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Support for arrestees

For those arrested, charged or injured by police, the consequences of participation in the action may extend well beyond the action itself. If activists are arrested and charged as a result of this action, then activist legal support may need to continue for months if not years after the action.

One of the most difficult features of the legal process is the time it takes to reach a decision. A not-guilty plea in magistrates’ courts will generally take many months before a decision is reached. However if the case goes to appeal, even minor matters can take years before they are resolved. The presence of on going legal/organisational support is essential.

The responses to criminal charges may also affect the aims of the action itself. Will it build or undermine support for the campaign? Will a plea of guilty or a court loss create a precedent for future actions? How will this court case affect the campaign strategy?

Because court cases can be a long, intimidating and isolating experience for activists, support and solidarity is vital. It may be important to plan:

  • Legal support and representation, arranging for pro-bono legal representation and finding the best barrister for the cases
  • An Arrestees Support Group to keep everyone on charges together to plan and support each other
  • Spaces for arrestee to meet each other, share experiences and discuss how they are coping with and feeling about the charges and the legal process
  • Benefits and fundraisers to raise legal costs. (these can also raise awareness about the campaign)
  • Organising forums (issues surrounding the criminalisation of dissent, etc)
  • Use of the media around the court appearances to highlight the issues, media conferences outside the court; protests outside the court
  • Attending court with arrestee to provide support, solidarity and take notes
  • Discussing legal strategies or planning collective legal approaches
  • Celebration and debriefing for the activists after the court case, whatever the outcome
  • Support before, during and after court order (community based orders, suspended sentences) or a jail term for some or all of the activists

Case study:

The G20 Arrestee Solidarity Network (GASM) was came together after Victoria Police proceeded to arrest approximately 30 people (including minors) on charges including riot, affray, assault police and criminal damage in the weeks after the protests against the economic leaders meeting.

As many of the arrestee did not know each other prior to the protests or prior to their arrests, the solidarity group provided an important space to meet other arrestees facing similar charges. It took over two years from the time of the protest until all the court matters were finalised, and longer still until all the arrestee had completed their sentences which included community based orders, suspended sentences and time in custody. It was clear to GASM from the beginning that solidarity required a long term commitment.

Over this period of time GASM organised several benefits gigs and established a bank account to raise funds for legal support. This money was used primarily to support arrestees from interstate to travel to and from court appearances in Melbourne and to help finance an appeal against sentence for one of the arrestees. The group produced t-shirts to publically express support with the arrestees (‘I didn’t do it but I dug it’ and ‘I *heart* arterial bloc’) and badges, which also helped raise additional funds.

GASM also organised several public forums about the criminalisation of dissent at which defence lawyers, arrestees and members of the solidarity collective spoke. Members of the group wrote articles to raise awareness about the extreme police and legal response to the protest which were printed in Arena, Chain Reaction and student newspapers.

Members of GASM attended numerous court hearing with the arrestees, to provide support and solidarity. At times GASM organised protests outside the courthouse, took detailed notes of proceedings in court and put out media release about the court dates.

Some of the clear challenges faced by GASM were that not all arrestees wanted to be involved or have contact with the group. The fact that different defence lawyers advocated different legal strategies and that various arrestees chose to pursue different legal strategies also caused a lot of tensions in the group. This demonstrates the clear challenges involved in respecting that arrestees may make different decisions regarding how best to approach the legal system, ensuring that different strategies do not undermine other arrestees, but showing support and solidarity for these decisions.

Thanks to David Mossop and his article: Legal Organisation and Nonviolent Actionpublished in Nonviolence Today

No. 16, August/ September, 1990