10 protest bullet points

A Radio 4 show is interviewing me about modern protest, not least because the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights is nearing the end of its inquiry into policing and protest.

I contributed written evidence to the committee, and also contributed some memos following my rather faltering oral evidence.

Here are the top ten things I ought to say on radio (not in order of priority):

(1) Protest doesn’t change policy
Sometimes (say Chartism or the Suffragettes) demonstrations and direct action are in tune with underlying politcal and economic forces: then it can look as though protest “worked”. But it’s mostly an illusion. In the cases of roads, airports, CND, Stop the War – you name them – activist protest more obviously had little effect on policy. (Drop the Debt may be an exception.)

(2) Even big demos aren’t a problem
Well-organised demonstrations (liaised with the police) – however large – are usually uncontroversial and vent a lot of public ire.

(3) Protest doesn’t help democracy
Almost all “direct action” – including non-violent direct action, NVDA – is neither effective nor valuable to a democracy. It almost always involves inconvenience or cost (or worst) but is not a serious contributor to policy debates.

(4) Westminster is special
There is nothing wrong with the premise of SOCPA that within a kilometre of Parliament all protest events should seek police permission. Such a rule is not repressive unless it is interpreted badly.

(5) The police are sometimes clumsy
Where police behave oppresssively against protest, they should be challenged and explain themselves.

(6) Most illegal direct action should be more severely punished
Civil disobedience activists want seem courageous and feisty. A little gaol time might deter the theatricals and chasten the threatening. (If we ended up having to gaol lots of lippy students, we’d need to lighten the punishments, of course.)

(7) Scrap “lawful excuse”
It ridiculous that protestors’ criminal damage and criminal trespass can be defended in court on the basis of “lawful excuse”. That was designed for quite different work.

(8) Direct action is illiberal
It is not “liberal” to defend direct action. It is “illiberal” to use protest to trump parliamentary democracy.

(9) Protestors are seldom extremists
It is important that authorities keep their categories in order: very little direct action is done by “extremists”. Messing this up makes unnecessary enemies.

(10) The right to protest is extremely important, even if it is mostly ineffectual.

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Publication date

18 January 2009