Police vans line Whitehall. A small group of outnumbered protesters attempt to disrupt “business as usual”. It’s a response to the ongoing wars in the Middle East and specifically Israel’s attacks on Gaza and Lebanon. And in defiance of the SOCPA law on demonstrating near government buildings. Everyone is warned to leave or face arrest, journalists assaulted, etc.
This could be a description of Sack Parliament, but it’s actually what happened on the 21st of August 2006 when the Foreign Office was blockaded from 8am on a Monday morning, and despite the SOCPA law there were only five arrests on suspicion of criminal damage, and all charges were subsequently dropped.
Seven weeks later, things would go very differently, 38 were arrested over Sack Parliament but most were never charged with any offence, and although the eight accused of organising it are still waiting to hear whether they will be prosecuted even in the unlikely event that they are found guilty the most they will face is a fine, but for one Sack Parliament participant the state’s reaction was swift and much more direct. This man, an Ethiopian refugee, was arrested on his way home from the action and taken to the high-security police station at Paddington Green, usually reserved for those accused of terrorism. Here he was questioned about his background, his friends and his work, and told that “a black boy shouldn’t get himself involved with white man’s politics”. He was released without charge, but in the days that followed his home was searched and the West London venue he was organising activist film screenings in was visited by police who warned the owner that he would lose his licence if the screenings went ahead, as “we don’t mind these sort of things being shown in squats but we can’t allow it in places where the general public might see them”.
The day after the blockade of the Foreign Office a posting on the Indymedia UK website called for people to gather in Parliament Square at 1pm on the 9th October to “Sack Parliament!”, whatever that meant.
The original idea was to focus attention on MPs’ and Lords’ complicity in the War on Terror – in all its forms – not simply to demand they change their ways but to tell them their time was up.
Considering the small number of people involved in the call to action, an impressive amount of propaganda was distributed over the following weeks. Systematic stickering and flyering campaigns ought not to be such a notable departure from typical practice.
The biggest flaw in the concept seemed to be a central ‘event’. The people calling the action would not proscribe the form of the action instead allowing a broad range of people to respond on their own terms. While in many circumstances this would have brought greater numbers to the action, even if only to spectate, here it had the opposite effect. Combined with the spectre of SOCPA, making mere presence arrestable, the lack of definition pushed more casual protesters away by creating an opportunity for the police to define the action.
With a new Head of Public Order Policing eager to a make a good impression they played it safe and went to the press with their worst case scenario, pinning the blame for any trouble on the usual white-overalled suspects in advance: ‘Womble Riot Threat As Commons Opens’, as the London Evening Standard had it on the 6th of October. 800 police were promised as “anarchists [were] threatening to storm the Palace of Westminster”. If only.
Come the day itself, turnout was about equal on both sides, at around five or six hundred, although many would never make it to Parliament Square itself.
While mounted police in full riot gear and dog handlers were concealed in Victoria Tower Gardens, every side street was lined with van after van of police reserves, scores of “known faces” were turned away at the borders of the SOCPA zone, and many more would-be participants who got through this first line of defence chose to keep their distance when they saw the situation inside the square.
Much has been written in both the liberal and conservative press about the threat SOCPA presents to traditionally accepted forms of dissent. Totally overlooked amidst these laments on the plight of the obedient objector is the extent to which the police welcome such activity as a convenient conductor of anger and energy. This was well illustrated by the case of Maya Evans, whose arrest for naming Iraq war dead became a cause celebre for Guardianistas and Daily Mail readers alike, when in fact without police cooperation creating the Maya Evans spectacle none of them would even have heard of her. The real danger presented by SOCPA lies in its potential tofurther institutionalise protest and quell disobedience. And indeed the worst thing about Sack Parliament has nothing to do with the tactics on the day, but that no-one dared attempt such a confrontation sooner.