National Ceasefire Now protest, London 3rd February 2024. National Ceasefire Now protest, London 3rd February 2024. Photo: Steve Eason / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED

The government’s attempts to criminalise protest over Gaza failed due to the determination of the movement to resist and exercise the right to protest, argues Steph Pike

Since the start of Israel’s brutal and genocidal assault on Gaza in October, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets of London to demand an immediate ceasefire and an end to the massacre in Gaza. There have been seven national demonstrations so far, with an eighth planned for this Saturday. These demonstrations have been massive, diverse and although lively and angry, overwhelmingly peaceful.

The Tories’ response was to use the police and the press, and a compliant Labour Party, to launch a sustained attack not only on the growing Palestine movement, but on our civil liberties, our right to protest and our freedom of speech and expression.

From the start, Suella Braverman labelled protestors as a mob of violent extremists and called the national protests ‘hate marches’. The government tried to ban the Palestine flag and to criminalise ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’, a chant that has been used for years by the Palestine solidarity movement. Activists have been arrested in dawn raids, there has been a significant increase in students being referred to Prevent, and protestors have been arrested if their placards have been considered to be offensive by the police. The height of the government’s attacks on the national demonstrations came in November when Suella Braverman launched a sustained attempt to ban the march planned for armistice day.

Despite intense pressure from the government, the police and the media, the march organisers stood firm, refusing to move the march to another day and pledging to demonstrate anyway if the march was banned. The government backed down, nearly a million people brought London to a standstill in support of the people of Gaza, and Braverman was forced to resign. This was a pivotal moment for the movement; had it capitulated to the bullying and intimidation of the police and government, it is likely that the attacks on the movement would have increased.

That this is a mass movement which has routinely seen hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of London, as well as hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating almost every day for three months, is significant. The power of mass collective action has seen the government forced to rein in the extremes of its attack on our right to protest, and seen a Home Secretary forced into a humiliating retreat and resignation. When the police have sought to criminalise chants such as ‘from the river to the sea’, thousands of people defiantly chanting those slogans on the demonstrations forced the police to back down.

These attacks did not happen in a vacuum; we have already seen our civil liberties and right to protest attacked and curtailed by a right-wing, authoritarian Tory government that has brought in anti-trade-union legislation, and a new public-order act that attacks and restricts the right to protest. The police continue to use this legislation to place restrictions on the Palestine marches and to harass and criminalise other activists. Many climate activists, for example, have ended up in prison simply for protesting peacefully. We have to continue to build mass movements, we must campaign to get current anti-trade union and anti-civil rights legislation repealed and to fight any attacks on our civil liberties and our right to assemble and protest.

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Steph Pike

Steph Pike a is a revolutionary socialist, feminist and People's Assembly activist. She is also a  published poet. Her poetry collection 'Petroleuse' is published by Flapjack Press.

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