Protesting inside parliament

IssueNovember 2008
Comment by Emily Johns , Milan Rai

Sitting in front of a panel of MPs and lords for the second time this year, Peace News abandoned etiquette and spoke plainly. The problem with giving evidence about the law on protest we said, is that parliament, the judiciary and the police have failed to take the action they should have - against the illegal invasion of Iraq, or those causing devastating climate change, for example.

In such circumstances, it is difficult to be forced to discuss “the policing of protest”, when protest is a reaction to, and causes so much less social disruption and damage than, the protected activities of government and corporations.

That’s what one of us said while giving evidence on “protest and policing” to the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. The two other protestors giving evidence were Lindis Percy of the Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases (CAAB), and Phil McLeish of Climate Camp (wearing a tie! – shame on you, Phil).

Andrew Dismore MP, chair of the committee, asked whether there should be a law allowing Climate Camp campaigners to protest inside the grounds of the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station. PN butted in, trying to make two points. Only one of them got said: “What should happen is that the police should be arresting climate criminals.”

The other point was not heard, but we think is worth setting out here.

We live in a society in which illegal, dangerous and violent activities are permitted – so long as they are carried out by the rich and powerful. Polluters are allowed to endanger the security of future generations and much else. Warmongers are allowed to destroy entire nations. Nuclear weapon states are allowed to build, refine and deploy genocidal weapons. Arms manufacturers are allowed to fuel conflict.

Crimes are permitted so long as the perpetrators are powerful. In such a situation, it does not make sense to ask the judicial-police system to somehow reverse these injustices in miniature by permitting protests against these (protected) criminals.

There cannot be, in present circumstances, a law that says: “Citizens are allowed to break laws of trespass and so on if they are protesting against a great evil.” Parliament, the judiciary and the police are patently incapable of recognising and dealing properly with great evils – such as the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, climate crime and so on.

What we can expect, however, is a reversal of the tide of repressive legislation which is choking protest against these massive social problems. What we can expect is the abandonment of “public order” laws ranging from the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 to the Public Order Act 1986.

What we can expect is the further broadening of “defence of necessity” and “lawful excuse” arguments which activists have used successfully to argue the legality of their actions – and a wider right of jury trial to allow us to place our views in front of our fellow citizens for judgement.

Topics: Civil liberties
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