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Bully the protest out of students

22 July 2011

When I was 16 years old, I plodded off across Europe in the hope of seeing the astounding Pink Floyd in concert.  In a field somewhere north of Paris, with one hundred and fifty thousand other fanatics, I spent a hot summer afternoon waiting for the band to begin and then another three happy hours immersed in music and fuelled by the spirit of the night. As the concert ended and the crowds dispersed, I became separated from my friends and was left alone wandering around the tiny village a couple of miles from the concert venue trying to catch a train.

Of course, there were no trains. It was by now the early hours of the morning, so not knowing what to do or how I might get back to Paris, I ambled back to the scene of the concert in the hope that I might stumble upon a friendly security guard or roadie. Instead, I stumbled upon an impromptu gig being held at the side of the sound desk in the middle of an otherwise empty meadow. Floyd technicians and engineers were playing blues songs and getting drunk. I sat down crossed legged on the cool grass and listened, happy to spend the night sleeping there and working out what to do in the morning. “Hello young man” a soft English voice said behind me. I turned around to see the smiling chap staring down at me. He was holding an old acoustic guitar, on his way to join in the jam session. We spoke for a moment, me explaining the situation, him listening with the look of a concerned parent. He sat down next to me and started to play the guitar gently while asking me about my summer. We chatted for a few moments and then he put his arm around me, “come on” he said, and we walked off together towards the stage. The next couple of hours were magical as I formed an audience of one to this amazing private concert. He played with ease and sang like a much younger man for an hour or so. As the roadies packed away, he approached me again, holding a blanket and asked me if I was going to be ok. I assured him that I would be fine and could catch the early morning commuter train in to the city. He touched my shoulder, handed me twenty Francs, smiled and said goodnight. I watched him walk off casually in to the darkness. I have always remembered this act of kindness and gentility, and would like to have been able to thank him properly. The man’s name was David Gilmour, and he was the lead guitarist in Pink Floyd.

Some people emanate a warmth, an empathy, a caring nature, and David is one of those men. Since that night, my ears have pricked up when I hear his name mentioned and am always reminded of the kindness that he makes part of his life, such as the time in 2003 when he sold his own London home for £3.6million and then handed the cash straight over to the homeless charity Shelter.

So when, during the recent student protests in London, his son Charlie was seen hanging from the Cenotaph and kicking at plate glass windows I paused for a moment and tried to imagine the life that the young student must have had and how his actions must have affected his father.

There is no doubt that what Charlie did that night is wrong and condemnable, that his actions were offensive and upsetting to many and that what he achieved was to draw the attention of a debate away from the student’s cause and give the establishment the ammunition that it needed to twist the emphasis in the press headlines. He should be ashamed, very ashamed. And I would also say that he should expect to undertake some penance – perhaps a public apology, perhaps some work for the community, perhaps a way of honouring the fallen.

But this is not what has happened to Charlie.

Charlie, a 21 year old student, who was foolish in being out of control on drugs (but perhaps no more foolish than many of us were at 21), has been sentenced to a 16 month custodial sentence.

This is not justice. This does not even resemble an appropriate punishment.

It would appear that the courts have used this young man’s life as a way of sending a signal that this behaviour will not be tolerated. But is that the purpose of the court? Should he not be punished according to the enormity of his crime.

Pause for a moment and consider the short sentences handed down for some major crimes in England, or the ASBOs given to 21 years olds up and down the country who continually terrorise neighbourhoods or repeat offend.  The scale of the punishment given to Charlie is not balanced and considered, it is not fit for purpose.  Much has been made about the fact that Charlie is from a priviledged background and that he is well educated - the establishment loves to frown upon the digressions of those with "good" backgrounds, but then tilts it's head sympathetically if the defendent is from a council estate with a troubled history.   This is neither fair nor right.  Being priviledged should not mean being punished more severely.

Charlie apologized and pleaded guilty.

Has the establishment ruined the life of a normal young lad in an attempt to quash further student protests, in an attempt to control?  Will students now be dissuaded from using their absolutely just and correct right to show their alarm and disgust at what they perceive as a misguided policy?

And what of the rest of us? What is happening in the UK?

It would appear that some have forgotten that rules are there for the obeyance of the fool, but only the guidance of the wise. It is right and proper that the masses are able to show their dissatisfaction at the law makers and policy writers. I meet too many career politicians, police officers, teachers, councilors and civil servants who have allowed themselves to be fooled in to thinking that if it’s written down it cannot be questioned. Au contrare! It should always be questioned and debated. I don’t recall voting for a police state.

I’m sure that Charlie is a pretty normal young chap. For sure, this was not his finest moment and there should have been some recourse. But what good will come of sending him to prison? In what way is that contributing to society? I venture none. Instead a life is thrown in to turmoil, a family broken, and yet again the law is made to look an ass.

Can it be acceptable that the law will take a young man, who should have been made to make amends but then been able to move on with a good life, and subject him to the brutalism of prison? This will not reform the boy, this will lead him astray further still.

I was very happy to see the students protesting again. I had started to worry that young people in Britain had become so apathetic, so hypnotized in to believing that the State knows best, that all they could passionately care about was getting their hands on the newest best pair of hair straighteners or making sure they had the most shiny of shiny Apple products. When the system makes unjust decisions, the collective voice (through protest where appropriate) can be a powerful tool. Remember, those who made the choices, those who made the rules are but a tiny number of men – who is to say that they know best?

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