Clamping down on legal protest

In January this year I was arrested after attempting to throw a bottle of water to a man protesting against the felling of around 40 mature trees in Oxford city centre. He had been cut off by a steel fence and council-hired security guards. The reason for my arrest – ‘littering’ – was clearly absurd, and I was released a few hours later without charge. I subsequently sought legal advice and received £1500 compensation in an out of court settlement.

Perhaps I was merely the unfortunate victim of an over-enthusiastic officer? A video which was filmed before my arrest would indicate not; in it, a policeman specifically states that anyone attempting to throw supplies up to the tree will be arrested for littering.

In fact, police repression of political protest is a remarkably common hassle for those involved. At this summer’s ‘Camp for Climate Action’ near Kingsnorth Power Station, Kent Police launched one of their biggest ever operations. They enacted a ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ near the entrance to the camp, and everybody entering or exiting was stopped and searched. On one occasion I had a black marker pen confiscated, due to its alleged potential for criminal damage. Another time it cost me three searches and over an hour to get bread 500 metres from a van into the site.

The police made ample use of their helicopter, regularly flying low over the site, which caused real disruption to meetings and discussion groups. Early on in the week they got a warrant to search every single tent on the site. They confiscated wood which was needed to build toilets, ropes for the marquees and piping for the water infrastructure. Those who peacefully resisted were hit with batons, pepper sprayed and arrested.

Their keenness to be on site continued throughout the week, with a series of 5 AM attempted incursions which kept everyone on edge and made it difficult to get a good nights sleep. The local MP visited the site and told the BBC he found the use of riot gear “incomprehensible”.

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Another tactic used against protesters is surveillance.

Police Forward Intelligence Teams regularly attend demonstrations with huge video and still cameras. They are not simply interested in your photo, they want to know who you talk to and who talks to you. The focus is on trying to find ‘the leaders’ – key people to target for intimidation, arrest and prosecution. In recent anti-arms events in Brighton, they have forced anyone ‘masked up’ to show their face or be arrested.

We are told that the police are a ‘force for good’, that they protect upstanding citizens from the horrors of serious crime. This may be the case, but they are also heavily involved in protecting the government and corporations from peaceful protesters exercising their right to free speech, often acting illegally on or extremely dubious legal ground.

As shown by a £5.9 million spend at climate camp this year, the police see it as their role to prevent any form of civil disobedience taking place. In written evidence recently submitted to Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, a member of the camp’s legal team noted that this strategy is vastly different from the 1990s, where police would generally intervene only if there was actual evidence of an offence being committed.

I was able to get compensation following my arrest because it was clearly unlawful. Recently the law has come out in favour of the six Greenpeace protesters who climbed the smokestack at Kingsnorth and caused £30,000 worth of damage by painting “GORDON” down its side. They were acquitted by a Crown Court jury on the basis that their actions to shut down the power station protected property in immediate danger due to climate change.

This is a fantastic victory, and whilst it does not set a legal precedent, it will no doubt give confidence to campaigners who are working to take action on climate change. However, the law does not always protect our civil rights.

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On the 7th of December 2005, Maya Evans became the first person to be convicted under Section 132 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA). Whilst the name of the SOCPA doesn’t sound like it deals with peaceful protesters, Section 132 makes it illegal to hold a demonstration within approximately 1 mile of Parliament without first seeking police permission. Maya Evans was arrested whilst standing at Whitehall’s cenotaph to read the names of soldiers killed in Iraq. People have subsequently been threatened with arrest for eating a cake with the word “PEACE” on it, and holding a blank placard.

Whilst many will never face such intimidation, those who stand up for their own rights, both through legal channels and straightforward dissent, are also standing up for your rights, whether the issue is the environment, peace, animal rights, or anything else. Whenever a single person’s freedom is undermined we all suffer.