Our Right to Protest

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We are all familiar with the continuing attacks on the welfare state, public sector, and vulnerable groups in society by a raft of ideological spending cuts. In addition to that, we have seen a barrage of assaults on the basic democratic and civil right to assemble and protest, a phenomenon that has reached new heights of savagery in recent weeks.

The Royal Wedding was little more than a 24-hour suspension of civil rights. The so-called "Charing Cross Ten" were arrested for having placards wrapped in a bin bag - they weren't even demonstrating. They were shipped off to Surrey, where an entire police station's cells had been reserved for anyone unwilling to go along with the message of patriotism flooding the nation's screens.

The night before, a series of disturbing "pre-crime" arrests took place - including a platoon of officers being sent to arrest activists from a "subversive" street theatre troupe. Other ideas that have been fielded include making unions liable for the damage caused on the day of the massive demonstration on 26 March, and banning marches through central London.

Violence is another recurrent theme. 214 arrests were made on 26 March over broken windows - but I have yet to see a single arrest made over Alfie Meadows' broken head, much less a criminal conviction over the police's subsequent demand that he be treated at a different hospital when in critical condition, rather than one "reserved" for injured police officers. He is now being charged with violent disorder - presumably for headbutting a police truncheon!

Why, then, are the police so intolerant and aggressive when it comes to public protest? The answer lies in part in their role - they are concerned with protecting and preserving the existing order, an order governed by class interests. Any group wishing to create alternatives to, and damage the existing socioeconomic situation must therefore be opposed at all costs. In addition, the recent verdict of unlawful killing of Ian Tomlinson - the man who died after being pushed to the ground by a police officer during the G20 protests in 2009 - has panicked the police. They have to be seen by their government handlers, who they are ultimately accountable to, to be doing an effective job of undermining dissent. Yet they cannot entirely shed the perception of "policing by consent", a false construct though it may be. Hence they face a dilemma.

While we were being batoned out of Trafalgar Square on the evening of 26 March, someone drew a comparison with George's Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. In fact, real life Britain in 1984 seems a more accurate and worrying comparison. Then a series of anti-union acts stripped away the power of dissenters. This was shortly followed by a massive campaign of aggressive strike-breaking by police, and finally an underhand MI5 operation to discredit the miners' movement with agents provocateurs, forged cash drops and a range of trickery. It is a pattern that seems to be in progress again. So how do we, as activists, fight it?

Firstly, attacks on the right to protest cannot be permitted to become commonplace and accepted by the public (which is perhaps an aim of the draconian policing in recent weeks). Every breach of justice should be followed up with an outcry from other activists both in the courtroom and on the streets. We cannot go unheard. Secondly, a strong support network is needed to ensure that victims of false arrest do not feel isolated, and first-time demonstrators are less worried about the consequences of protesting. The Defend the Right to Protest campaign is seeking support in all capacities, from legal and technical, to media and publicity, and is increasing in prominence.

Finally, we need to remember that the state and police are not invincible. Hungarian revolutionary Georg Luk√°cs wrote in History and Class Consciousness, "If it is true that an organisation based on force can only survive as long as it is able to overcome the resistance of groups and individuals by force, it is equally true that it could not survive if it were compelled to use force every time it is challenged."

To take the thought to its logical conclusion: the government are afraid. They are forcing through policies which are unpopular and a magnet for vast public opposition. They are resorting to force and intimidation not as a result of strength, but as a result of weakness. They are divided, weak and unpopular. Their shattering point can be found.

Nathan Akehurst is part of School and FE Students Against the Cuts, Member of Youth Parliament, and Socialist Worker Students Society activist. The Defend the Right to Protest campaign is contactable through their website.