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Star Comment: Rough Justice in Sheffield

SOUTH YORKSHIRE pensioners Tony Nuttall and George Arthur are due to appear at Sheffield Magistrates Court on July 7 to face charges of obstructing a police officer and fare dodging.

The people who ought to be in court are the British Transport Police bully-boys who piled into Nuttall five to one for a heavy-handed arrest.

They and whichever authorities were instrumental in unleashing them against elderly protesters on Meadowhall station know that the arrested men are not criminals.

They are public-spirited activists opposed to the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive decision to trim free travel for pensioners.

Peaceful direct action has an honourable place in Britain’s history and that of many other countries.

The protesters’ choice of the name Freedom Rides to describe their activity is a clear reference to the struggle for racial equality in the US half a century ago when Freedom Riders exposed discrimination and fought for African-Americans’ right to vote and participate equally in US society.

Some were martyred in the struggle for liberty.

Many were beaten and jailed, condemned as criminals, although their bravery and dedication to justice are often cited now as examples to follow.

The pensioners from Sheffield, Barnsley and Doncaster who are challenging the passenger transport executive decision to restrict pensioner mobility are unlikely, we hope, to face live bullets, cattle prods or cudgels.

But the willingness of the transport police to kettle pensioners, rough up one of their leaders and clatter blind and physically disabled people can only be seen as a surfeit of intimidation to persuade protesters to give up the struggle for justice.

Hacking back free weekday travel on buses and trams to be available only after 9.30am and scrapping locally funded concessionary rail travel amount to draconian restrictions on pensioners’ freedom to get around.

The transport executive insists that it has no choice because of shortage of funds.

Local authorities and other publicly accountable bodies often claim that there is no alternative to the plans they have made and they dig in their heels, creating an insurmountable barrier between themselves and the people to whom they are accountable.

Such divisions play into the hands of the conservative coalition government that has cut local and regional funding as part of its anti-people austerity agenda.

Travel restrictions should be anathema to the local councils that work within the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive, which, along with the late lamented South Yorkshire metropolitan county council, once provided a shining example of progressive governance basking in the title of the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire.

The ideals that underpinned that experience remain valid today and should not be sacrificed to the savage individualism practised by the Tories and their junior allies.

The transport executive, train operating company, police and local councils have serious questions to answer over the mistreatment of the Freedom Riders.

This means not just the two men due to appear at Sheffield Magistrates Court on July 7 but also their fellow protesters kettled on the station.

Local activists should show their support for the mass action by attending court with Nuttall and Arthur and ensuring that the community understands the significance of their peaceful protest.

Just as the original Freedom Riders refused to bow the knee to brutality, their South Yorkshire successors should keep their eyes on the prize of freedom to travel for pensioners.

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