Parliament Square: attack on protest

IssueApril 2011
News by Rikki
  • Aborigine Tent Embassy, Canberra, 39 years
  • White House Peace Camp, 30 years
  • Faslane Peace Camp, 28 years l Falun Gong protest, Chinese Embassy, London, 8 years
  • Brian Haw Peace Camp, Parliament Square, 10 years

These are just a few examples of an established tradition of symbolic round-the-clock vigils outside government establishments worldwide. In a true democracy, people wouldn't need to resort to such extremes to have their voices heard, but the existence of these vigils is often regarded as a sign of democratic health.

This year, though, UK authorities are mounting a concerted battle to rid Parliament Square of any continuous protests. The “Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill” is rumbling its way through parliament as a successor to the “Serious Organised Crime and Police Act” (SOCPA) of 2005.

Sections 139 to 148 of the new legislation make remarkable reading for anyone familiar with the history of Brian Haw's peace campaign. A whole succession of clauses specifically address and undermine every legal challenge that Brian has mounted over the years, banning “sleeping equipment”, “amplified noise equipment”, and tents or structures “designed to facilitate sleeping”. It includes activities that “began prior to the commencement” of the new law.

It allows officers to give orders and seize items. It allows courts to impose fines up to £5,000, and to make any orders the “court considers appropriate” to prevent further prohibited activities, including forfeiture of items, and even banning individuals from the controlled area. Lawyers have already raised concerns at committee stage, but even without unforeseen delays, the new laws would not be in place before the summer.

However, last November, prime minister David Cameron promised the House of Commons, in answer to a question about the royal wedding, that while of course he defended the right to protest, he saw no reason why people should sleep in Parliament Square and that April being too distant a deadline, offered to work with relevant authorities to find a pre-wedding solution.

Last summer, “Democracy Village” occupied the Square. After eviction in July, the GLA erected fences around the Square for “urgent health, safety and maintenance work”. Seven months later, there is still no public access, and the official line is that works were further delayed by damage caused during student protests.

The High Court eviction ruling excepted Brian and two named supporters, allowing them to pitch tents on the grass. The GLA challenged this ruling, and on 17 March, the High Court removed the exception, but has given Brian leave to appeal by the end of the month.

While the grass is supervised by the GLA, the pavement is under Westminster council jurisdiction. Using the Obstruction of the Highway Act, the council are about to take both Brian Haw's peace camp, and Maria Gallestegui's “Peace Strike” neighbouring camp, to court.

Maria arrived at Parliament Square back in 2001 and gave up work to support Brian's campaign. During the battle against SOCPA, a new face, Barbara Tucker, arrived in the square in 2006. In a clash of tactics and personalities, Maria was distanced from Brian and Barbara's campaign, leading her to form her own Peace Strike campaign. Over the years since then, the rift has worsened to the extent that Brian and Barbara now proclaim Maria is an “agent provocateur”. Many of Brian's long-term supporters tried to help heal this rift, even suggesting independent mediation (which was embraced by Maria but rejected by Brian). Most have now found themselves either branded as police agents or told they are unable to see “the truth”.

Evidence to support these serious allegations has not been forthcoming despite repeated requests. Brian's website, mostly written by Barbara while Brian is currently away receiving treatment for serious illness, contains similar claims and personal insults, but no evidence.

The majority of Brian's closest past supporters dismiss the allegations as mistaken distrust stimulated by a decade of authoritarian attacks, and remain focused on the main issue: years of hard-won rights are being demolished by the current government.

Together, and in their different approaches, Brian and Maria have established a very long-term presence in Parliament Square, and activists of every hue should consider their readiness to resist any attempt at removal.

While the personal rift is an unwelcome complication, the real issue is simply that corrupt and self-important MPs mustn't be allowed to sweep away an “inconvenience” based on spurious arguments about Parliament Square being a world heritage site, and ridiculous complaints about a mess in the town square.

Many of these MPs have voted to drop bombs on town squares in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond, making much bigger messes. While these MPs continue with such votes, the small “mess” on their doorstep is something they should face every single day until they start voting for foreign policies built on peace and reconciliation.

Topics: Civil liberties