Today, Kier Starmer, Director of Public Prosecutions for the Crown Prosecution Service issued guidelines for prosecutors stating the importance of discretionin progressing charges against peaceful protesters. It can be seen as a call to cease the criminalisation of peaceful protest in this country. Indeed it has been branded the 'protesters charter’ by critics. Today’s article sets out precisely why the protection of the right to protest from those seeking to criminalise it, is as important today as it ever has been.
There is No Such Thing as a Protester
Something strange happens when a protest or campaign starts up. The Media, politicians and people talking by the water cooler draw an arbitrary distinction between ‘protesters’ and ‘the public’. During my time with the Occupy Movement I have noticed people occasionally do this on camp, referring to ‘the public’. In fact, in the court case for the eviction of the St Paul’s site and other across the UK and elsewhere, the case has been expressed as the rights of ‘the public’ to use the space occupied by ‘the protesters’.
The thing is, there is no such distinction in reality. In reality, we are all ‘the public’. A person does not hand in their citizenship to their country when they decide to join a march, a sit in or a protest camp. They are expressing their citizenship, they are saying ‘I am a citizen and I disapprove of what you (government/media/organisation) are doing’. To isolate these people into a mental box labelled ‘protester’ is, I think, to psychologically and emotionally distance ourselves from our fellow citizens. They are not one of us any more, they are one of them.
It is just as important not to do this in reverse; people protesting should make every effort to avoid drawing lines in the sand between themselves and the people not protesting.
There is no distinction, there is just a pool of citizens, some of whom are protesting at one point or another – and some of whom are not.
A string of recent laws and legal provisions in the UK, from SOCPA to Section 60 stop and search powers, to Control Orders and their replacements TPIMS – have sought to criminalise dissent. There is now a legally enforced perimeter around parliament, meaning all protests within that perimeter are illegal unless authorised by the state. You can even be charged for Carrying out an Unlawful Demonstration on your own. This means it is, in the eyes of the law, a prosecutable offence carrying a penalty for a person to walk into parliament square and shout ‘This government is terrible and we want them out!’
I was arrested last November for the first time in my life, for sitting down, alone, outside parliament. I had no weapon, banner, flag or megaphone. I shared a court date with a chap called Simon who was arrested the same night for Aggravated Trespass. Sounds terrible doesn’t it? Aggravated Trespass. What he had actually done, as the prosecution stated, was to walk through a section of fencing into parliament square (a patch of grass outside parliament) holding a rainbow flag saying ‘Peace’ on it. You can see the video of Simon's arrest below.
Simon plead guilty. I plead not guilty as I felt I was innocent of the charges against me. Simon was released the same day with a conditional discharge and a fine. I later had my charges dropped as the CPS agreed with my lawyer (representing me pro-bono) that it was not in the public interest to proceed with the case.
Most people engaging in acts of civil disobedience understand the possibility they will face arrest for their actions. Ultimately, whether we like it or not, as things stand the police force is there to protect the interest of the state – the state being the government in situ, not the citizens. Therefore, if a British citizen takes it upon themselves to sit down in Topshop and stop people shopping in a store which refuses to pay its tax bill – they find themselves, absurdly, on the wrong side of the law.
However, the purpose of the legal system is to retain independence from both the state and its security guards (the police) and apply law sensibly. This is why this move from the CPS is potentially so important, it is a clear signal from the CPS that the right to peaceful protest should and is protected by the legal system of our country.
Good Protesters and Bad Protesters
Protest is messy. Protest is inconvenient. Protest is designed to disturb and interrupt the normal operations of the organisations or institutions one is protesting against. Therefore, if you make it illegal to do so, and apply that law indiscriminately – you make protest illegal by default.
For some, the cognitive dissonance of this is such that they have to create a distinction called – the good protester and the bad protester. The bad protesters are the people who hold sit ins, shout, resist police efforts to move them along – or follow the simple yet effective Occupy policy of ‘don’t go home’. The good protester, is the peaceful protester. However, 'Peaceful' is, in this case, warped to mean docile, obedient, polite and of absolutely no inconvenience to anyone at all. If you are not this, you are a bad protester.
The reaction from government to the successful Boycott Workfare campaign was a prime example of this. An inauspicious list of Tory and Lib Dem cabinet members patrolled the news channels and programmes stating it was a small group of ‘professional protesters’, ‘leftwing protesters’. ‘Socialist Worker Party members’ and the latest from SarahTeather: ‘an educated liberal elite’ who think they are too good to stack supermarket shelves. I have to say, rather rich coming from a privately and Oxford educated ‘Liberal’ Democrat member of the political elite, who went straight from University to a policy wonk job in Westminster.
The point is: politician after politician starts their sentence with ‘We all believe in the right to peaceful protest but...’ and ends with a reason to waive that right in this instance on the basis that this is about those ‘bad protesters’.
In fact, can you name a single protest, strike or act of civil disobedience in recent history which, at the time, was welcomed by parliament? No? Of course not. I was discussing this with Toby Young on BBC Radio 5 live the morning after Occupy London were evicted from St Pauls. He stated Occupy was not a ‘proper’ protest, I asked him what he would consider one of those to be. After a pregnant pause, he cited the Arab Spring.
Something tells me, if Toby is so appalled by a few tents and scruffy people milling around St Pauls, he might well explode if we had been running the streets overturning and setting alight police vans, smashing windows and occupying multiple towns in our tens of thousands – while calling for the removal of the Prime Minister. He might also have cited Nelson Mandela’s stand against Apartheid South Africa? Nelson Mandela and the ANC used explosives toblow up electricity substations and pylons to disrupt and inconvenience theapartheid regime. Perhaps the Suffragettes? Young women threw themselves before horses, locked themselves to railings to protest for women's right to vote - the word itself was coined by the contemporary Daily Mail as a derogatory term. What about the civil rights movement? Martin Luther King Jr was arrested multiple times for his part in acts of non violent civil disobedience and the Montgomery Bus Boycott lead no doubt to bus drivers losing their jobs as business dried up on the segregated bus service in Alabama. All of these protests were cited in their time as at best annoyances and at worst treachery. Yet are taught in history classrooms across the world, as vital movements which helped create the more just world we have today.
The distinction between good and bad protesters is also false, set up to make protest illegal for anyone who ever actually wants to protest. A theoretical right to protest is no right at all. It is a sop to the faint of heart who want to sleep peacefully at night knowing all is well in the garden. It’s not, we need to grow up and deal with it. Injustice ignored is injustice perpetuated.
At the End of the Day, When All is Said and Done and the Cookie Has Crumbled...
As it stands, UkUncut, The Occupy Movement, Boycott Workfare, Save our NHS, Pats Petition and Our Olympics are a rainbow coalition of concerned citizens. That is all. They are human beings, profoundly distressed by a corporatized government run amok. They see injustice, point to it and call their fellow citizens to action. It might well be enough for some to ignore these injustices or cry into a big glass of red wine among friends about them – but a loud, large and ever growing number of people are literally taking to the streets, be it the high street or Downing Street, and putting their faces and voices in the spotlight. All this, under threat of reputational, legal and physical sanction. Old, young, black, white, multifaith and no faith, able bodied and disabled. The protests keep coming.
We have a great deal to be grateful to people who protest. The fact we have a parliament at all rather than an absolute monarchy, the right to vote for men, the right to vote for women, the NHS, a state funded compulsory education system for all upto the age of 16, the weekend, the 37.5 hour working week, the minimum wage, the right to an employment tribunal, the right to be black, Irish, gay, and have the right to use the same public and commercial services to the same standards as white, straight, ‘British’ people. The Magna Carta itself, the foundation and sole constitution of our country, was drafted by citizens who travelled to St Pauls and camped in tents to devise a means to hold the King to account.
There is no man, woman or child alive in this country today not impacted by successful protests of the past. All these protests were condemned in their time and hailed as the instigators of social progress later.
At the end of the day, when all is said and done and the cookie has crumbled – we are quite happy to inherit the rights won by those protests, but all too quick to judge the protests of today when they make us late for work, or mess up a square, or make a noise, or simply point at something we don’t want to look at while we’re busy trying to have a good time.
JesseJackson when speaking of Occupy said that they are the canaries in our minds (like the bygone canaries used in mines to detect gas), warning of the dangers. This description stands for all those protesting injustice where they find it, in the UK and the world today. We should be heeding the canaries, not throwing them in jail.