Thursday, December 08, 2005

Define "protest"

Via CuriousHamster, a BBC article abouta peace campaigner getting arrested after reading out the names of soldiers killed in Iraq and, um, ringing a bell. The problem was that she did it at the Cenotaph in London, covered by the Ring of Silence around Whitehall (imposed to (unsuccessfully) remove Brian Haw).

The intent of the law - banning protests where politicians might see - is dubious in itself, but this case also tests the understanding* of what constitutes "protest". Here, the fuzzy line between protest and "remembrance" is being explored - with the outcome observed.

It's one thing (although an arguable thing) to ban protests based on, say, security measures or disruption of daily lives. It's quite another to mark something as a crime purely because the effects aren't liked by the lawmakers. This is the creeping death of both politics and morals in this country - that the wishes of the politicians can become law on that ground alone and for that end solely, rather than because they represent public interest. This is why it becomes ever more important to question the things that people say we shouldn't be questioning.

* Rather than "definition". I suspect (I'll check later) that "protest" has a particular - and sufficiently broad - legal definition under the SOCPA, but what I'm interested in here is the common understanding of what laws are supposed to achieve. Hence I use the word.


Watching Them, Watching Us said...

Sections 132 to 138 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 do not mention the word "protest" at all, they use the undefined term "demonstration".

There are exemptions for Processions which interrupt the flow of road traffic and Trades Union picket lines, which already fall under separate legislation.

The Home Office, in reply to a Freedom of Information Act request said:

8) What is the minimum duration of a protest or demonstration before it falls under the new regulations ?

8. There is no minimum duration to a demonstration before it falls under the new provisions.

9) Will a short walk in and around the Parliament Square "Designated Area" entail getting prior permission from the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police if you happen to be wearing a "political slogan" T-shirt or badge ?

9. The definition of a demonstration is ultimately a matter for the courts.

The conviction of Maya Evans sets the legal precedent that what was obviously a Remebrance Ceremony (in virtually the same place as the annual Remebrance Sunday Ceromonies near the Cenotaph in Whitehall) does constitute a "demonstration" for the purposes of SOCPA.

Since the Designated Area covers not just roads and pavements but any "public place" i.e

"(b) "public place" means any highway or any place to which at the material time the public or any section of the public has access, on payment or otherwise, as of right or by virtue of express or implied permission,"

This puts the public who blissfully attend any Public Ceremonies within the Designated Area, such as Trooping the Colour in Horseguards Parade or any Weddings, Christenings, Funerals, Remembrance or normal Religous Services or Ceremonies in any of the Places of Worship such as Westminster Abbey or the Methodist Central Hall etc. at risk of arrest, fingerprinting, DNA sampling and a criminal record, prison and/or a fine.

Will you apply in writing (not via email or fax or phone or in person) to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, giving your name and address, for, say, permission to wear a Royal British Legion Poppy, "6 clear days" or "24 hours" before entering the Designated Area ?

Scribe said...

Thanks for the link and details, WTWU - am reading the section in detail and mulling it over further.

Now, it seems that the bureaucracy imposed upon freedoms is 2-fold - firstly to alert the relevant authorities, and secondly to dissuade people from employing those freedoms anyway. Thus, my first question... Is there anything in the act (which I will read in more detail) which forces a demonstration to go ahead once it has been authorised?

Bureaucracy is a wonderful thing. It allows one to organise a set of subjects with great clarity, but it also ties in the authorities to a system that doesn't scale particularly well. If there is no obligation for a demonstration to go ahead, then it's a lot easier to effectively clog the bureaucratic arteries for the cost of a large number of postage stamps, I would suspect. Applications involve reponses (see section 134 (2)), and actual planning of authority response (gotta work out where each policeman's gonna be all day...) will depend largely on the stated demonstration, which can be varied as desired (bearing in mind that it's a lot easier to orchestrate a "ghost" demo).

As each demonstration may only consist one person, a large amount of "proposed" demonstrations within the same timescale would need a fair amount of response co-ordination, even in order to determine constraints under section 134 (4).

It's certainly not the perfect path - I would much prefer that freedoms remain free. But while the gears are in place, spanners can often work wonders when placed in the right location.