Students and academics stand by Charlie Gilmour

19 July 2011

The imprisonment of Charlie Gilmour has caused indignation among the student and academic communities in Cambridge.

A ‘Free Charlie Gilmour’ Facebook page was created by Cambridge students soon after the sentence was announced last Friday, and currently has 216 ‘likes’. Throughout the comments, the pervading criticism has been the perceived disparities between the severity of his crimes and the length of his custodial sentence. Joseph Finlay deemed it an “outrageously disproportionate sentence”. Similarly, Todd Hignett claimed it was “totally disproportionate to the crime”. While Brett Canning stressed Gilmour’s “moronic behaviour cannot be condoned”, he said a “16 month sentence seems too harsh for the offence.”

The second year Girton historian, and son of Pink Floyd guitarist David, was sentenced to 16 months, and will have to spend a minimum of 8 months behind bars, for two counts of violent disorder during the during students fees march on Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square on last December.

Gilmour was found to have thrown a litter bin at a convoy of cars containing Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, sitting on the bonnet of a protection officer’s jaguar, and smashing a window of Topshop’s flagship Oxford Street store.

During his trial, his barrister, David Spens QC, asserted that Gilmour was “ashamed of himself” for his actions, pointing to his “intoxication by drink and drugs” at the time. He was found to have taken LSD and valium in the hours before the protest.

Judge Nicholas Price QC, who passed the sentence at Kingston Crown Court, was particularly critical of Gilmour swinging from a Union flag Centograph. Price told him: “You have shown disrespect to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, to those who fell defending this country.” He added: “It caused public outrage and understandably so.” Nonetheless, Price accepted that the incident did not form part of the violent disorder.

In a letter to The Guardian yesterday, the Cambridge Academic Campaign for Higher Education (CACHE) argued: “Although much has been made by the media of his disrespect to the Cenotaph and we note, without condoning his behaviour, that no one was injured by his activities and that no serious damage to either persons or property took place.”

Gilmour’s sentence was condemned as: “Manifestly exceeding a judicious and reasonable punishment for Charlie’s action.

“The severity of this sentence seems primarily ‘exemplary’: to warn young people that protest will be criminalised and punished to the maximum permissible extent. Those of us who are concerned to defend the right to dissent and protest in a democratic polity must speak out against the political message embodied by this extraordinary symbolic sentence”.

The letter was signed by 13 academics: Duncan Bell, Ben Etherington, Priyamvada Gopal, Michael Hrebeniak, Eivind Kahrs, Shruti Kapila, Maria Manuel Lisboa, Subha Mukherji, Simon Shaffer and Isoble Urquhart.

Cambridge Defend Education likewise view Gilmour as the “latest victim” in the “tradition of protesters being imprisoned”, referring to his incarceration as a “act of political imprisonment”. His participation in the Old Schools sit-in last Michaelmas was celebrated by the campaign, who felt “proud that Charlie was there, that he brought his humour, energy and enthusiasm to that period of our lives.”

Beyond Cambridge, Defend the Right to Protest, a campaign supported by the National Union of Students (NUS), characterised Gilmour’s “incredibly harsh sentence” as “part of an ongoing attempt by the courts to punish protesters for criticising government policy, to deter others from protesting in future and to generally create a climate of fear and intimidation around protesting.”

Gilmour was one of 11 between the ages of 15 and 21, who were charged with a number of offences during of December’s student tuition fee protest in London, which included affray and criminal damage, as well as the more serious violent disorder. Also charged for violent disorder was 20 year old Alfie Meadows, 20, who required brain surgery after allegedly being hit in the head by a truncheon.

In January, 18 year old Edward Woollard from Hampshire was jailed for two years and eight months for violent disorder after throwing a fire extinguisher from the roof of the Conservative Party headquarters in Milbank during the first national demonstration against the cuts to higher education. More recently, Frank Fernie was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment. CCTV footage captured him throwing two poles at police officers in a further London protest in March.

Support for Gilmour has not been unanimous. The ‘Free Charlie Gilmour’ page has attracted fierce debate. Andy Malden commented on how Gilmour was “part of the mob that attacked businesses on Oxford Street and he was also photographed trying to start a fire”. He argued: “I want violent criminals to be locked up and I’m glad he has been.”

At present, a rival ‘Charlie Gilmour is a disgrace’ Facebook page has 73 likes. A comment from Dan Thorpe reads: “I really hope his time inside is the most miserable eye opening experience of his life. He thinks because of who his stepdad is, that he is immune from the law. I do sadly think that the judge was too lenient though. If that had been anybody else, they would have had double that sentence at least.” This sentiment was echoed by Debbie McCarthy, who claimed Gilmour: “got what he deserved”.

Girton College has also backed the sentencing, stating: “The College notes the gravity of the offence and is firmly opposed to public disorder. Due legal process has been observed, and Mr Gilmour has been tried and sentenced accordingly.”

Robert Brown, Gilmour’s solicitor, announced that his family are “actively considering grounds for appeal”, with the hope of reducing his sentence.

Judith Welikala

Photo: Jess Touscheck