On 26th September 2018, Venice and Linda had to present themselves at Westminster Magistrates Court in answer to a private prosecution brought by a tranactivist who felt threatened by one of 67 year old Linda’s comments at a ‘We Need to Talk’ meeting last year.
I’d arranged to meet Venice and a few other people at Starbucks on Baker Street at 8.45, which meant getting up at 7am. Not my favourite time in the morning. It was an early start and I’m not great at early starts.
It was a bright, cool morning and the coffee steamed in the sunlight. Linda arrived, with her partner and friends, looking very dapper in a pin striped suit. Everybody seemed in very high spirits, and Ruby and I sat outside with Venice and her mum while we waited for her solicitor and paralegal to arrive. Two coffees later, Venice & Linda sped off in a taxi with them and the rest of us walked the short distance to the court.
When we arrived at Westminster Magistrates Court, over half an hour early, there were already a few clusters of women and a handful of banners of support waving. I went straight through after a bag search: Venice had warned me that there might not be many seats available in the public gallery and I was keen to watch the proceedings so I could blog about them for those unable to be there. Well, ok, it wasn’t an entirely altruistic motive, I was hugely curious to hear what Guiliana had to say for himself. It’s a very strange case indeed.
For those of you unfamiliar with the story, on November 8th 2017, at a ‘We Need To Talk About The GRA’ [Gender Recognition Act] event in York, organised by Venice Allan, Linda Bellos was one of the speakers. Speaking, she says, with reference to the assault of Maria Maclachlan at Speakers’ Corner a few months beforehand, 67 year old Bellos said:
“‘I play football and I box, and if any one of those bastards comes near me I will take off my glasses and… clock (?) them.”
Linda is no stranger to activism. She came out as a lesbian in the early 80s, led London Lambeth Borough Council from 1986-88 and is the instigator of Black History Month in the UK. She received an OBE in 2006 for ‘services to diversity’, having worked in various roles including co-chair of the LGBT Advisory Group to the Metropolitan Police. This article, ‘Yes, we were bloody angry’ from 2006 chronicles some of her achievements.
A month before ‘We Need to Talk‘, in October 2017, Bellos had been uninvited by the Beard Society, a self-described gender and feminist group at Cambridge University, after telling organisers she planned to question ‘some of the trans politics’ in her talk.
The Beard Society’s decision to uninvite Bellos (undaunted, she planned to go and speak at Oxford instead) led Claire Heuchan to observe:
“It is ludicrous to claim that someone who has committed her life to liberation politics is a risk to the well being of those who listen to her perspective – and deeply insulting. Black, female, Jewish and lesbian feminist, Bellos is not exactly a preacher of hate.”
Nonetheless, despite her stirling record of service to both the party and the community, LGBT Labour claimed that Ms Bellos’s views and perceived threats of violence were ‘deeply offensive’ and accused her of ‘clearly inciting violence against trans members and the wider trans community’. LGBT Labour complained to the Labour Party General Secretary and North Yorkshire police interviewed Ms Bellos under caution in October 2017, but understandably took no further action.
It seemed the incident had blown over until a month ago when Giuliana Kendal, a transgender rights campaigner who I understand saw a video of the comments online, decided to bring a private prosecution (PP).
The court papers accuse Bellos of breaking Section 5 of the Public Order Act which makes it an offence to use ‘threatening or abusive words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour’ within the hearing or sight of a person ‘likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby’.
Kendal’s prosecution also summonses Venice Allan, who Facebook live-streamed the event, despite the fact that she was not interviewed by police at the time. Allan is accused of sending an offensive message ‘by means of a public electronic communication network a message or other that was grossly offensive”.
Yes, I think we read that right, in a nutshell it seems that Venice is being prosecuted because while she was live-streaming an event, somebody said something that somebody else didn’t like. Let’s get some perspective here: I know a woman who was punched in the head on a train platform by a random strange man and advised by the police not to prosecute.
Two terms of half-hearted study of 20th century ‘A’ level law several decades ago did not prepare me for understanding this. I just don’t get it. If a male transactivist DMs or @s me, I click on their Twitter profile and a video springs up of them taking it up the arse, or of a dog being beaten to death by a police officer in China (both IRL examples of my recent Twitter experience), that’s ok? But Linda’s feisty self-defence speech isn’t? Am I missing something here?
‘This is an attempt to silence women and it is outrageous… I’m a disabled pensioner, with no funds to defend myself since my partner died of cancer, being intimidated by men purporting to be women.” Bellos told the press.
Nope, I’ve done a bit of research and I still don’t get it. Firstly, how startlingly unfair is a private prosecution (PP) system? How incredibly undemocratic, how entirely unjust the idea seems to me and surely to anyone who gives the matter more than cursory consideration. Secondly, surely it must cost somebody a fortune, whoever wins or loses?
In 2014 the Independent ran an article about the growing popularity of PPs, entitled ‘Two-tier Justice‘ wherein I discovered that The Director of Public Prosecutions (head of the CPS) can take over and stop a case if it is considered “vexatious”, “malicious” or “not in the public interest”.
Could I mount a PP against anyone who offends me, ever, as long as I have the money to follow through? It seems not.
“Prosecutors must be satisfied that there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction against the defendant.” informs the Private Prosecution Service, adding tantalisingly, “Can you fund the private prosecution proceedings?” but their website doesn’t tell you how long that particular piece of string is.
Interestingly, I read on Wikipedia that in 2014, Westminster Magistrates was used as what one journalist described as a publicity stunt when an ex-mormon summoned the head of the Church of the Latter Day Saints to appear on fraud charges. The leader, who resides in America, did not attend, but the guy that summoned him got over three quarters of a million visits to his website when the press broke the story. A former crown prosecutor stated: “This is just using the law to make a show”. Obviously the courts are not keen on such behaviour.
According to EMM, a UK PP specialist, a fraud and financial crime service can “cost(s) in the region of £6000 and upwards… cases can become expensive.”
I’m both intrigued and confused, but it’s 3am and I’ve an article to finish.
Back to the tale in hand. I arrived at Westminster Magistrates and passed through the huge glass doors. The court was built in 2011 and the architect was clearly a fan of glass. Security was understandably tight. My bag passed through an Xray machine, I passed through a metal archway and headed up several flights of stairs to find Court Nine.
There were already about a dozen women waiting outside the court room. Five or six of them were wearing “Woman= adult human female” T shirts. One was engaged in a discussion with a court clerk who was suggesting they all sat down until the court was open. She was not convinced.
“We’ll just wait right here, thank you.” she told the clerk, politely but firmly.
I lurked close to the door. It hadn’t crossed my mind spaces would be so limited.
“There’s only room for 12 people inside,” explained the clerk. “Six from each side.”
There was no sign of Giuliana, although two trans people, a man and a woman, were standing near the doors.
“Are you Venice Allan?” the clerk asked the man, who looked somewhat surprised and explained that he was not. No, nor was he Giuliana Kendal. A couple of women seemed understandably disgruntled that we wouldn’t all be able to fit inside.
“What about neutral people?” asked one. “Can we go in?”
“If there’s room,” said the clerk.
We waited. It was ten past ten and the session should have started at ten. I felt restless.
I could see through the window that a larger crowd had gathered outside, and its colourful banners swayed as it moved.
There were representatives from Fair Play for Women, Man Friday, Get the LOut, A Woman’s Place, Lesbian Alliance, Object, Let A Woman Speak… and many supporters who had come independent of an organisation. Almost all were women.
A journalist asked me afterwards who had been present and I tried to list all the groups that had sent or expressed support. Hadn’t Liverpool Resisters sent a banner? I knew Leeds had brought their beautifully embroidered “Wrong Side of History My Arse” banner.
When I did my two terms of A level law, fifty million years ago, we attended a case where the public gallery was an actual gallery, empty and echoing, encircling the proceedings below, with polished handrails of mahogany, wooden benches and seating for several scores of people. But of course, Westminster Magistrates Court is not a Victorian building housing a Crown Court. Once the clerk opened the door and those of us who made it inside entered the ‘public gallery’ I could see why observers were limited to twelve.
Two rows of about ten seats each, lined up cinema-style, were set behind a partially-enclosed glass screen, on the same level as the proceedings. On the other side of the screen, twelve people sat at their desks, piles of partially-confined papers and computers in front of them. It reminded me of a 90s television studio. Julie Bindel and Joani Walsh, who had press passes, were seated on the other side of the glass. Venice and Linda were sitting on the right. They looked calm and confident. Venice was smiling. I nearly waved. Several people were talking.
I heard a woman shrug and say to Giuliana, “Are you seeking to…” and “there’s an awful lot of material,” but it was too noisy to make out much else. A policeman popped his head around the door and reminded us that we weren’t allowed to record the proceedings.
“And no jeering,” he told us, good naturedly, “or I’ll have to ask you all to leave.”
We assured him we planned no jeering.
The chatter died down; District Judge Richard Blake entered the court room, a slate-haired, pleasant-faced, fatherly-looking chappie, and we all rose. And then we sat. And then started a somewhat bizarre session.
Guiliana rose early in the proceedings, to tell the judge that he was a solicitor himself but had brought along a friend to help for medical reasons.
“Well,” said Judge Blake, “he can’t address me,” but added that he was content for the friend to stay.
Kendal spoke slowly and addressed Judge Blake with great pomp, asking him
“to exclude the person at the back in the public gallery who is wearing a T shirt saying ‘Adult Human Female …
…and also, the defendant, Linda Bellos is wearing a suffragette colours square. The T-shirt is a highly political emblem, it is the slogan of the organisation called Standing For Women… brazen in contempt of court…”
“You object to a T shirt?” enquired the judge, with perhaps a very slight raising of one eyebrow.
Indeed, Guiliana did, calling the T shirt ‘deeply offensive’ and the suffragette square was mentioned once more, with a suggestion that the presence of either or both items breached the Equality Act and denied Kendal ‘as a transwoman’ the protected characteristic of sex.
“Who is the person in the gallery?” asked the judge, with weary patience, and J obligingly rose so he could see her T shirt. After a moment’s perusal, the judge referenced the Sufragette movement, calling it ‘an historical cause’.
“I’m not prepared to make any rulings on these items,” he declared. “People are free to wear what they want… I’m not satisfied that amounts to an offence.”
Judge Blake urged everybody present to be ‘cautious’, observing that, “this case clearly reflects issues in the community,’ and telling Kendal, “I understand the sincerity of your application.”
There followed mention of various things that half made sense when I was writing them down, but don’t make so much sense reading back my notes. Obviously accuracy is important and most legal terminology eludes me.
To tell the truth, I was tired, it was sometimes hard to hear what was being said, and it was just a little bit boring. I stared at the back of Kendal’s head and wondered what would induce someone to mount a prosecution for something like this.
There are those, of course, who think the whole thing was a wonderful idea.
Oh, the hyperbole! Harrop looms, like a 21st century Dr T. J. Eckleburg, over the valley of ashes where the dark and malevolent forces of gender-critical feminism swirl and swarm! Guiliana later spoke of the ‘floodgates of hate being opened’ on 8th November, the day of the York meeting. What is with this excessive drama? Is this all we are left with when we deny biological facts?
There was some discussion over the mis-spelling of Venice’s name- Rose before Venice, Allan not Allen- and some deliberation over what did or didn’t constitute an amendment.
Guiliana had, so I understood, dismissed his legal team and was representing himself. He was, in the words of the judge, “seeking to lay a further summons under the Communications Act”. I got the impression that this wasn’t allowed because the summons wasn’t related to ‘the York event’, or possibly because it hadn’t been filed in time. It was a little baffling. At one point Kendal told the judge, “to be honest, Sir, I’m not quite sure what happened” and at another wanted to “check we are talking about the same thing” although if I’m honest, I’m not quite sure exactly what was being referred to on either occasion. There was talk of dates, things expiring, and much subjective speculation, interspersed with frequent slights upon the character of Ms Allan.
“There is a long history of abuse, of transwomen in particular, by Ms Allan, against the community as a whole, against targeted individuals and against me in particular.” proclaimed Kendal, referencing Allan’s responsibility for broadcasting at the York event.
“You didn’t persue section 127,” interrupted the judge, in an attempt to stay on track. This was discussed for a while. An incident was said to be out of time and another- the same one? I’m unsure- had been dropped.
“”There is a continuous history of abuse… It was never the prosecutor’s idea to drop the abuse, the abuse is a fundamental aspect of the prosecution” said Guliana.
“But that’s what you did,” asserted the judge.
Kendal accused his previous legal team of “a conspicuous failure to follow my instructions” and at one point seemed to attempt to correct Judge Blake, telling him “my understanding of the law, Sir, is that it’s perfectly legitimate to add offences.”
The judge, with infinite composure and patience, pointed out that this further allegation didn’t arise from the York event.
Kendal then spoke of the events at Hyde Park Corner and the University Women’s Club, citing that they were arranged by Ms Allan and included ‘obscene speeches by associates of Miss Bellos’ asserting again that, ‘Miss Allan has abused transwomen.’ and claiming ‘all these matters are inextricably linked’.
He then asked to play the court a video, a request which Judge Blake refused.
“Ms Allan seeks to paint herself as a middle-aged mother of two…” began Giuliana, but we will never know what hyperbolic depiction was about to ensue- perhaps Venice as some modern-day Medusa with a head full of transphobic snakes?- because the judge cut him off, reminding him again that, “the York event is the legal issue.”
I could see Venice smiling politely at the side of the court. I wondered how she remained so patient in the face of all this insulting rhetoric. Giuliana was now telling the judge that the prosecution had, “conclusive evidence that Ms Allan is responsible for a whole series of what can only be described as anti-trans hate meetings.”
“Excuse me, they can’t only be described as ‘anti-trans,.” Amanda Jones, Allan’s barrister, finally objected, concluding her complaint with, “This continued abuse in inappropriate.”
The gist seemed to be that Guiliana wanted to add more offences to the charges against Venice and that the court held that this wasn’t possible as it was only concerned with what happened in York, when Linda spoke her now-infamous lines. Let us remind ourselves of what was said at that meeting in York.
A few sections of Bellos’s talk are below, you can hear the full speech (she speaks from 48.40 – 55.45) here, on YouTube.
“My focus tends to be the political use of power and I have- perhaps its naive, but I have a desire to see the notion of equality in the world. I say that as a black women; I say that as a woman and having grown up with a very conscious awareness that being female put me in a lesser position than that of my brother, a male. And it’s still played out sixty-something years later.
I got a note today from a transwoman who I know, I can’t remember what she said to me but something – I said she because I’m always respectful- that she was very hurt by what I said, and I asked her a question about race. Because it seems to me that one of the cateogories that human beings- actually men- came up with is the notion of races. The categorisation of races seems to have been created around the time of gender being created.
I must say, having borne two children I think I’m physiologically, and in many other senses, a female and a woman. But I play football and I box, and if any one of those bastards comes near me I will take off my glasses and… clock (?) them. I take my glasses off and I can’t see a bloody thing! (laughs) That’s not the point. I’m quite prepared to threaten violence because it seems to me that politically, what they’re seeking to do is piss on all women…
What really offends me is the extent to which academia and political parties have listened to them in a way that they’re not listening to us as women….
I think the solution is to revisit the Women’s Liberation Movement. I really do see that we have spent too long- I don’t know what we’ve been doing but not very much in the name of feminsm- and I think it’s timely to bring back, the answer is to bring back feminism. To bring back a politics in which we seek… try to build, an 8th demand of the WLM… it would be useful if we took another step which is called consciousness raising. It was and remains a vital method.”
But back to the court room. Where were we? Ah yes, Amanda Jones had just complained that the continued abuse of her clients, Allan and Bellos, was inappropriate.
There was talk of summonses and photographs, statements and issues, and the phrases “these are not matters arising out of the York events” and “well out of a six month period” drifted to my ears and I scribbled them down, but mostly I wished that I had a nice, strong, hot coffee in my hand.
“The defendant strongly objects to the additional offence which the prosecution was quite rightly advised had no realistic prospect of success.” stated Jones.
Dates were tossed around, and times and running out of time, and places and applications. Kendal said information was made available in time. The judge said it wasn’t.
“It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to work out that this is out of time.” quipped Jones.
“I’m not persuaded it does arrive from the circumstances of York event and I refuse the application.” concluded Judge Blake.
I perked up. That sounded positive! Was it almost time for coffee?
“Where do we go from here?” asked Judge Blake.
‘Starbucks?’ I thought, hopefully.
Jones said they would be contacting the CPS and asking them to take over or discontinue the proceedings. She talked of ‘frank disclosure about this issue’ and mentioned the idea that there was no prospect of conviction of either defendant.
“We were served yesterday and this morning with a great deal of information and are not in a position to enter pleas.”
Jones went on to note that one of the difficulties with a private prosecution is ‘there is emotional involvement on behalf of the prosecutor’ which is not an issue in a standard proceeding. She added that she was concerned about the language being used and the importance that it should establish facts, using as an example Giuliana’s comment that ‘the defendants have opened the floodgates of hate’ and calling it ‘both hyperbolic and prejudicial’ and calling for ‘appropriate language’ to be used’.
Judge Blake said both that it was the right of the defendant in a private prosecution to invite the CPS to look at the case, and that a date needed to be fixed for the defence to make submissions.
“Shall I retire for a little while?” he asked, concluding, “It’s quite apparent that here are two factions with very different views of the world,” and pointing out that if conflict could be avoided it would be a happy day for everyone.
We came out of the courtroom onto the landing and milled around for a while. People wanted to know what had happened, which was basically that the case was adjourned. A journalist asked J and I a few questions before I slipped down the stairs and outside.
What a sight greeted me! Well over a hundred women, and a few men, circled the front courtyard, laughing, chanting and talking; waving their hands in the air and banners by their sides. I hadn’t expected to see so many people, and it was definitely the sudden exposure to the bright midday sunlight that brought a tear to my eye. I wanted to hug every one of them.
After we’d been waiting for about ten minutes, a chant of “self defence, no offence” broke out before turning to cheers and clapping as Linda and Venice joined us. Huge smiles broke out on their faces as they hugged those who had come out to support them. One group of women broke into a chorus of “there’s only one Venice Allan” and others took photos of and with the defendants. Linda made a rousing speech, but I missed what she said. Luckily, it was recorded and you can see the video on YouTube here.
A large group of us went to the nearby park and lay in the sun under some trees, beside the water. Somebody opened a bottle of champagne and poured Venice a glass.
What will happen next? Your guess is as good as mine. “Only time will tell,” as my old gran used to say, sagely, when she hadn’t got the foggiest idea what was going on.
One thing’s for sure, it’s unlikely to be dull. Cheers!
POST SCRIPT – PRESS STATEMENT
Westminster Magistrates Court, Wednesday 26/9/18
Linda Bellos and Venice Allan made a statement to the press:
“The judge refused an application to remove a Suffragette pocket square from one of the defendants and a woman in the public gallery wearing a T-shirt that said Woman equals Adult Human Female.
“The case has been adjourned for the CPS to consider whether to take over the case and discontinue it. And the issue of whether the summons should have been issued is re-opened.
“The prosecution’s application to add additional charges to Ms Allan was refused. The judge accepted Miss Jones’ submissions that the new matters were out of time and did not arise substantially from the same facts.
“And we have reserved the option of a judicial review.“
POSTSCRIPT 3/12/18 You can read what happened next in my follow-up post, here.