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We own the streets – freedom to protest

January 12th, 2008 · post by anon · Make a comment

We Own The Streets – Campaign for Freedom of Assembly

Campaign for Free Assembly public meeting
Sunday January 20th 2pm-4pm
London School of Economics room H216, Connaught House
Map: www.lse.ac.uk/resources/mapsAndDirections/Default.htm
Nearest tube: Holborn

It’s time for a campaign for the freedom to assemble in the UK. This is in response to continued police repression and the Government’s consultation ‘Managing Protest around Parliament’, which proposes giving the police powers to censor the content of banners and placards, and that the laws about restrictions and notifications which currently apply to marches should be extended to all demonstrations. This is what has already happened in the ‘SOCPA zone’ around Parliament.

The proposed powers and those already given to the police create a
climate of criminalisation, a vast confusion of laws are applied
arbitrarily, so people are arrested simply for standing in the wrong
place at the wrong time, for having the wrong face, and combined with
a police culture that evades accountability even when innocent people
are killed, as shown by the Menezes case and others, there should be
no complacency that the court system can be relied on to prevent abuse
and injustice.

Whatever the campaign that matters to you, whether it’s for a safer
school crossing or to end a war, this proposal will affect you.

The government consultation, which ends on 17th January, needs a
response not on paper but on on our streets, the message is simple -
we claim the freedom to assemble without prior notification or
permission – and this is not open to negotiation.

We held a nationwide day of action on Saturday 12th January
proclaiming this freedom, as the first step in establishing a new era
where it is unquestionable that our liberties cannot be consulted away.

The next public meeting of the campaign will be on 20th January.

Campaign for Freedom of Assembly
- e-mail: freeassembly@lists.riseup.net
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Preserving disorder: freedom to protest and the future of SOCPA

The Home Office has published a consultation paper which shows what
was really meant by Gordon Brown’s promise to look again at the law
which restricts demonstrations near parliament, far from repealing
this legislation the consultation indicates that the government wants
to extend the restrictions on demonstrations to cover the whole
country.

The current law on demonstrations around parliament bans spontaneous
protests, requiring demonstrators to seek advance police permission,
which allows the police to impose arbitrary limits on numbers and
effectively act as political censors.
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The origins of SOCPA

The law controlling demonstrations around Parliament Square, Sections
132-138 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (SOCPA) is
modelled on the powers introduced by the Public Order Act 1986 (POA),
particularly Sections 11-12 which relate to all processions (i.e.
marches) no matter how small, requiring organisers to give advance
notice to the police and allowing a wide range of conditions to be
imposed. Section 14 of the same act deals with assemblies (i.e.
demonstrations and pickets) but these do not require advance notice
and only a limited set of conditions can be imposed. Originally
conditions could only be imposed on a gathering of at least 20, but
this was reduced by the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 to a mere two
people. Exactly what constitutes an assembly is left up to the police,
similarly SOCPA does not define what it means by demonstration,
exemplified by its use to prosecute a Parliament Square picnicker.

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The SOCPA consultation

The consultation document ‘Managing Protest Around Parliament’ seeks
the views of “campaigning non-government organisations; law
enforcement agencies; and those with specific business in and around
Parliament Square”. However, the first two questions in the document
have no relevance to the Parliament Square area (since Section 14 of
the POA does not apply there):

“Q1: The Government believes peaceful protest is a vital part of a
democratic society, and that the police should have powers to manage
public assemblies and processions to respond to the potential for
disorder. Should the powers generally in relation to marches and
assemblies be the same?”
“Q2: Do you agree that the conditions that can be imposed on
assemblies and marches should be harmonised?”

The example given of a possible restriction is that “a senior officer
could direct that conditions be imposed on the content of banners or
placards.”

Further into the document we are told that: “In terms of the sorts of
conditions that can be imposed, an alignment of the conditions than
can be imposed on marches and assemblies across England and Wales and
applying that framework to the vicinity of Parliament could remove any
confusion around conditions that can be imposed.”

As outlined above the powers on marches were already extended to
assemblies near parliament by SOCPA, because of the area’s claimed
’special character’, so now the exception will become the rule. The
implication of these proposals is that any public gathering, anywhere
could be criminalised at the discretion of any passing policeman,
unless it had obtained advance permission.
———————————————————-
What the police want

The police have long regarded public protest as part of a ’spectrum of
disorder’ which they define as: “Disorder includes any act that is
contrary to the general public’s
perception of normality. Disorder has the potential adversely to
affect the status quo and is almost always a predictor of future
crime.” The Labour government avoids talk of ‘disorder’ which suggests
a lack of control and prefers to refer to ‘anti-social behaviour’
which blames the individual, but the underlying assumptions are the
same. All of their ‘anti-social behaviour’ laws are based on Section 5
of the POA, which criminalised ‘disorderly conduct’, defined at the
discretion of the police, so it is no surprise that the police have
applied the full range of ‘anti-social behaviour’ powers to protesters
including dispersal zones, demanding names and addresses, injunctions
(EDO, Heathrow, etc), ASBOs, and alcohol-related crime orders.

The SOCPA law was promoted to parliament as a means to rid them of
Brian Haw’s Parliament Square vigil, but the police’s desire for the
SOCPA law was rooted in other more volatile events including the ‘Day
X’ schoolkids’ protests at the beginning of the 2003 Iraq war, and
most obviously the September 2004 Countryside Alliance pro-hunting
demo, which caused them much criticism. SOCPA is explicitly referenced
in the November 2006 IPCC report on that demonstration: “Under the
Serious and Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, demonstrations in
Parliament Square can now only be held after obtaining a licence from
the Metropolitan Police. The numbers of demonstrators will be able to
be limited and should ensure that at any future demonstration in this
area, the MPS will be able to erect a ‘Wapping box’ formation of
barriers around the grassed area, and effectively control and limit
the numbers of persons attending.” The Metropolitan Police’s
subsequent Public Order Review published this April announced that
they were seeking “new legislation introducing powers to take
pre-emptive action to prevent confrontation”.

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Their law

The police have been emboldened to seek more power by a series of
recent court decisions which have reinforced their belief that they
are able regulate public gatherings entirely as they see fit. The
first court challenge over SOCPA (Blum vs DPP) failed completely. The
Fairford coaches judgment (Laporte vs Gloucestershire Police) approved
of the possibility of police turning the coaches away had the
circumstances been slightly different, and this was used to justify
the Court of Appeal’s dismissal of the Mayday 2001 compensation case
(Austin vs Met Police), agreeing with the High Court’s previous ruling
that the Oxford Circus police cordon was lawful but also adding the
idea that even those not involved in any protest had a duty to go
along quietly with police containment. The police’s successful appeal
over Critical Mass cycle rides (Met Police vs Kay) has implications
for anyone organising other processions, as the first major decision
on them since 1950. Another hardly publicised case (Singh vs West
Midlands Police) approved police use of ‘anti-social behaviour’
dispersal zones against protesters.

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