The morning of 8 February 2012, in one of the smaller courtrooms tucked away at the back of the Palais de Justice of Brussels, the latest scene of a pantomime that has been running now for more than a year. Back in September 2010 some 1000 people gathered at Tour et Taxis in Brussels for a week of discussions, demonstrations and actions against migration controls and in favour of free movement for all. The Brussels Police threw all its force at the gathering, arresting hundreds just for walking in the streets around the camp, dishing out beatings and sexual assaults. A year and a half later it’s time for the first court case against activists from the camp. Something has to be pinned on someone, to justify all those arbitrary administrative arrests and hospitalisations. Where are those dangerous terrorists who were rampaging around Brussels? Well, we do have these two English who were somewhere near some police horses at the demonstration of 26 September outside the 127bis detention centre, when a cop fell and got a kick from a police horse. The cop even had to take a couple of days off work it seems. We don’t know whether the horse was similarly traumatised. The two English were being dragged through the mud by a snatch squad, one of them knocked unconscious, at the time. But did they use some diabolical horse-whispering powers to incite equine rebellion?
This is what the power of Justice sets out to discover in the courtroom this morning. First, the scene must be set. To ensure that Justice can work her magic, the room must first be secured, with some 20 police guarding the door. The court-room is far too small to hold all the supporters who have come in solidarity with the No Borders accused. Some supporters stay in the cold outside the palace with samba drums and banners, where they provide entertainment and photo opps for a troupe of visiting schoolchildren. Others wait in the corridor outside the courtroom. Two are arrested for carrying drums inside the Palace. Anyone who wants to get in and see the magic of Justice at work must be searched, scanned, ID-checked, and have their name recorded.
Inside the sealed and guarded room, two clowns take centre stage today. First let us present the Procureur du Roi who is named, in all seriousness, Monsieur L’empereur. Monsieur L’Empereur has wavy well-coiffed hair and a rakish trimmed beard. Seated on the side of the great desk-altar of Justice, he reclines leonine, imperial indeed, raises an eyebrow, ponders with a gaze into the distance. When distressed by the arguments of the defence lawyers, he sits up and quivers in a miniature rage of righteous superior disapproval. Or lies back and feigns sleep. When he speaks, he stands and puffs out his chest, then launches into full-on old style oratory. He instructs not just the accused and those foolish defence lawyers but the whole courtroom, at length and with repetition, about our rights and duties, respect for order, and the sacred necessity of hierarchy. Monsieur L’Empereur is, in short, a big cock, in a little courtroom.
Then there is our judge, Monsieur le President. Though technically supreme ruler of the courtroom, Monsieur le President is somewhat less magnificent than Monsieur L’Empereur. He is short, round, bald, bespectacled, and fundamentally grumpy. His role is to sit quietly, meeting no one’s eye, as Monsieur Empereur orates on about duties, constructs elaborate analogies about policing and teaching (one of the defendants being a teacher), opines on the situation in Syria, or brandishes a quote from Churchill. Then to interrupt the defence lawyers whenever they try to speak about aggressive policing or anything else that “departs from the immediate facts”.
So to the facts, then. The prosecution provides two long police videos which show the demo from the air and from the ground. The two defendants can be seen throughout. Nowhere in any of the film can they be seen attacking police, police horses, or otherwise aggressing. Monsieur Empereur has to admit it. “But the video proves nothing” he says, (begging the question of why the prosecution submitted it as evidence in the first place), “they may well have been violent when they weren’t on film.” Indeed, there are supposed to be police testimonies to that effect. Well, to be exact, there is one cop who says one defendant was acting aggressively. Which directly contradicts his own earlier statement.
“But in fact,” continues Monsieur Empereur, “the question is not whether or not the accused hit anyone, or acted aggressively, or did anything at all. It is clear that someone was hit (by a hoof), and it is clear that the accused were nearby, and that demonstrators around them, whether the accused themselves were directly involved or not, agitated the horses, and so can be said to have led to this injury.” That is, the accused were somewhere around some people who might have scared the horses which might have led to a cop getting a light kick. In any case, says Monsieur Empereur, why were they on the demo anyway? And why didn’t they just move quicker when getting pushed back by the cops on horses? Just to be there, not to move faster, was itself an act of rebellion. Rights come with duties. When a cop on a horse pushes you, you have a duty to run. This is called order. When a cop tells you to leave a demonstration, obey immediately. Otherwise all is chaos.
All is chaos. The accused were both beaten and hospitalised by the cops. But this is not relevant to the facts of the case. The beatings, arbitrary arrests, strip searches, rape threats, of that week in September are not relevant. Monsieur L’Empereur is getting outraged at this irrelevancy. The reason for the demo, to remember the killing of detainee Semira Adamou, is certainly not relevant. This irrelevancy is sending Monsieur L’Empereur to sleep. The everyday reality of police aggression in the migrant neighbourhoods around the No Border Camp … well, to tell the truth, the defence lawyers are not even going to try and present that as relevant. There is some violence that matters, and some that has no place even being mentioned in the world of rights and duties that concerns this small courtroom. “So send out a press release,” says Monsieur le President, “this has nothing to do with me.” This is my courtroom, he says. Meaning: those are my 20 policemen outside with their guns. Those policemen with those guns give me and Monsieur L’Empereur here the right to be a pair of cocks, and you the duty to shut up and do as we say. Now get out.
The penalty demanded is one year in prison, suspended for one year. The sentence will be pronounced on 7 March.