Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Defend the Right to Protest

138 peaceful protesters appeared at Westminster Magistrates' Court yesterday. They were charged with aggravated trespass after occupying Fortnum & Mason on 26 March in order to voice their opposition to corporate tax avoidance alongside activist group UKUncut. An article in the Independent spelt out several concerns.
"The court date follows two weeks in which the police have cracked down hard on anti-cuts campaigners in Britain. New charges have been brought against student protesters, including Alfie Meadows, the young man who was nearly killed in the police kettle on 9 December.
Known dissidents have been seized from their homes and arrested, and community centres have been raided for signs of subversion. The signal to the silent majority who oppose this Government's spending plans is clear: think twice before speaking out. If you take action to defend public services, you risk being punished.
UKUncut seem to have been singled out for police harassment. Far fewer arrests were made of those who committed unrelated acts of violent property damage on the day of the anti-cuts protest, whereas all I saw damaged inside Fortnum & Mason's was a single chocolate rabbit.
However, the group's core argument, that the state could save billions by pursuing corporate tax avoidance instead of cutting public services, is gaining ground. It is an argument so compelling that top economists and even, this week, the Royal Family's lawyers, have taken up the fight against wealthy companies "raiding the public purse" as the poorest are hit by spending cuts. Thousands of ordinary people, from octogenarians to toddlers, have been mobilised by this simple message.
For now, these intimidation tactics appear to be working, antagonising the anti-cuts movement into temporary retreat. Ordinary citizens have begun to shy away from protesting, not because they suddenly support the cuts, but because they are worried about the evident penalties for speaking out. Many activists have begun to feel isolated and demoralised, shaken by the arrests and by the savageness of the tabloid backlash.
Pre-emptive arrests of anti-cuts activists and the targeting of alternative communities for police raids are manifestly attacks on the right to freedom of expression. They are not, however, attacks on the "right to protest". The right to protest is, by its very nature, a right which citizens must claim for themselves, rather than having it graciously granted to them by the state.
The police backlash against activists proves that the Coalition is losing the argument on austerity. This Government has shifted from a strategy of persuasion to one of coercion. The only way ordinary citizens can defend our right to protest is by continuing to protest, standing up for one other and for public services, and refusing to be cowed by intimidation tactics." Independent 9/5/11
Following on this morning, the Independent wrote about a group who are co-ordinating a campaign against what they call 'political policing.' Bearing in mind recent revelations about police informers infiltrating climate change protests, this is a real concern. As our windbag two-faced ministers huff and puff about democracy in the Middle East, they ignore alarming developments closer to home. The Met Police spokeswoman said at a Commons Committee hearing that the aim of arresting the Fortnum and Mason protestors was "To gain intelligence." 
"Defend the Right to Protest, an organisation founded to support students and activists arrested in recent rallies against the government, say police must be challenged over their role in what they are calling "increasingly serious attacks on the right to protest in the UK".
Many of those who attended yesterday's rally expressed particular concern about the arrests around the royal wedding. A total of 55 people were arrested on the day of the wedding and nearly 25 people were arrested before most planned demonstrations had even taken place. The majority were either detained on conspiracy to cause a public nuisance, or were held under Section 60 stop-and-search rules on the day itself. Almost all of them were released without charge once the events drew to a close.
Hannah Eiseman-Renyard, 25, from north London, went to Soho on the day of the royal wedding, dressed up as a zombie bride. She was talking to four friends when she was approached by more than a dozen officers and arrested for suspected breach of the peace.
"I was wearing a bridesmaid dress, and used lipstick to look like blood – I didn't even think I was dissenting," she said. "I think it was part of a PR exercise by the police who are trying to criminalise protest." Independent 10/05/2011

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