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Breaking the Butterfly on the Wheel: The Sentencing of Charlie Gilmour is Far Too Heavy-handed

Posted on the 21 July 2011 by Periscope @periscopepost
Breaking the butterfly on the wheel: The sentencing of Charlie Gilmour is far too heavy-handed

The Cenotaph, scene of Gilmour's crime. Photo credit: MCP,

Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel? This was a phrase used over 40 years ago by the then editor of The Times, in an editorial criticising the courts for the heavy sentence imposed on Keith Richards and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones for a drug bust.

It’s a phrase that resonates now, more than ever. Charlie Gilmour, the adopted son of another rock star (David Gilmour of Pink Floyd), was sentenced to 16 months in prison for violent disorder. During last year’s student protests against raising university fees, he was photographed swinging from a flag that adorned the Cenotaph, and was present when Charles and Camilla’s car was attacked. He issued a full and frank apology after the event, saying, “I feel nothing but shame. My intention was not to attack or defile the Cenotaph. Running along with a crowd of people who had just been violently repelled by the police I got caught up in the spirit of the moment. I did not realise that it was the Cenotaph and if I had I certainly would not have done what I did.” Shame is the key word here. An action was performed; the perpetrator felt shame; and thus should be punished accordingly.

Breaking the butterfly on the wheel: The sentencing of Charlie Gilmour is far too heavy-handed

Charlie Gilmour, protesting at Cambridge in December. Photo credit: Andrew Griffin,[email protected]/5204552961/in/photostream/

At a more general level, 16 months for a young man at the formative years of his life will be unimaginably difficult. In prison, he will be in contact with drug dealers – Gilmour was on a cocktail of drugs when he hung on the flag, but has not touched them since. He will be denied the education that he was pursuing at Cambridge. His contemporaries will be revising for their finals, going to May Balls, behaving as students ought to behave, whilst Gilmour will be confined to a small cell. He might well be broken on the wheel of the prison system, when all that was necessary was a suspended sentence and community service. He has expressed remorse.

He was part of a wider protest movement. One of the other protestors, Edward Woollard, was 18 years old when he dropped a fire extinguisher off Millbank Tower. An incredibly foolish thing to do. But in context: it was the first time he’d been to London on his own. No one was hurt; he was sentenced to 32 months. Another, Francis Fernie, was given a year for throwing sticks at policemen. Are these measures meant to act as deterrents? They do not. Instead, they inspire incomprehension.

Are these measures meant to act as deterrents? They do not. Instead, they inspire incomprehension.

Are we to see these young men’s lives ruined by these heavy-handed sentences? Their youth is important. Their actions were inexcusable, yes. They ought to have protested quietly, in the manner in which protest is most effective. But this was something different – a kind of hysteria that swept the student world. Lacking much of a credo or ideology, many flocked to these protests looking for a sense of community, and a sense of getting their voices heard by the seemingly impassive and monolithic state. Their fates hung in the balance and it seemed nobody was listening.

And what, then, is the point of remorse? This is a political decision made by a judge who wishes to appease those baying for Gilmour’s blood; portraying him as some kind of privileged, glory-seeking idiot, instead of a confused young man looking for a cause. He needs to be rehabilitated, brought back to the fold, allowed to complete his degree at Cambridge in order to become the responsible member of society that no doubt he would have been. Instead, in prison, who knows what will happen to him?

I am glad that Gilmour’s family is appealing against the sentence. This is not breaking a butterfly on a wheel: It’s smashing a chrysalis with a juggernaut.

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