Your Right to Protest Is Under Threat

Friends have started to say something they have never said before: I'm too frightened to protest

So now we know. When our politicians complained over the past few decades, in
a low, sad tone, that our young people were "too apathetic" and
"disengaged", it was a lie. A great flaring re-engagement of the young has
take place this year. With overwhelmingly peaceful tactics, they are
demanding policies that are supported by the majority of the British people -- and our rulers are trying to truncheon, kettle and intimidate them back
into apathy.

Here's one example of the intimidation of peaceful protest by the young that
is happening all over Britain. Nicky Wishart is a 12-year-old self-described
"maths geek" who lives in the heart of David Cameron's constituency. He was
gutted when he found out his youth club was being shut down as part of the
cuts: there's nowhere else to hang out in his village. He was particularly
outraged when he discovered online that Cameron had said, before the
election, that he was "committed" to keeping youth clubs open. So he did the
right thing. He organized a totally peaceful protest on Facebook outside
Cameron's constituency surgery. A few days later, the police arrived at his
school. They hauled him out of his lessons, told him the anti-terrorism
squad was monitoring him and threatened him with arrest.

The message to Nicky Wishart and his generation is very clear: don't get any
fancy ideas about being an engaged citizen. Go back to your X-Box and
X-Factor, and leave politics to the millionaires in charge.

This slow constriction of the right to protest has been happening for decades
now. Under New Labour, protesters outside parliament started to have to ask
permission and suddenly found themselves prosecuted for "anti-social
behaviour." In 2009, a man who had committed no violence or threats at
all died after being attacked by a police officer on the streets of London
at a protest -- and nobody has ever been punished. Now the Metropolitan
Police's instinctive response to any group of protesters is to surround them
and 'kettle' -- that is, arbitrarily imprison -- them for up to ten hours in
the freezing cold, with no food, water, or toilets. It doesn't matter how
peaceful you were. You are trapped.

In the past few weeks police officers have been caught responding to a
disabled young man with cerebral palsy -- who was protesting because his 16
year old brother is now too scared of debt to go to university -- by hauling
him out of his wheelchair and throwing him to the ground. They even tried to
block a severely injured protester in need of brain surgery from being
treated at the nearest hospital, on the grounds that police officers were
being treated there too and it was 'upsetting' to have injured protesters in
the same place. Now Sir Paul Stephenson, head of the Met, says a total ban
on protests by students is "one of the tactics we will look at."

These protesters are not defying the will of the British people; they are
expressing it. Look at their two great causes: opposing PS27,000-a-degree
fees for university students, and making the super-rich pay the PS120bn they
currently avoid in tax. Opponents of top-up fees outnumber supporters by 10
percent, while 77 percent of us support a massive crackdown on the people
who live here but do not pay taxes here. This isn't an attack on democracy,
it's a demand for it. It's a refusal to be part of the silent majority any
more. When politicians are defying the will of the people -- and breaking the
"solemn pledges" on which they took our votes -- protest is necessary.

Of course, it is never justified in a democracy to launch violent attacks on
people. Anybody who throws a fire extinguisher off a roof, or throws fire
crackers and snooker balls at police officers, should be arrested and
charged. It's morally wrong, and tactically idiotic: it puts people off the
protesters' just cause. That's why whenever it has happened, the protesters
themselves have immediately turned on the violent fringe and made them stop.
Yet the government is claiming that to deal with this tiny number of people -- a few dozen -- it's necessary to restrict the basic rights to free assembly
that have been won over centuries.

In reality, these tactics are provoking more violent protest than they
prevent. It's enraging to turn up to peacefully express your views outside
parliament and find yourself suddenly imprisoned by police officers who
won't even let you go to the toilet. It doesn't cool people down, it makes
them burn up. There is an obvious alternative to kettling, and it was the
norm in Britain until the Mayday protests of 2001 when the tactic was born.
It's simple: arrest anyone who commits an act of violence, instead of
imposing mass imprisonment on everyone present. It's called good policing.

Today, when I suggest to friends that they come to protest against a policy
they passionately think will harm Britain, they have started to say
something they never said before: I'm too frightened to go. For example, a
group of disabled people I know is terrified by the government's abolition
of the Independent Living Allowance, which makes it possible for them to
keep living in their own homes rather than an institution. The Sunday
Telegraph quotes a government insider admitting "it is quite possible there
will be cases of suicide" as a result. But after seeing how the police threw
an obvious fragile and immobilized disabled man onto the street, they are
too scared to protest outside Downing Street. They are forced to watch,
helpless, while their support is taken away to pay for -- as a Financial
Times headline put it recently -- Cameron and Osborne's new "tax boost for
wealthy heirs."

There is a cost to this chilling of protest. Every British citizen is the
beneficiary of a long line of protesters stretching back through the
centuries. Every woman reading this can vote and open her own bank account
and choose her own husband and have a career because protesters demanded it.
Every worker gets at least PS5.93 an hour, and paid holidays, and paid sick
leave, because protesters demanded it. Every pensioner gets enough to
survive because protesters demand it. What what your life would be like if
all those protesters through all those years had been frightened into
inactivity? If you block the right to protest, you block the path to
progress. You are left instead at the whim of an elite, whose priority is
tax cuts for themselves, paid for with spending cuts for the poor.

In Britain, we are not suffering from an excess of civil disobedience. We are
suffering from an excess of civil obedience. Our government is pursuing
dozens of policies we, the people, know to be immoral -- from bombing
civilians in Afghanistan to kicking away the ladder that lets hard-working
poor children stay on at school. We aren't wrong when we challenge these
injustices. We are wrong when we stay silent. As Oscar Wilde said:
"Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man's original
virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through
disobedience and through rebellion."

Tomorrow, there will be a continuation of some of the most valuable protests
in Britain in years. A group of ordinary tax-payers have banded together on
Twitter to form an alliance called UKUncut. They are campaigning against the
fact that successive governments have allowed the super-rich to legally
refuse to pay taxes. They operate on our streets, but pay nothing towards
maintaining our society. So UK Uncut is peacefully shutting their shops
until they are made to pay. The 99.99 percent of British people who pay our
taxes will benefit as this cause swells and succeeds -- we will face fewer
cuts and a better Britain. It's an example of a democratic citizenry acting
in its own defence.

Now imagine living in a country where this didn't happen. Imagine a Britain
where a cabinet of millionaires could exempt the super-rich from tax while
taking away the PS30 a week that keeps hard-working poor kids at school -- only for the streets to stay silent and supine. If we don't defend our right
to protest, we may well end up living on that cowed and chilly island.

* You can donate to the youth club Nicky Wishart was campaigning to save by
sending cheques to: Eynsham Youth Centre, Back Lane, Eynsham, Oxon OX29 4QW

* You can get updates on protests, and other issues, by following Johann on

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