long it would take.
I spoke to a solicitor early on and they said they thought they could help me to get out by applying for bail. But I didn’t know when there would be a hearing. It’s very difficult to speak to anyone on the outside when you are in prison so I had very little way of finding out. I didn’t even have the phone numbers of the solicitors. The solicitors couldn’t call me and they didn’t manage to see me as this can be difficult with the way the prison works.
I think I managed to find coping mechanisms which made it more OK in prison than it would have been. I pretended it was a shit holiday and that it must be raining or something so that I had to stay inside. I pretended that I had a choice and this made it easier. Letters of support from people made it also much more bearable and felt like I wasn’t that far away. I thought that my family would be worried about me. The injustice of it was that it was me that was attacked and yet I was in prison. It reinforced how unequal and extreme the system can be when it comes to ordinary people. I was the victim, yet also somehow the guilty one. The police were seemingly above the law. They had the handcuffs and the power and there has still not been an investigation into their violent disorder on that day.
I needed to know someone’s name, date of birth, address and phone number and vice-versa for them to be allowed to see me in prison. People were spending hours on the phone trying to get through to make appointments to visit. Others emailed to try to book appointments. They were told no, sorry, it’s full. It was really bizarre that it could keep happening, but I had no visits. People kept writing to me to say that they wanted to visit.
CW: What do you think the police’s motivation for the violence was?
PS: I’ve never been able to work that out. Either they panicked or they felt that they weren’t in control of the situation. They weren’t used to protest situations, basically, and out of their depth when it came to people challenging their authority. They didn’t keep level heads at all. In court they had the audacity to say that they were ‘afraid for their lives’ when they clearly couldn’t have been, or they are more afraid of us than they let on.
CW: Was there any reason why they would have been afraid for their lives?
PS: I can’t see how. People were shouting but it was basically saying ‘stop attacking people’ rather than ‘we’re going to attack you’ or anything like that.
CW: What was the Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) motivation for asking the court to remand you?
It was probably a political decision. The picture that they painted was of something like the London/August Riots. They said that the police had lost control because of the level of aggression. But actually the police had lost control before there was any aggression, and perhaps they just wanted to cover this up with what happened to us throughout.
The prosecutor said ‘there is a thin blue line protecting us from mob violence in Britain’. They said that the customers were distressed but they couldn’t show that at all. They made so much up in the court case, but in the end the jury saw through it.
CW: How long did you spend in prison the first time around?
PS: 11 nights in Cardiff, a category B prison. Our solicitors made separate bail applications, so Josh was in there 2 days less.
CW: What were your bail conditions after you were granted bail?
PS: There were several conditions imposed on me. I was not to enter any HSBC globally. I was placed on an electronic tag and bailed to an address in Swansea under house curfew from 9pm to 7am. I was not to enter Cardiff, and not to speak to Josh. For some months I also had to sign almost daily at a police station.
Those conditions were never dropped until I was remanded again on the 16th December for allegedly breaking them. I went to court several times to try to vary these conditions but was unsuccessful.
Judge Crowther, who dealt with the bail hearings, said some things with a contempt in his mind for protest. He said things like if bail conditions weren’t imposed then I was at risk of protesting more. He said at one point ‘why do these protesters target the banks and not lobby the government?’
CW: Why were you remanded again in December?
PS: When I tried to change my bail address to an address in London, the person providing my address allegedly implied I was already staying there. The judge took that to mean that I had breached my bail. And I was remanded in prison until the trial. That was for three further weeks.
The bail conditions felt like a punishment. In the mind of the judge I was guilty because the police had said it. Therefore I needed punishing. That’s what it felt like at the time. I wasn’t able to put a case forward or even the CCTV evidence. Not even give an account myself of what had happened. I was never asked anything directly until I gave evidence to say that I hadn’t breached my bail, but this wasn’t believed, even though there was no real evidence to say that I had. Everything else was asked through my solicitor. The CCTV would have exonerated me at any point but the courts didn’t watch it until the trial.
CW: When you got to court, the case unravelled. Is that right?
PS: Yes, as each police witness gave evidence it didn’t match with what they said in their statements, or the CCTV. There was huge amount of inconsistency.
CW: Did the prosecutor use political language to describe you?
PS: He began by presenting it as a ‘legitimate protest’ that had gone wrong and developed into disorder. That was the opener. He said that the protest was hijacked by an ‘anti-police agenda’, that protest is fine but we can’t have ‘mob violence in the streets of Britain’. He asked the jury rhetorically ‘is it likely that the police would lie about violence being used on them?’
CW: Did the prosecution or CPS make anything out of you being an anarchist?
PS: Yes. They had presented evidence that we were giving out South Wales Anarchists leaflets. They made many references to it. The black flags that people had brought to the protest were also part of the evidence. They held up the flags in court, six or seven bundled together. They also asked me what I personally understood by the term ‘Anarchism’.
CW: Was there a police presence at the court?
There were two cops sat outside the trial, I think from South Wales police.
CW: Is there anything else you want to say about your arrest and trial?
There were so many little things added together that made it difficult: the pressure of having to come home at 9pm everyday because of the bail conditions. My bail address was visited by the police several times and they had originally said ‘are you sure you want him here?’ and ‘will your family be safe, he was in prison for being violent’ to the person I was due to stay with.
I then had to move back into my family home in Doncaster, where I had moved out of 12 years before, and had to sign at the police station for at least a month in Doncaster, before the court lifted that requirement. I started volunteering in a community cafe used by rough sleepers and had to go and sign in the middle of the day and leave the cafe for some time to do so. Some days it felt like all I was able to do that day was go and sign. It was a 45 minute cycle from where I lived to get to the place where I had to sign.
Having a tag was an intrusion into my life. The tag company is Serco in London and EMS almost everywhere else. Workers from the tagging company turned up at night when my friend’s daughter had accidently switched the monitoring box off. It felt really unnecessary. The tag box had ended up in her daughter’s room due to a mix up of where I was supposed to be staying. She was seven at the time. She didn’t understand what the box was and why people had to come to the house. It added a lot of stress that wasn’t necessary. It was also a constant stress that if I was even a minute late it could lead to me being put back in prison. They didn’t really explain what limits I had, they just said, ‘don’t be late or it could be really serious’. I missed a train one evening and I had to explain that it wasn’t my fault that I was 17 minutes late, I just couldn’t cycle from the station in time. The same judge, Judge Crowther, later accused me of ‘missing the train on purpose’ and said that he was minded then to put me back on remand.
The bail conditions and tag made it hugely difficult for me. I effectively didn’t have a summer last year. I couldn’t go to any summer gatherings, activist camps or travel very far at all. I wanted to be supporting stuff all the time, all the stuff that I would normally be doing to try to change the system and fight for freedom. I was basically denied a social, and active, normal, life. I often thought about people going out in an evening and sometimes it was really difficult just to hear about it. I could never imagine just how controlling the state can be when people get to challenge its links to big business like we did that day.