In response to the recent Home Office consultation titled ‘Managing Protest around Parliament’, which threatened further restrictions on demonstrations throughout the UK, a second day of action  called by the Campaign for Free Assembly will take place on Saturday 1 March. Campaigners opposed to the Government’s proposals will assemble at London’s Trafalgar Square (north side) at 1pm.
The Government consultation on ‘Managing Protest around Parliament’, which closed on 17 January, began as a review of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA) 2005, s.132-138, which controversially restricts demonstrations in a 1km zone around Parliament [2,3]. While it had previously been reported that Prime Minister Brown intended to repeal the unpopular provisions of the legislation , the consultation paper’s questions on the possible ‘harmonisation’ of the existing legislation suggest that the Government plans to extend current restrictions on protest around Parliament to the whole country. This means giving the police the power to censor the number, size and content of banners and placards; and existing laws requiring prior notification of and the power to impose restrictions on, and even ban, protest marches – covered by the Public Order Act 1986 — could be extended to all demonstrations.
The proposed powers and those already granted to the police create a climate of criminalisation of political activism; with arbitrary arrests and police violence and heavy-handedness relatively commonplace at protests – even entirely non-violent ones – such as at last summer’s Heathrow Climate Camp. Even members of the press documenting protests are no longer spared police brutality, as illustrated by the case of photojournalist Marc VallÃ©e . Furthermore, despite the current review of SOCPA, it is clear the Met has no immediate plans to stop using it to harass and intimidate activists, as shown by the arrests only this week of three long-term supporters of Brian Haw and his Parliament Square Peace Camp for an ‘unauthorised protest’ outside Parliament . Overall, it seems such tactics are designed to exert a ‘chilling effect’, whereby people are deterred from engaging in grassroots activism for fear of the consequences.
Whatever campaign people are involved in, whether it’s for a safer school crossing or to end a war, the new proposals will affect them. Campaign groups who run a weekend stall in their local high street would be moved on, and political rallies and meetings could be broken up.
A spokesperson for the Campaign for Free Assembly said: “We are tired of the Government’s relentless determination to silence the public. We must act now to stop the further erosion of our freedom to assemble, and make it clear that we will not allow our liberties to be consulted away. The plans outlined in the consultation demand a response on the streets. Our message is simple: we claim the freedom to assemble without prior notification or permission, and this is not open to negotiation.”
1. On the Campaign for Free Assembly’s first day of action on January 12, 2008, there was a spontaneous tour of sites within the designated area around Parliament, where it is an offence under SOCPA to demonstrate without prior written authorisation from the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. The tour included Downing Street, Whitehall, Parliament Square, the Home Office, the Foreign Office, MI5 headquarters and New Scotland Yard.
A number of participants held a sit-down protest in the middle of the road in Parliament Street, and later in Whitehall, directly facing Downing Street, disrupting traffic for a while. There was much pushing and shoving outside Downing Street from the Metropolitan Police riot squad, the Territorial Support Group (TSG). A number of arrests were made, the highest profile being that of Brian Haw. Mr Haw, who had been quietly filming the demonstration, had his camcorder violently shoved into his face by a police officer, causing a bloody gash on his cheek. He was subsequently arrested under Section 5 of the Public Order Act on suspicion of swearing at the officer concerned, and was allegedly assaulted shortly afterwards by a number of officers in the back of a police van whilst in handcuffs. It is understood Mr Haw may well take legal action against the officers concerned.
“Brian Haw violently assaulted then arrested at Downing Street today”
“Haw beaten up by police”
“Peace protester injured in demo”
2. The following website contains background on SOCPA and the ‘Managing Protest’ consultation: http://www.repeal-socpa.info
3. Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA) 2005:
4. “Brown to allow Iraq protests”
5. “Injured photographer wins settlement, costs and apology from Met Police”
6. “SOCPA newsflash”
“SOCPA – update on last night’s arrests”
7. Other resources:
“SOCPA Anti-demo Laws Should be Repealed, Not Extended”
“Preserving disorder: freedom to protest and the future of SOCPA” http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2007/11/386033.html
Indymedia UK topic page on SOCPA:
Documentary: “SOCPA — the Movie” http://www.socpa-movie.blogspot.com
Feature-length documentary: “Taking Liberties” http://www.noliberties.com
Campaign for Free Assembly