I've always said that peaceful non-violent direct action is a legitimate form of protest but those who are involved in breaking the law as a political tactic have to accept the consequences of their actions. The broken windows and graffiti are minor in the grand scheme of things but they've made the protest back fire.
Trespass is not normally a criminal offence although there are special laws protecting some Government sites. The breakaway protesters have probably broken conditions on a march under the Public Order Act 1986. Section 12 imposes conditions on processions and s. 14 on public assemblies. A person who knowingly fails to comply is guilty of an offence, but the police would have to have communicated the condition to the marchers. Some will have committed other public order offences (likely harassment, alarm of distress s. 5 that requires threatening or only insulting words or behaviour), or the more serious s. 4 fear or provocation of violence or s. 3, affray. Others caused criminal damage. The Public Order offences are very wide and people may not even know they fall under them. For those who have deliberately broken the law it is different. They have to take responsibility for that.
The horrific incident with a fire extinguisher is completely unrepresentative. Did the person even think about what they were doing, and legally will it matter? Did they decide on this 'criminally' dangerous act in the exuberance of the protest, did they intend harm or see the risk of harm? Looking at what they did it is impossible to think that they did not. In law did they have mens rea for criminal damage, for s. 1(2), for s. 20 or s. 18 OAPA, or as suggested for attempted murder? The person may deny they even thought about any harm but in interview with skilled police officers they will probably admit that they wanted to hit back at the people on the other side (the police) or saw a risk of injury or damage and then they will be charged with a very serious criminal offence. If they say they saw no risk what will a jury do – a jury will say they must have done and convict. One student career destroyed because of a moment of madness but fortunately this case without a dead victim as was the case in Hancock & Shankland or Newbury & Jones.
The 'direct action' occupation of the offices housing Tory Party Headquarters was a great media stunt and showed the strength of feeling of a small amount of the protesters. But the damage caused and scenes of police officers attacked completely overshadowed the large scale peaceful protest. The media always grossly misrepresent what happens. True they wouldn't have much bothered reporting a peaceful march but instead have reported a few hundred involved in causing trouble they love.
A longer version of this article will appear on my personal and political website (including more about the politics, my views on tuition fees, and protest tactics)
UPDATE: Edward Woollard, 18, appeared in court charged with violent disorder over the fire extinguisher incident.
Published in 'Learned Friends Magazine' Issue 2 – December 2010. In conjunction with the Liverpool Legal Society (Liverpool Law School) and edited by Rosie Kavanagh and Charlotte Hopwood. Sponsored by 7 Harrington Street Chambers.