Police state : George Monbiot : Protest is criminalised


Richard Moore



Protest is criminalised and the huffers and puffers say

The police abuse terror and harassment laws to penalise
dissent while we insist civil liberties are our gift to the

George Monbiot 
Tuesday   October   4, 2005 
The Guardian 

    'We are trying to fight 21st-century crime - antisocial
    behaviour, drug dealing, binge drinking, organised crime -
    with 19th-century methods, as if we still lived in the time of
    - Tony Blair, September 27 2005.
    "Down poured the wine like oil on blazing fire. And still the
    riot went on - the debauchery gained its height - glasses were
    dashed upon the floor by hands that could not carry them to
    lips, oaths were shouted out by lips which could scarcely form
    the words to vent them in; drunken losers cursed and roared;
    some mounted on the tables, waving bottles above their heads
    and bidding defiance to the rest; some danced, some sang, some
    tore the cards and raved. Tumult and frenzy reigned supreme
    -  Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens, 1839.

All politicians who seek to justify repressive legislation
claim that they are responding to an unprecedented threat to
public order. And all politicians who cite such a threat draft
measures in response which can just as easily be used against
democratic protest. No act has been passed over the past 20
years with the aim of preventing antisocial behaviour,
disorderly conduct, trespass, harassment and terrorism that
has not also been deployed to criminalise a peaceful public
engagement in politics. When Walter Wolfgang was briefly
detained by the police after heckling the foreign secretary
last week, the public caught a glimpse of something that a few
of us have been vainly banging on about for years.

On Friday, six students and graduates of Lancaster University
were convicted of aggravated trespass. Their crime was to have
entered a lecture theatre and handed out leaflets to the
audience. Staff at the university were meeting people from BAE
Systems, Rolls-Royce, Shell, the Carlyle Group,
GlaxoSmithKline, DuPont, Unilever and Diageo, to learn how to
"commercialise university research". The students were hoping
to persuade the researchers not to sell their work. They were
in the theatre for three minutes. As the judge conceded, they
tried neither to intimidate anyone nor to stop the conference
from proceeding.

They were prosecuted under the 1994 Criminal Justice Act,
passed when Michael Howard was the Conservative home
secretary. But the university was able to use it only because
Labour amended the act in 2003 to ensure that it could be
applied anywhere, rather than just "in the open air".

Had Mr Wolfgang said "nonsense" twice during the foreign
secretary's speech, the police could have charged him under
the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Harassment, the act
says, "must involve conduct on at least two occasions ...
conduct includes speech". Parliament was told that its purpose
was to protect women from stalkers, but the first people to be
arrested were three peaceful protesters. Since then it has
been used by the arms manufacturer EDO to keep demonstrators
away from its factory gates, and by Kent police to arrest a
woman who sent an executive at a drugs company two polite
emails, begging him not to test his products on animals. In
2001 the peace campaigners Lindis Percy and Anni Rainbow were
prosecuted for causing "harassment, alarm or distress" to
American servicemen at the Menwith Hill military intelligence
base in Yorkshire, by standing at the gate holding the Stars
and Stripes and a placard reading "George W Bush? Oh dear!" In
Hull a protester was arrested under the act for "staring at a

Had Mr Wolfgang said "nonsense" to one of the goons who
dragged him out of the conference, he could have been charged
under section 125 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police
Act 2005, which came into force in August. Section 125 added a
new definition of harassment to the 1997 act, "a course of
conduct ... which involves harassment of two or more persons".
What this means is that you need only address someone once to
be considered to be harassing them, as long as you have also
addressed someone else in the same manner. This provision, in
other words, can be used to criminalise any protest anywhere.
But when the bill passed through the Commons and the Lords, no
member contested or even noticed it.

Section 125 hasn't yet been exercised, but section 132 of the
act is already becoming an effective weapon against democracy.
This bans people from demonstrating in an area "designated" by
the government. One of these areas is the square kilometre
around parliament. Since the act came into force, democracy
campaigners have been holding a picnic in Parliament Square
every Sunday afternoon (see www1.atwiki.com/picnic/ ).
Seventeen people have been arrested so far.

But the law that has proved most useful to the police is the
one under which Mr Wolfgang was held: section 44 of the
Terrorism Act 2000. This allows them to stop and search people
without the need to show that they have "reasonable suspicion"
that a criminal offence is being committed. They have used it
to put peaceful protesters through hell. At the beginning of
2003, demonstrators against the impending war with Iraq set up
a peace camp outside the military base at Fairford in
Gloucestershire, from which US B52s would launch their bombing
raids. Every day - sometimes several times a day - the
protesters were stopped and searched under section 44. The
police, according to a parliamentary answer, used the act 995
times, though they knew that no one at the camp was a
terrorist. The constant harassment and detention pretty well
broke the protesters' resolve. Since then the police have used
the same section to pin down demonstrators outside the bomb
depot at Welford in Berkshire, at the Atomic Weapons
Establishment at Aldermaston, at Menwith Hill and at the
annual arms fair in London's Docklands.

The police are also rediscovering the benefits of some of our
more venerable instruments. On September 10, Keith Richardson,
one of the six students convicted of aggravated trespass on
Friday, had his stall in Lancaster city centre confiscated
under the 1824 Vagrancy Act. "Every Person wandering abroad
and endeavouring by the Exposure of Wounds and Deformities to
obtain or gather Alms ... shall be deemed a Rogue and
Vagabond... " The act was intended to prevent the veterans of
the Napoleonic wars from begging, but the police decided that
pictures of the wounds on this man's anti-vivisection leaflets
put him on the wrong side of the law. In two recent cases,
protesters have been arrested under the 1361 Justices of the
Peace Act. So much for Mr Blair's 21st century methods.

What is most remarkable is that until Mr Wolfgang was held,
neither parliamentarians nor the press were interested. The
pressure group Liberty, the Green party, a couple of
alternative comedians, the Indymedia network and the
alternative magazine Schnews have been left to defend our
civil liberties almost unassisted. Even after "Wolfie" was
thrown out of the conference, public criticism concentrated on
the suppression of dissent within the Labour party, rather
than the suppression of dissent throughout the country. As the
parliamentary opposition falls apart, the extra-parliamentary
one is being closed down with hardly a rumble of protest from
the huffers and puffers who insist that civil liberties are
Britain's gift to the world. Perhaps they're afraid they'll be



"Apocalypse Now and the Brave New World"

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