JCHR’s feeble report on policing protest

I know, I know, it’s the parliamentary committee on human rights. So it’s bound to fret about whether the police bend over backwards to safeguard protest. But even so, this new report does rather miss the point.

There’s a fair amount of sensible stuff in HL paper 47-11/HC 320-11(published today). The committee is right to tick the police off about occasional heavy-handedness (at, say, Fairford). It is right to think that a good deal of recent legislation (especially about protest round Parliament) seems heavy-handed. It is right to worry that the authorities risk muddling protest in with terrorism and use words like “extremism” where they are not appropriate.

However, the committee completely misses the point with a wide range of direct action protest.

Leave aside for the moment the committee’s not saying anything useful about mass protest which is designed to have a highly disruptive – even violent – edge. We’ll maybe see some of that this week at the G20 London meeting.

Even sticking to territory the committee seems more interested in, they fail. Non-violent direct action groups like Plane Stupid and Greenpeace and others play duck and drakes with authority as they plot and act to physically interrupt normal working at airports and power plants and so on. It’s fine for the committee to call for more dialogue and more human rights awareness from the police. At the end of the day, however, many protestors’ entire purpose is to produce big effective stunts, and someone has to stop them. The police can’t look pretty as they do this work, and the protestors hold all the cards. (I can’t see that the committee’s Northern Ireland comparison is a good one, though lessons are welcome from anywhere.)

My own irritation with many modern protestors is that they are so disingenuous and play the rest of us for such fools. Of course the committee is right to say that they have a powerful right to be heard. But they have a very much weaker right – often none at all – to interrupt the normal business of a highly democratic society.

I think it is fair to say that the committee completely misses this sort of point.

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Publication date

23 March 2009