Handling protest (1 of 3)

We should be tougher in the way we think about protest. That was the burden of my written evidence to a Parliamentary committee on Human Rights. Sometimes we seem to get heavy about very little. But more often we think disruptive or vicious protest is really sort of OK. It isn’t.

Blog note: This piece is available as a Word document with references and good web links.

Handling protest, whether it’s vociferous, vigorous, vicious or violent
Evidence to the UK parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights:
Inquiry into the human rights issues arising from policing and protest.

A note
I have risked making my own recommendations to the committee. This is done out of a desire to be clear and useful.

In brief
Society should rethink its easy assumption that anyone who protests is probably on the side of the angels and that anyone who questions that assumption probably wants to oppress The People or destroy the planet.

Instead we should understand that much protest, especially most direct action, and even a good deal of Non-Violent Direct Action (NVDA), is problematic. For every example of protestors being over-policed, there are several more important ones of their being under-policed.

The committee should firmly declare that the rights of targets and victims are as much a human rights matter as the rights of protestors.

The committee should emphasise that representative democracy is itself an important example of human rights at work and that much protest attempts to trump it.

The committee should encourage authorities to learn from their occasional heavy-handedness: it produces a potent dissident folklore which plays into the hands of protestors.

Non-Violent Direct Action (NVDA): A comforting fudge
The essence of any direct action is that it aims to force change rather than win arguments. Even NVDA assumes that mere demonstrations won’t cut it: civil disobedience or criminal acts are more effective. We need to consider whether each protest or direct action really has been necessitated by the failure of representative democracy. The further from peaceful, law-abiding protest an action is, the higher we need to set the bar of justification. Bearing witness is very different from bearing wire-cutters.

I have been reporting and commenting on all kinds of protest for around thirty years and have tended to concentrate on the abuse of human rights by a few extremist activists of one kind or another. But I have been equally concerned by the cultural damage done by the reluctance of authority to assert its rights over those of protestors.

There are two main reasons for my anxiety. The first is that the NVDA rubric has given a number of protestors too much freedom to cause serious disruption to democratically-legitimated research and commerce. The second is that the media and many campaigners believe that almost anything done in the name of NVDA is somehow superior to nearly anything done by the formal processes of representative democracy and its institutions. It is as though everything the protestors do is beatified by Ghandi and everything the politicians sanction is cursed with chicanery.

In discussions with audiences I have been very struck by the willingness of educated people, and especially sixth formers and university undergraduates, to believe that they are living in what they call a “police state”. Whilst this belief would be legitimate if it arose mostly from heavy-handed policing or legislation, it has in fact much more arisen from the rhetoric of civil liberties and other campaigners.

I am inclined to say that we live in one of the freest states in the world and that there is no sign of the legislature having allowed any serious change in that.

Whilst it is right to deploy the lightest effective touch with protest of any kind, it is fair to note that the “liberal elite” is too little inclined to understand protest from the point of view of its targets and victims.

In general it is fair to add that in the past few years the targets and victims of direct action have got a rather better hearing in the media, and often better protection and redress too. But there is plenty to worry about.

A protest spectrum: vociferous, vigorous, vicious and violent
Vociferous protest is the birthright of all democrats. At the other end of the scale, it is obvious that violent protest can very seldom be acceptable in democracies. However, the state and the media have had and still have great difficulty in handling protest I characterise as ranging from “vigorous” to “vicious”. By “vigorous” I mean activity which aims to force change by damaging (say) a research crop or a power station chimney. “Vigorous” action is normally directed at property, not persons, but that doesn’t make it acceptable. By “vicious” I mean protest which takes the form of covert activity against individuals and firms in private, often in the form of “home visits”, telephone calls and email and “slow” mail. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 has made it easier to characterise such activity as the menace it is, but perpetrators remain hard to catch.

Protest: recent UK and US history
In some evidence for a US Congressional inquiry 2002 I attempted a small history of protest and direct action in the UK and US, so I won’t repeat that here. (It is available online.)

For all sorts of reasons (including the fear of giving the activists the oxygen of publicity), the targets of much vicious and occasionally actually violent direct action often left the incidents unreported to police or media. Worse, for many years when incidents came to light the activists wrong-footed the legislators, courts and police.

Since 2002, we have seen much of the most vicious and violent protest curtailed by a mixture of fresh legislation, judicial action (especially injunctions in the High Court) and police effort. This has been achieved with very few instances of heavy-handedness. However, every incidence of excessive state force is regrettable in its own terms and because it gives ammunition to people who want an excuse to abuse the right to protest.

A modest proposal
The committee ought to advocate the production of an authoritative source of information on protest. The easiest way of publicising both the scale and nastiness of some activists and the (patchy) success of dealing with the perpetrators would be a government, police or judicial website which listed the outcomes of criminal and civil cases involving protest of every sort.

A less modest proposal
There is a wide and confusing rag-bag of Acts which affect the policing of protest. The Committee should review these and make an argument one way or the other for a thorough-going rationalisation. This review might usefully include consideration of the law of trespass and criminal damage as they apply to protest. (Legislative tidiness may not be justified by its demands on scarce parliamentary time.)

Protest, direct action and terrorism
In recent years the state has had to deal with Islamist extremism which goes way beyond the kind of protest – even vicious and violent direct action – we are discussing here. There is an important distinction between protest or direct action and terrorism. They are linked of course, but it is useful to note that terrorists are people who use violence of a quite different order to even the worst of the animal rights campaigners. I would resist characterising even the most violent US anti-abortion activists as terrorists. Terrorism is a word we ought to reserve for some kinds of insurgency, or guerrilla or asymmetrical warfare. Terrorism is usually distinguished by its being aimed at scaring the whole of society and often at provoking a disproportionate state response. Direct action, on the other hand, is usually aimed at stopping an activity or scaring target individuals or firms, though it often enjoys and seeks lapses from good behaviour by the state.

Theatricals, protest and direct action
“Direct action” and “protest” and “demonstration” are often used interchangeably. This is a dangerous habit because it allows what are essentially forceful protests to disguise themselves and be accorded the same respect as peaceable protest. Direct action is undertaken by protestors who aim to force change rather than to argue for it and whose exploits show a disregard at least for the convenience of fellow-citizens and often for the law. Of course, in the UK even people who break the law know they will be treated with consideration and considered gentleness. Thus, much direct action, and especially NVDA, is premised on being more theatrical than threatening.

Few people conducting direct actions with the ostensible aim of shutting down an operation actually believe they ever could. Indeed, such protest is often highly disingenuous: much direct action deliberately affects to be about forcing change when really it is about staging confrontations with the forces of law and order. Victory in such cases depends on provoking some hapless policeman to hit a protestor, on the principle that nothing is so radicalising as a truncheon.
Further protest types
If we take some examples we can see a spectrum of theatricality and threat.

(1) Protest and street theatre
Brian Haw’s protest outside the House of Common is a sort of street theatre, and has actually achieved the status of being treated as installation art by the capital’s leading gallery of our national art. Reluctantly, I accept that Mr Haw and his protest are very widely regarded as classic and valuable examples of several sorts of British untidiness.

In general, it is worth noting that recent legislation against protest near Parliament has attracted much opprobrium and the committee will need to judge whether its effectiveness justifies its unpopularity. [ ,  ]

(2) Potentially dangerous direct action stunts
Fathers4Justice has produced various stunts (hanging out on cranes, for instance) which disrupt local life and strain people’s patience whilst getting their attention. [ ] Much more problematically, F4J have “occupied” the roofs of the private houses of politicians, as have Greenpeace and others.[ ,  ,  ] This form of direct action is dangerous because it strains the ability of police and others to keep people and property safe. At some point, it is quite possible that a police marksman may misread such a protest and hurt or kill a protestor. In the meantime, it is reasonable to ask whether politicians should have to accept such invasion of their privacy, and the anxiety that such events may turn nasty.

(3) Invasions of Parliament
Plane Stupid, Greenpeace, pro-hunt campaigners and F4J have all “invaded” and “occupied” parts of Parliament. [ ,  ,  ,  ]  It is important to note that this is the very worst sort of protest. Parliament is the place where representative democracy conducts its business of reconciling the tense differences of opinion in the country. We should take no pleasure in its being the scene of loud protest by non-elected special and single interest campaigners.

The committee should risk boldly defending the needs of Parliament.

More urgently, we have to wonder whether it is a good or a bad thing that campaigners have breached Parliamentary security. On the one hand, they put themselves at risk of having their protest mis-read by anxious and armed police. On the other, it may be an advantage to have parliamentary security tested so thoroughly by benign activists, since the alternative may be much worse.

(4) Vociferous demonstration
In recent years, mass protest has been rare and relatively polite. Between their debut in 2000 and their demise in 2005, London’s “Seattle” style May Day anti-capitalist demonstrations received increasingly savvy policing. By 2005, the police had developed quite good strategies for marshalling them and were also better at explaining that (a) there were legal union-led demonstrations to attend and (b) that the more rebellious and dissident demonstrations were only illegal because their organisers refused to liaise with police. Large scale pro-hunting and anti-war demonstrations mostly went off in exemplary fashion.

However, we can wonder whether it was sensible to imprison loud-mouthed Islamist extremists for six years for even the most intemperate speech during a demonstration.

(5) Ecological direct action
“Green” activists pose a variety of difficulties. Their “vigorous” actions against genetically-modified trial crops have been successful in sowing real doubt that this new science can be commercially developed in the UK. [ ] A little differently, it is likely that the next few years will see a continuation of protest against various energy and transport facilities. If these develop along existing lines as “camps” and mass demonstrations, they should be fairly easy to police uncontroversially. It is quite possible that they will revert to older “Swampy” style occupations, which produce tense evictions but have in the past not much altered the timetable of developments or raised very serious civil liberty anxieties (though they were at least disrespectful of the pained democratic planning process). We have already seen Greenpeace successfully defend itself against charges of criminal damage against both GMO research crops and a power station on the grounds that it was preventing a greater damage.[ ,  ] This disingenuous and disgraceful defence has trumped the democratic legitimacy accorded these activities for years and after detailed and continuing political and technical debate.

The committee should consider the need for a legislative overhaul of this defence.

(6) Pacifist direct action
Juries have proved unwilling to convict campaigners against the arms trade or the military even when the formal legal case against them seems self-evident. [ ] These campaigns have taken many forms but seldom been as threatening or underhand as animal rights activism. The committee will doubtless hear evidence that policing of one Fairford demonstration was unduly heavy-handed. [ ]

(7) Animal rights direct action
The focus of much police and legal action, animal rights extremism remains a serious threat to its targets. The public has recently been gaining some understanding of the viciousness of much of this covert direct action. The protestors scored a spectacular own goal when they desecrated the graves of the family of a guinea pig farmer. [ ] All the same, this kind of protest is under-reported by its victims and its horrors are not usually obvious enough to attract the public sympathy they deserve. There have been many successes in dealing with this sort of protest, but it is inherently difficult to police.

We should, by the way, assume that enthusiasm for this sort of activism may well prove cyclical and its focus may well shift. The committee should encourage the authorities to develop strategies for dealing with it, and ensure that we develop a good “institutional memory” of what worked and what didn’t.

(8) “We know where you live” activism
It is important to note how much vicious protest can be highly disingenuous. Many targets and victims of vicious protest receive at their residential address a letter discussing the (anonymous) sender’s views about the morality of the recipient’s involvement with animals, the arms trade, or whatever. Sometimes the letter will affect to be offering a friendly warning and stress that “some people” might think that such behaviour puts the recipient beyond the moral pale and that “some people” might be enraged into violent action by such behaviour.  Often, these letters could have been sent to the recipient’s well-known work address. Sending them to a residential address is threatening in itself. It is the activist offering the timeless threat: “We know where you live”.

The committee should consider making it easier to obtain privacy for residential addresses.

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Publication date

09 November 2008