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From The Socialist newspaper, 5 October 2011

Right to protest under attack

Judy Beishon
Police on student demonstration - hundreds of protesters have been injured by police violence, photo Senan

Police on student demonstration - hundreds of protesters have been injured by police violence, photo Senan   (Click to enlarge)

What is happening to the democratic and civil liberties won over generations by working class people? In the name of fighting terrorism, laws that infringe on basic rights and freedoms have been introduced across the Western world and elsewhere.

In Britain, the present government and previous Labour ones have used some of the repressive methods of totalitarian states, such as lengthy detention without trial and the banning of demonstrations.

Anti-trade union laws brought in by Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher mean that many strikes can be declared illegal and a succession of laws reducing other democratic rights have been processed thick and fast in recent years.

Protesters cannot demonstrate outside parliament without special permission, in many areas they have been stopped and searched. Sometimes they are prevented from demonstrating; at other times they have been kettled for hours, and have often faced brutality from the police.

Surveillance has been stepped up, not just by massive use of CCTV but also through spying on internet social networks - with prosecutions sometimes following when someone has merely written something subsequently construed as 'plotting' or 'threatening'.

In addition, the basic right to campaign - essential for democracy - is being eroded, with numerous cases of street stalls or even just leafleting being banned.

Public sites for displaying campaign posters without charge are virtually non-existent and it is normal for meeting rooms for hire to be either forbidden to campaigners or priced out of their reach.

The lists in this feature include some examples of attacks faced by protesters today, but many more could be given and the lists themselves are not complete.

How the right to demonstrate is eroded:

Fair trials, free speech, free movement:

What the Socialist Party says:

Ten years after 9/11, former Labour leader Tony Blair has said that the terrorist threat is bigger and deeper than ever. Yet this threat was used by him to justify vast swathes of 'anti-terror' legislation, despite the criminal justice system already having adequate powers for arresting suspected terrorists and putting them on trial.

The government arsenal of 'anti-terror' legislation does not make our communities safer, and its frequent use on innocent people and non-terrorists increases alienation and anger. Also, it will be used against organised workers' struggles, which are essential to counter the conditions that lead to crime and terrorism.

Working class youth - especially black and Asian youth - have suffered a disproportionate amount of police harassment, an issue that contributed to the anger that broke out in August. Many of them are also angered when they see the police not adequately investigating crimes that they or others in their communities have been victims of.

A fighting lead from the trade unions against cuts, erosion of democratic rights, and for police accountability, would be a pole of attraction for young people. It would show an alternative path, uniting working class communities in struggle against the attacks on living standards and rights that are by-products of the crisis-ridden, profit-driven capitalist system.

Aftermath of riots

Following years of 'anti-terror' legislation, the August riots are now being used to justify further draconian measures, including evictions from social housing and possible docking of benefits.

But as the Socialist Party has explained, the only measures that will prevent more eruptions on the streets are the reversal of savage spending cuts on vital services, together with massive investment into decent jobs, training and housing. More police powers to harass people and use increased brutality will only serve to further alienate those young people who have lashed out in anger and frustration.

Laws against terrorism, serious crime and anti-social behaviour are "routinely used against legitimate protesters", said campaign organisation Liberty. Underlying the government handing the police, local councils, courts etc, further powers that are being used against protesters is its fear of the class battles that are coming.

The huge onslaught of cuts to jobs, pay, working conditions and services is already fuelling workers' opposition. This will become an avalanche of mass protest over time as living standards for the majority are being driven down while the rich are insulated by their vast wealth.

Repressive measures against protesters vary from those that obstruct them - such as against campaigning, to those designed to punish them and attempt to scare them away from future protests - such as kettling and heavy sentencing.

The ruling class and right-wing media are deliberately trying to 'criminalise' protesters and use people's genuine fear of crime to discredit protesters by focusing on any damage done to property etc when demonstrations - usually largely peaceful - take place.

Trade unions

The trade union and anti-cuts movement therefore needs to take preparation and well-organised stewarding of demonstrations very seriously, including youth and student demonstrations. Stewards need to help protect participants from potential brutal or punitive actions by the police, guard against the role played by provocateurs and ensure the maximum degree of unity and collective strength - which helps prevent any anger-fuelled counter-productive actions by individuals or groups.

The government has been forced to alter or abandon some of the authoritarian measures that were at its disposal following court judgements that have criticised or condemned them.

For instance in July 2010 it announced that the use of section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 to stop and search would be suspended. This followed the European court ruling on the case of Gillan and Quinton (see above) that condemned the section 44 powers for allowing people to be humiliated by being searched in public without the police having any grounds for suspicion.

But welcome as such court victories are, they don't stop the government from finding other routes to the same ends or sometimes already having other laws they can use for similar ends. The suspension of section 44 didn't end stop and search, though it did mean that the police were supposed to have 'reasonable suspicion' to do it.

Then in March 2011 the Home Secretary simply issued a 'Remedial Order' to replace sections 44 to 47 of the Terrorism Act 2000 with a new section, 47a, giving the police stop and search powers that circumvented the ruling of the European court.

A government panel is presently exploring ways that the European Court of Human Rights could be ignored altogether, or at least have its jurisdiction narrowed. This sets in context the 'Protection of Freedoms Bill' that is presently going through parliament to amend laws introduced by Labour that the Tories and Lib Dems criticised as going too far against civil liberties.

This Bill includes measures that are widely welcomed, such as destroying most of the DNA profiles that were taken from people who were never convicted, reducing the number of jobs that require Criminal Records checks and 'regulating' CCTV usage. But overall, the Bill tinkers with previous legislation rather than radically changing or scrapping it.

Likewise, the government rebranded control orders as a supposedly lighter version, TPIMs (see above), but now wants to further amend them to give the Home Secretary sweeping powers and effectively bring back all the worst aspects of the original orders.

Democratic and civil liberties have been won by working people over generations of struggle and must be vigorously defended. A major working class-led campaign is needed against all the attacks on trade union and democratic rights, including against state brutality, miscarriages of justice and excessive sentencing. Campaigning can include organised mass insistence on the right to have street stalls, demonstrations etc, when these basic activities have been threatened by the authorities.

Most of the trade union and Labour leaders show no sign of leading such a campaign however. The Labour Party when in government created more than 3,000 new criminal offences, with over 440 imprisonable offences created by secondary legislation and not even debated by parliament.

The leadership of the second largest union in the country, Unison, has shown its own level of respect for democratic rights through the way it has witch-hunted, suspended from holding office and expelled socialists, denying them the right to fair hearings.

So an effective mass campaign in defence of our rights will be an urgent task of a new workers' party when it is built, and of newly elected and existing left trade union leaders.

As well as defence of rights, many more rights are needed. The protective rights that have traditionally been part of the British criminal justice system help towards making sure that trials are fair, but in this class-based capitalist system they certainly don't guarantee it.

The top echelons of the police and judiciary are not neutral - they are in the same wealthy circles of the ruling class as the multi-millionaire government ministers and they serve the interests of that elite. It will only be when capitalism is completely removed and a socialist society built, that our rights and freedoms can be fully protected and developed onto a higher level.

We say:

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In The Socialist 5 October 2011:

Socialist Party news and analysis

As BAE threatens cuts... Fight for Jobs!

Miliband's fruitless dreams of a 'better capitalism'

Labour Party conference - No way forward given by 'reclaim Labour' speakers

Tory conference farce - Carry on cutting!

Fast news

Socialist Party reports and campaigns

Manchester: Thousands say no to cuts

Glasgow: Prepare for 30 November strike

London union leaders call for electoral challenge

Poplar and Liverpool: 'If you fight, you can win'

Socialist Party feature

Right to protest under attack

Socialist Party workplace news

North-west construction electricians meet

Construction electricians invade Kings Cross station

Fighting library closures

Socialist Party youth and students

Extract from Jarrow Marchers Blog: Day 1 & 2

Danger: young people's futures at risk

Campaigners learn the ropes

Students join the socialists as fury grows over cuts and fees

Socialist Party review

'Chav hate is class hate'

International socialist news and analysis

USA: Occupy Wall Street struggle spreads

Irish trade unionists meet to launch Activists Network

Chilean students in fifth month of protests

Socialist Party events

Join the fightback: come to Socialism 2011!


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