"When I pass protesters every day at Downing Street, and believe me, you name it, they protest against it, I may not like what they call me, but I thank God they can. That's called freedom." (Tony Blair, 7 April 2002.)
Eleven people charged with taking part in "unauthorised" demonstrations in the new anti-protest zone around Parliament (which came into effect on 1 August) intend to challenge the zone's legality when their case(s) come to trial later this year. Meanwhile, the courts have ruled - because of a legal loophole - that the zone does not apply to Brian Haw, whose 4-year round-the-clock peace vigil in Parliament Square was the new legislation's principal target.
Serious organised crime
Under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, anyone wishing to demonstrate within 1km of Parliament must apply for permission to the police, who are then entitled to impose draconian conditions including: when and where it can take place; how long it can last; how many people can attend; how much noise can be made; and the number and size of banners and placards used. The maximum penalty for organising an unauthorised protest is 51 weeks imprisonment and a #2500 fine (see PN 2463-4 cover story).
The High Court ruled Brian Haw's vigil exempt because the Act only criminalises those who have failed to receive authorisation "when the[ir] demonstration starts" - an impossibility for Brian whose demo is now in its 5th year!
The Parliament Square 11
Five people - including an elderly woman who was handcuffed by the police - were arrested under the Act during a Stop the War Coalition protest in Parliament Square on 1 August, and five more at a grassroots "Mass Act of Defiance" to the Act on 7 August (which began with press outnumbering demonstraters who slowly grew to over 100!).
Police distributed leaflets stating, "We believe that you may be, or are about to be, involved in a demonstration ... [which] has NOT been authorised," before swooping in to make arrests. In both cases the number of demonstrators was in the 100-200 range and it was unclear on what basis - if any - those arrested were singled out. Care was apparently taken to avoid arresting either Jeremy Corbyn MP or Cherie Blair's sister, Lauren Booth, both of whom were present on 1 August.
A further demonstrater was arrested on 14 August following a tea party in the Square.
Ten of the eleven have already pleaded not guilty to the charges and are preparing to mount a legal challenge to the Act, and a weekly "tea party" is now set to take place every Sunday in the Square.