From the archive: Protest and survive? [why we need to fight for the right to protest]

Paul Bernal /   November 9, 2013 at 8:37 PM 1,795 views

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The latest in a long line of assaults on our right to protest seems to be on its way with the planned replacement of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) with ‘Ipnas’: Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance. Former DPP Lord Macdonald QC described the new powers as amounting to ‘gross state interference’ with basic freedoms – and it’s hard to argue with him, given the almost breathtaking scope of the powers. As described in the Telegraph, ‘the new system will allow courts to impose sweeping curbs on people’s liberty if they think they are “capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person”. They will be able to impose them if they think it is “just and convenient” to do so.’

One of the most important areas that the powers will have an impact on is the right to protest. It is a right that seems to be very much misunderstood and underrated in the current era – and a right that has been under attack in a wide variety of ways. It is also, however, a right that is of crucial importance, and one that needs defending. In the current political climate, where many people feel that conventional political paths are not functioning, where the current crop of politicians aren’t representing them, protest is one of the few ways that they can express themselves, and can get their messages across. Protest matters.

Surveillance and protest

There’s been a lot of talk about surveillance recently – and a lot of political attention on it – but much of it, to a great extent at least, has missed the point that one of the main functions of surveillance, in practice, is to monitor and control the dissent and protest. Indeed, it’s arguable that this may be the main purpose for much of the surveillance – particularly insofar as that surveillance covers conventional email, web-browsing, social networks and so forth. Whilst the terrorists, paedophiles and others who are ostensibly the primary targets are highly unlikely to use those more ‘normal’ parts of the net, and are highly likely to use encryption, anonymisation or other evasive techniques, the ordinary people, the organisers and the protesters, are the opposite. They use ordinary emails to organise their meetings, Facebook to coordinate them, and twitter to publicise them. Surveillance, therefore, though it finds catching terrorists and paedophiles as difficult as finding needles in haystacks, finds protests and protesters without much difficulty.

That’s why authoritarian regimes like to monitor the net so much – the late and unlamented Tunisian government, for example, hacked into Facebook’s login page so that they could intercept people’s usernames and passwords, so they could check where people were meeting, who they were talking to and so forth. It’s also one of the key reasons why the UK the government is so keen on surveillance. The summer headline in the BBC “Whitehall chiefs scan Twitter to head off badger protests” made the point very clearly. It’s not just to find out where protests might happen – it’s to head them off. And, indeed, by publicising the fact to try to persuade people not to protest in the first place. Don’t even think about it – we’re watching you, and we’ll stop you even if you try.

Combine the ability to find and monitor protests with the new and wide-ranging powers included with the Ipnas and you’ve got a near perfect tool to deal with protest. Indeed, surveillance of social media could even provide sufficient evidence to suggest that an individual is “capable of causing nuisance or annoyance” – and hence to slap them with an Ipna. Protests could be – and quite probably will be – stopped before they’ve even begun.

Protest and the media

It may be, however, that the perfection of this anti-protest double-whammy has not been noticed – because right now it feels as though the British ‘establishment’ does not really understand the importance of protest, or even that we really have a right to protest, or a need to protest. For many within that establishment, protest seems to be largely irrelevant, perhaps something out of the past – some people may recognise the title of this piece as coming from the anti-nuclear movement of the 80s, for example, and see protest as being something of a similar age.

The BBC, for example, did not even deign to cover the Million Mask March this week – not, I suspect, out of any conspiracy, but because they simply didn’t think it was important enough to be worth covering. Protest is not seen as important – because they don’t understand the role of protest. The BBC, I also suspect, thinks along very conventional lines: freedom of expression is, to many of them, synonymous with freedom of the press. To the BBC, that freedom is in the hands of journalists – and they’re quite wrong: protest is a fundamental part of freedom of expression. Where the media is constricted and constrained, as our media is – both through the law and through pressure-driven self-restraint, protest can become the most important part of freedom of expression of all.

The power of protest – and the need for protest

This is what Russell Brand realises – and the point that it seemed to me most of those criticising Russell Brand missed. They focussed almost entirely on Brand’s suggestion that voting was irrelevant – because to them, voting was all that there was. If you don’t vote, according to that logic, you can’t do anything to bring about change. They’re wrong – because there are many, many things that form part of a properly democratic system. Voting is just part of it – and don’t get me wrong, I have always voted and almost certainly always will – but there is a great deal more to it. And, again as Brand realised, when political institutions are failing you, you have to look for other means. Those means will almost certainly include protests.

That’s one of the reasons a clamp-down on protests is one of the first steps of an authoritarian regime that feels itself to be in trouble – or of a supposedly democratic regime that doesn’t really trust its people. Right now, that feels to be the way that our government looks at things. It doesn’t trust the people – so it wants to restrict people’s freedom to make their feelings known. It wants to control their protests – and we should not let them. If we are to survive as a democracy, we need that right to protest. We will probably have to fight for it, and fight very hard.

Courtesy of Paul Bernal at Paul Bernal’s Blog

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