Those of us engaged in protest – and organising it – from time to time face opposition from the authorities. In my experience this has usually been politically driven. Take for example the attempts to prevent the huge anti-war march – eventually 2 million strong – ending with a rally in Hyde Park. We faced ministerial intervention and all kinds of spurious arguments, including that it was the wrong sort of grass for us to walk on. But we won the day – with overwhelming public support. We were not sileneced and we secured the right to hold one of the greatest demonstrations in history.
Defending the right to protest is fundamental to our democracy. So why are we now facing a series of apparently incremental attacks and restrictions on the normal procedures of our legitimate protest activity? The answer, in my opinion, is government spending cuts. More specifically, cuts to the police budget.
According to a BBC report, in January, the Met said it expected to have to make cuts of £800m to its £3.5bn budget over the next four years, having already faced cuts of £600m over the past four years. I am assuming that’s why they are trying to make us bear the cost of protest.
Until recently, if we wanted to organise a demonstration we would phone the police, and – by and large – after a bit of discussion they would helpfully facilitate our plans. That has been my general experience for over a decade. But the last few months have seen a change, basically relating to trying to get us to pay private companies to do what the police have previously done.
Take for example the preparation for our recent Wrap up Trident demonstration, with thousands of people encircling the Ministry of Defence with a knitted pink peace scarf. The Metropolitan Police tried to claim that there was an obligation for CND to provide accredited stewards to manage the traffic at the event. We were told this would involve hiring a private company or training all of our volunteers instead – both at huge cost. However, when we pressed for the Met to show us where this obligation was statutorily defined, they drew a blank.
The best that they could come up with was their web page on organising a demonstration, in which we pointed out to them confirmation that officers would be at road junctions ‘to regulate traffic routes around the event’. Case closed, we said. They then sent us a more detailed document – ‘guidance for organisers of event’ – but which again did not mention any obligation on us to manage the traffic! Needless to say, we didn’t capitulate and the demo went ahead with the full support of the Metropolitan Police, who did close roads and fully manage traffic on the day.
Of course, CND has confidence, experience and weight, so we felt able to do this, but not everyone will feel able to do that, and the danger is that eventually this new approach – that protesters pay – will become the norm.
We have to say no to this creeping privatisation of protest. And we have to put the blame firmly where it lies – with the government.
Add your voice to the thousands saying ‘No!’ to the privatisation of protest here: https://secure.avaaz.org/en/uk_protest_25/?cDlzdjb