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Occupy Democracy: Governments have a history of stopping protests in Parliament Square

Arrests in London's Parliament Square this week are part of a recent history of cracking down on protest within sight of politicians...

Matthew Butcher
21 October 2014
Jenny Jones.jpg

Jenny Jones, Member of the London Assembly and the House of Lords/@occupylondon

When he arrested me in Parliament Square on a sunny autumn day in 2005, the policeman couldn’t stop smiling. It was the first time he’d arrested anybody under a new law which banned ‘unauthorised’ protest opposite the Houses of Parliament. As he put my wrists in handcuffs, and looked over the remnants of a protest picnic that he’d disrupted, he couldn’t help but blame his actions on his bosses. The evidence of our protests –which made the copper laugh- gathered included cupcakes with ‘protest slogans’, a banner saying ‘picnics aren’t protests’ and a high visibility flag one wheelchair using defendant carried to alert cars of his presence.

In time our case was thrown out and in 2011 the Government rid the country of one of the most ill-conceived pieces of legislation to come from an extraordinarily authoritarian Labour Government. Sadly, with the ditching of the Serious Organized Crime and Police Act, came a new piece of legislation which gives the police the power to evict protesters from Parliament Square.

This law, called the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act (1) and remarkably passed by a government which includes the Liberal Democrats, is aimed at stopping overnight sleepers on Parliament Square like the heroic ten year demonstration by anti-war protester Brian Haw. It was passed in time to ensure that no anti-government protest could stain the Government during the Royal Wedding and the Olympics. Of course, at the heart of both of these laws, and the cause behind the arrest of Green Party Assembly Member and Peer Jenny Jones and the Occupy protesters, is the plain fact that Governments don’t like to see protests opposite the home of political power in this country. Our Prime Ministers, so quick to use our supposed freedoms as collateral in our dealings (and wars) with foreign countries, simply don’t want to see protesters outside their car window every Wednesday when they go to answer scripted questions in the House of Commons.

Ongoing protests, they say, are an eyesore and put off tourists. Indeed the same excuses were used to evict Occupy protesters from the other seat of power in Britain, the City of London. But the truth is that democracy isn’t something that can only be permitted to take place within the confines of Parliament. Indeed these Occupy protesters whose presence exemplifies a definite shift in British politics away from the mainstream political parties, are a vital part of our political system.

When people are arrested for protesting against the establishment in this country, at least before a Baroness gets nicked, all too many of us ignore their plight. But, with all three governing parties of the last 17 years passing legislation which curtails our rights to protest, it’s vital to remember that a threat to one protester's civil liberties is indeed dangerous for all of us.

Every time protesters are rounded up on Parliament Square, or in the City’s financial heart, we must do all we can to defend them. But, on top of that, we need to be focusing our attentions on the many illiberal pieces of legislation - used to arrest peaceful protesters time and time again - that must be removed from the statute book to protect our right to freedom of expression.

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