The muddle over protest: lessons from G20

The recent G20 meeting went off without much fuss and with about the right approach to protest. But we need to be much more explicit about the rights of protestors and the police.

Much of the discussion about the G20 protest seems to have missed the point. But then the authorities don’t really help much. The police were accused of playing a PR game with dire warnings about protest ahead of events. But the warnings were probably justified and maybe played their part in reducing the numbers of “innocent” protestors who would have indeed made the situation harder for the police and easier for violent chaos merchants. After all, the “innocent” “non-violent direct action” protestors are playing a very silly game.

The police and the London authorities ought to say that it is important that protestors be given a huge and convenient opportunity to make their arguments and have lavatories and hotdogs. That is what happened on 28 March when to a large degree London was given over to them.

It ought to be equally clear – and clearly stated – that during the course of the big event (G20, whatever) some much smaller facilities will be available to have focussed protest near to the venue.

But it ought to be clearly stated that there will be no tolerance for disruptive protest.

In effect, the authorities ought to be saying that the quid qo pro for a very willing acceptance that protest must be facilitated is that disruptive protest – non-violent or not – will be treated as plainly illegal.

Protestors will hate this. The media will take a lot or persuading. Even the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights might balk at it. But it is a very reasonable proposition.

At the moment, we have an awkward in-between situation in which some protest groups insist on their right to stage “peaceful direct action” wherever and whenever they like (in the recent case, in Bishopsgate). These “peaceful” groups then become cover for the more chaotic elements.

In effect, we should be saying that disruption of the ordinary tenor of life is not a right and will incur legal penalty. After all, disruption is an unproductive bore at the best of times, but when a city is playing host to dozens of world leaders it becomes a clear nightmare.

Anyone claiming to be thoughtful, constructive and democratic should want to be helping rather than hindering the emergence of a world order in which countries talk to each other. They should hate the thought that anything they do means that hordes of police have to stomp around looking fascistic. They should see that the affectation of forcing rather arguing for change is absurd and illiberal. They should be appalled that their “peaceful non-violent direct action” becomes easy cover for violence”.

Oh, and I almost forgot. If the police were heavy-handed with the climate camp in the City streets once the media’s back was turned, then they are were nearly as silly as climate campers.

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Publication date

06 April 2009