On Saturday 13 August, shoppers in Brighton town centre witnessed the extent to which our right to protest is being curtailed, when a peaceful demonstration against arms manufacturer EDO was abruptly halted by police using heavy-handed tactics.
Around 50 peace campaigners - including the elderly and mothers with children - met at 12 noon in Churchill Square where they were greeted by police officers carrying surveillance equipment. Whilst some protesters had travelled from London, Eastbourne and Southampton to attend the well-advertised demo, it seemed the police had travelled just as far, and in far greater numbers - many being identifiable as Met officers from London.
The demonstration marked the beginning of a week of action against EDO which continued throughout the week at a peace camp in Wild Park outside one of EDO's Brighton offices.
After about half an hour of speeches and leafleting, marchers set off down North Street but within five minutes police had suddenly ordered everyone to stop. People were then pushed down a narrow side road, and police moved in to surround 30 or so protesters. By this time police numbers had swelled to around 100, with many officers wearing public order gear. People were then asked to leave by walking back up to the clock tower, along the pavement, in groups of five of fewer. Seeking to calm the situation but to continue their legitimate protest, demonstrators agreed to walk back to the clock tower, along the pavement, but as one group. This suggestion was quickly met with more pushing and shoving by police officers, with many people falling over and being injured in the process.
Having surrounded the demonstraters, police were able to pluck people from the crowd and arrest them. To the surprise of on-lookers, the first to be arrested was an 80-year-old man, followed by a 17-year-old girl. In total four people were arrested, all of whom were released without charge after up to 12 hours in the cells. The tactic of seemingly arbitrarily arresting people was certainly effective as many demonstrators opted to approach the police line and request permission to leave.
While the whole episode was over in less than an hour and a half, the campaign against EDO continues, especially as the events in Brighton on a busy Saturday afternoon have made it abundantly clear that when Tony Blair said "The rules of the game are changing," he really meant it.
There will be a hearing in the High Court on 9 September to establish whether EDO are breaching the International Criminal Court Act.