Thursday, May 11, 2006

Maya Evans, interview


Maya Evans
interviewed by Tim Barton

The new Serious Organised Crime & Police Act, 2005 (SOCPA) rules compromise freedom of speech as anyone who wants to demonstrate within one kilometre of Parliament must apply for permission at least six days in advance or, apparently, if not "reasonably practicable" (though I have no idea what may exceptions qualify), twenty-four hours in advance. Maya Evans, at that time 25, was arrested on Tuesday 25th October 2005 for taking part in a demonstration to mark the anniversary of a 2004 Lancet survey on the war in Iraq, which estimated 100,000 Iraqis had died in the war as a result of war. She became the first person to be tried and convicted under the act (on held Wednesday 7th December 2005), though hers had not been the first arrest.

Blue interviewed Maya in early April with a view to contectualising her current activism and arrest. The first part took place in the eat@ vegetarian cafe in Hastings and is transcribed from notes, the second on the Hastings Pier where I had a recorder.

After the interview, I have placed several extracts from the internet on this case, and on other related events.

Maya is now 26. She was brought up in Hackney, East London, a multicultural area of the capital. She did not have a religious religious background, having an agnostic position on such matters, and sharing, instead, non-doctrinaire cultural values from her mixed community. Many of her friends were and are Muslim, so she has developed a natural ability to appreciate human problems across divides.

She studied History in Liverpool, including Cultural Imperialism. Maya describes herself as having been anti-capitalist since university. She is pro-self-sufficiency through anti-exploitative channels and would describe herself as "anarchistic" but is not sure how realistic such a viewpoint really is, as today's social arrangements mitigate against small communities. She is anti-planes, anti-plastics, etc. and has a desire for equality, fair wages, fair trade and local production. Her desire to help the third world is not in tune with the Band Aid method, which she sees as a short-termist panacea, instead seeking methods that work through individual choice and engagement - life-style actions to help, not one-off charity donations. When discussing Fair Trade, Maya talked of her involvement in Trinity Wholefoods (a Hastings, East Sussex, UK co-operative at which see has worked since the summer of 2004), and whilst firmly supporting the principles clearly understands that there are negative issues within Fair Trade to be addressed, such as the over-incentivisation of cash crops. Her view of co-ops is positive. She says that can be hard work, but that she sees it as the best way to run a business.

She graduated around the time of the 9/11 attacks. Maya feels that 9/11 was a turning point for her in terms of politicisation. She was, like so many of us, left asking why the terrorist acts had taken place, and what repercussions should be expected. It was reasonable to conclude that invasion of mid-east countries by the might occur, and indeed that is exactly what she saw. In Liverpool she became involved in anti-war activities during the Afghan war.

Her motivation was overtly anti-war, and was not linked at that time to civil liberties issues here in the UK. Her studies had to some degree prepared her for the 'double-speak' of the Bush and Blair administrations. She formed links with Voices in the Wilderness. Milan Rai, whom she had met before, came to speak in Liverpool around this time. In 2003 she was involved in the anti-war demonstrations in London, before the Iraq War had begun. Although she came quickly to see the problems that the movement had to deal with, in terms of the controlling manner in which some organisations behaved, far from being disillusioned and dropping out she chose to find a smaller affinity group from which to continue her anti-war activities.

She went to Chicago, USA, with Voices in the Wilderness, an organisation that had many contacts in Iraq from the time of the sanctions. She found this a very good experience networking with Kathy Kelly and many other anti-war individuals. She found a large Catholic element to the anti-war movement there, with over 40% of the Voices in the Wilderness members having a catholic background.

She moved to Hastings in November 2003, as she has family there. When she arrived joined Hastings Against War and became more involved in Justice Not Vengeance, an organisation that began after 9/11, with Milan Rai.

Justice Not Vengeance, linked to Hastings Against War, has been involved in organising and promoting anti-war demonstrations and education since 9/11, and international groups like Voices in the Wilderness (established in the UK in 1995 to campaign against sanctions on Iraq) have worked with Justice Not Vengeance on these issues too.

Maya has been in attendance at several anti-war events co-organised by the US-based Voices in the Wilderness and UK-based Justice Not Vengeance organisations. The October 2005 events came under the campaign slogan 100,000 Rings, opposed to the US/UK war and occupation of Iraq, and using the anniversary of a reported 100,000 Iraqi civilian war dead (in the Lancet) as a milestone to which demonstrations be pegged. See the Iraq Mortality website for more information. The concept is described thus:

Maya: "As people opposed to the US/UK war and occupation of Iraq, we act to end the silence about the suffering and death in Iraq and to publicly unlock the grief that it has caused in our communities. On October 24th - 28th, to mark the anniversary of the release of the Lancet Study on 29 October 2004, each sponsoring group will act out our grief, our anger, and our solidarity by gathering in a public place for a simple and solemn "Bell Ringing" ceremony. We will ring a bell 1,000 times, each ring symbolizing the death of an Iraqi person as a result of the war and occupation."

[Maya & Mil outside Bow Street Magistrate's Court] Internationally, more than 100 events were planned. In the UK, four rounds of protest had been organised by JNV, from October 24 to October 28. Other groups also organized events. The itinery was Brighton; Northwood Army Barracks (new legislation means that from April 2006 this too would have been deemed illegal - see CAAB website for April 1st arrests under those provisions); opposite Downing Street, London and then Hastings, East Sussex (the latter being JNV's base in the UK where a thriving anti-war community exists). It was at one of a series of such events in the UK that Maya was arrested, along with Milan Rai, who was not charged for attendance but has since been charged for ‘organising' the event.

The venue for the day, October 25th, was in Whitehall, and thus fell within the new Parliament Square exclusion zone. In this zone no protests are allowed that have not been cleared first, via onerous forms. The exclusion zone was set up via the Serious Organised Crime & Police Act, 2005 (SOCPA). Essentially, this appears to have been put in place to stifle protest in general, and specifically to get Brian Haw (an anti-war protester who is effectively camped right outside Parliament) out of the Square, although the authorities claim that the reason for the legislation is to stop conflict between opposed demonstrations (such as BNP and Anti-Fascist League demos deliberately timed to coincide). Thus, when Maya was arrested for breaking the new law, she was told that it was for "her own protection", ie, implying that some other unauthorised pro-war people might turn up and attack her. Cynics might say that representatives of the State would fit the bill, and thus that Maya's health might be endangered by the Police, but in fact Maya found them reasonably friendly, even interested, if condescending.

JNV had made the police aware that they would be there, and had attained copies of the forms to request permission for a demo in the Exclusion Zone, but failed to return these forms. The reason given for this is that they were intrusive and restrictive. They certainly are detailed, imposing limits on, and asking for exact data on, the place and time of an event, how long it can be, how many may attend, and how many banners and placards are allowed. This appears to be a deliberate policy designed to make certain that some publicisable confrontation would take place. Milan Rai, who was with Maya on the day, also approached police and wardens on the day to let them know they were there. He was warned that they would be arrested if the protest went ahead as planned. This warning was relayed to Maya. The protest, of course, went ahead more or less as planned.

On the day, Indymedia had a reporter there, and an independent photographer was also in attendance. There was no other press presence. A friend of Maya's, from her school-days, was filming and a brief video of the arrest is available online.

The demonstration had been advertised through groups such as indymedia as well as via the Iraq Mortality, Voices in the Wilderness, and JNV. Indeed, one of the police involved in the arrests said that he had read about JNV through checking up in sites such as indymedia and urban75. This is both less sinister (ordinary bobbies keeping that close a check on us) and less of a good sign (ordinary bobbies showing a positive interest in "subversive" activities), as the policeman involved worked for the department that dealt with the permissions for demonstrations in the Square and apparently was indulging in normal research for his specific task.

Maya says that she was briefed beforehand and had read the relevant legislation. She says that she was aware of the previous arrests, in August, under the legislation in the Zone. JNV had estimated a 70% likelihood that demonstrators would be arrested. Thus it seems clear that Maya and Mil went in with the clear expectation that arrest was probable and in fact went out of their way to ensure that the chances of them being ignored were minimal.

The trial was the first under the new legislation, although her's was not the first arrest under the law. It took place on December 7th 2005.

The rest of the intervew took place over on the pier:

Blue: Has a date been set for the High Court Appeal?

Maya: "A date hasn't been set for a high court appeal yet. I believe it's some time in the summer, though. My solicitor, Bindman's, has informed me - she [thinks] it [may] be in the summer of this year."

Blue: What will you be saying in the High Court?

Maya: "Bindman's have put together this argument and they're basically saying that [the] SOCPA law is basically incompatible with the European Convention on human rights, articles 10 & 11, freedom of speech and freedom of peaceful assembly with others. I'll probably just go along with that line."

Blue: Do you expect Justice?

Maya: [laughs] "...erm, I hope for justice! - I just think it could go either way, couldn't it?" (She later said "I don't consider my current criminal record as an example of justice, so who knows") "Brian [Haw] was in court yesterday as the Home Office had appealed the decision [...] Whereas before the court had decided that, because his demonstration predated the legislation, it couldn't be retrospective therefore he was exempt [...] But the Home office were appealing that yesterday [saying] that his demonstration is in fact illegal and within the legislation [and] that he shouldn't be there[...]. The decision is still yet to be made. But my feeling in the High Court yesterday was that it could go either way."

Blue: If the argument is that SOCPA is in contravention of the European rules, have you a view of how that might play in you case, because that's slightly different to Brian's defence isn't it?

Maya: "The argument which the Home Office was taking is that it is compatible because you still can demonstrate and all you have to do is fill out an application form. And technically they do have to say that yes, you can demonstrate, but there are a number of restrictions that they can put on your demonstration - and its this point of the legislation which makes it so draconian and anti-freedom - because they can put a cap on the number of people at your demonstration, and where you want to hold that demonstration and how long, and the size of your banners and the amount of noise that you can make - so that's not really a free demonstration, once you go through the requirements."

Blue: You were fined £200. You have said you will not pay the fine. Will this be an issue at the appeal?

Maya: "I was asked to pay court costs of £200."

Blue: So there wasn't an actual fine?

Maya: "...so I wasn't even fined, and I was given conditional discharge." (conditional on not illegally entering the exclusion zone to protest again, for the next year) "I haven't paid the £200 and I am not planning to pay the £200 either, they'll have to send the bailiffs in, or... I am willing to spend time in prison for the principle.

"My barrister at the time advised me not to say to the court that I won't pay the court costs, but I have not done so as an appeal is in the pipeline: if I lose the appeal, the crime of unpaid court costs will be returned to the Magistrates court in Hastings, where they will decide my punishment - it's not uncommon to receive a prison sentence."

Since then, Milan Rai has been charged for ‘organising' the demonstration at which Maya was arrested (again the first charge under the new law). This took place on January 19th 2005. The case was adjourned so that the judge could "consider the human rights legal arguments put forward by Barrister Maya Sikand" of Liberty (quote from indymedia). The case resumed on 12th April. If found guilty, under the new law, you would have faced a possible £5000 fine and up to 3 months in prison. This maximum incarceration penalty rose in April, so future offenders will face a possible 51 weeks imprisonment. Milan was, as I understand it, fined £350 plus £150 costs.

Maya has since continued to attend unauthorised events in the exclusion zone. Milan has been unable to, though the spirit is willing, as he has been busy writing and promoting his recent book 7/7: The London Bombing, Islam and the Iraq, from Pluto Press (which Blue will review in the near future).

On April 2nd 2006, another illegal Naming the Dead ceremony took place there. This one was organised by Mass Action Group, London Catholic Worker, Voices UK and JNV. The event had an estimated 200 people in attendance, including celebrity Joanna Lumley. There were readings from Iraqi's who had witnessed events during the war and were now in the UK; a name and shame exercise aimed at corporations that had been involved in the war; and a reading of the names of Iraqi dead. The protest was lobbying for reparations, a war crimes tribunal, and troop withdrawal.

On this occasion Maya was not arrested. So far as Maya was aware when our conversation took place (April 4th) there were no other arrests either, though police were present and she did observe them hassling a Charlie Chaplin mime who was protesting with them. Maya was also, at that time, unaware of any police statement about the illegal demonstration - though they were, of course, taking photographs.

Maya's presence at this and other events post-trial are explicitly intended to demonstrate defiance and push the boundaries of the legislation, that JNV and other groups see as intended to control activism in a way that impinges upon our freedom of speech and movement. She is clear about this - she will continue to put herself in harms way to make her point, and more power to her. As the interview wound down to a conclusion, Maya had a proud visage, a defiant spark in her eyes.

- Tim Barton

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