Preserving the right to protest

THE right to protest is something to cherish. Indeed, Amnesty International UK says that protest is a human right.

The UN Human Rights Committee ruled in 2020 that people have the right to demonstrate peacefully, and that Governments should respect international law and let them do so.

Many of the great movements of world history have made use of peaceful protest – the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, the campaign for Indian Independence, the movement against apartheid in South Africa.

In England, protest has a long and honourable history. Working men and later women won the vote through protest, trade unionists won employment rights for workers – including the right to have a week-end – and those campaigning against slavery ensured its abolition.

The abolitionist Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton was MP for Weymouth, where he worked ceaselessly to end what he called an evil ‘repugnant to the principles of…the Christian Religion’ – making use of petitions, meetings and demonstrations.

Dorset was the home of the ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’ – early trade unionists who fell victim of the law when they tried to establish a trade union, protesting against reductions in wages which made it impossible for them to feed their families.

Those concerned about the climate emergency are now protesting worldwide against the refusal of governments to take decisive action to save the planet. Given the dire nature of the latest warnings from scientists there is every likelihood that these protests will continue.

The UK 1998 Human Rights Act confirms the right to ‘freedom of peaceful assembly’.

Serious concerns, therefore, have been voiced about the Public Order Act, given Royal Assent only this May. This act gives the police greater powers to act against protesters – including extending the right to stop and search, as well as banning individuals from participating in protests if they have twice before caused ‘serious disruption’ – even without being convicted of doing so.

A new offence under the act criminalises ‘slow walking’. Possession of anything which might assist ‘locking on’ will result in an unlimited fine.

Over the weekend, when the nation celebrated the Coronation, a jarring note was struck by the arrest under these new powers of six members of the campaign group, Republic.

Republic had spent months in talks with the Met, and had been assured that it had no concerns about its planned peaceful protest. Yet despite this, the six members were arrested before they even had time to unload their placards from their hired van. One of their members, Republic claimed, was arrested for being in possession of a piece of string.

The six were released without charge. The Met have now apologised.

Last year, a barrister, Paul Powlesland, who held up a blank piece of paper near the Houses of Parliament, was told by an officer of the Met that he risked arrest if he wrote ‘not my king’ on it.

We rightly condemn other governments when they clamp down on protests. Perhaps we should condemn what is happening here.

Chair, Swanage & Rural Purbeck Labour Party

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