After insisting that protestors pay for closing the roads the Metropolitan Police have now backed down in the face of defiance. We are stronger than we think writes Chris Nineham
Protest movements won an important victory yesterday. Over the last few months the Metropolitan Police have tried to insist that protestors will be responsible for closing the roads when they march. They claim that for years they have been misinterpreting a nineteenth century law and that actually it was illegal for the police to stop traffic to ‘facilitate protest’!.
All this came to a head in negotiations over the Campaign against Climate change demonstration next Saturday. Organisers were told that the police were having nothing to do with it and that the campaign would have to pay for traffic management and professional stewards.
In short they would have to pay – serious money – for the privilege of protesting. The police dressed up this change of tack as a response to austerity and budget cuts. But actually it was the opposite. This was about the privatisation of policing and commodifying dissent. Bizarrely the police wanted to put protest in the category of ‘private events’. And it was just one in a long list of attempts they and other authorities have made to block protest over the last few years.
These include restricting protest in the area of Parliament in case it impedes MPs’ access to parliament or ‘impinges on parliamentary procedure’ (heaven forbid). It also includes trying to stop the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War, the British Muslim Initiative and others from marching to the Israeli embassy because of ‘negative impacts on the local economy’. And famously there was the attempt to ban Stop the War from marching to Hyde Park against the Iraq War in 2003 because of concerns about the grass in the Park.
In all of these cases the authorities had to back down. The key to this and to yesterday’s victory was the attitude taken by the movements. Given the slightly surreal legal claims made by the police there was a temptation to take them on in the courts. The danger here is getting drawn into a long legal process with a final decision in the hands of a judge or a jury if you are lucky. The outcome would at best be uncertain. As a friendly lawyer told us, “the law on prtotesting is open to interpretation.”
The first vital thing is to look at the big picture. The technical arguments and the legalese mask the fact that there are big principles at stake. Putting a price on protest would completely change the nature of dissent in the capital and no doubt the rest of the country. And there is more to it than the money. Behind the police’s attempt to change the terms of protest lurks the notion that there has to be a case put forward in each instance for stopping traffic or ‘disrupting public and commercial spaces’. As one Five Live journalist put it to me, “why can’t you just protest in parks’.
The secret to victory is actually refusing to compromise, standing together and relying on the strength of the movements. The police maybe able to viciously harass Occupy activists bravely trying to camp on Parliament Square, but when they are faced with the tens or hundreds of thousands of protestors over issues that have mass support they have to think again.
In each of the cases above and in the last few days, the movements refused to compromise. We said quite simply we going ahead with our protests because that is our right. Last week some of the main movements including the People’s Assembly and Stand up to Racism, both of whom are organising demonstrations in the near future, got together with the Campagn against Climate Change and issued a joint statement of defiance saying we would not pay a penny to protest and that if necessary we would organise the closing of the roads ourselves. Put simply that is why the authorities backed down.
So congratulations to the Campaign against Climate Change for taking a stand and to the wider movements for sticking together. The mass movements are more powerful than we sometimes think.
Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
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