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RDN Home / Journalism / Power / Protesting at protest
Testimony of Richard D North
Media Fellow, The Institute of Economic Affairs, London
Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health
Committee on Resources
United States House of Representatives

February 8, 2002

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Subcommittee, my name is Richard D North. I am the media fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs, a free-market think tank based in London, England. I have for 20 years written articles in the broadsheet press and several books which have touched on protestors and their causes. Thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony.

In hopes of being as useful and accurate as possible, I intend to publish a fully annotated version of this evidence at This account is based on personal experience and reliable sources. Any errors, for which I apologise in advance, will be corrected there.

I am grateful for the chance to put a UK perspective on the important issue of protest. The US and the UK share many aspects of protest. On both sides of the Atlantic, protestors' aims and methods have similarities, and the internet ensures they know about and learn from each other. Many of the targets are firms with multinational interests, and some of the protestors are multinational too. The authorities on both sides of the Atlantic struggle to maintain the competing rights of protestors and their targets.

The UK has a particular recent history of illegitimate protest, which I shall outline. Its parliament, legal system and police have developed particular responses, which I shall sketch out.

Vociferous, vigorous, violent or vicious? Different forms of protest
Non-violent protest is a manifestation of free speech and assembly, and as such it is jealously defended and generously safeguarded in the UK. It is widely if warily admired, even when it is vigorous.

The core problem in the UK has been to delineate between vigorous protest and what might best be called vicious protest. Some illegal protest uses force but not in a vicious way: it involves trespass, for instance, and sometimes actual damage, but not in a way intended to induce fear. Meanwhile, there is protest which does not use actual force of any kind, but which is designed to induce fear. I use the term 'vicious protest' to convey all the protest which seeks to induce fear by force or the threat of force.

The difficulty in the UK has been to explain to the media and public that very little, and perhaps no, illegal protest can be justified. It is especially likely to be without justification in countries where there are plenty of outlets for vociferous protest, and for other forms of expression, pressure and politicking. Besides, some of the fiercest protestors have no interest in being popular or legal: some of the most passionate are in the 'antinomian' dissident tradition, familiar from the 17th century in the UK and the US, of believing that the justice of their cause over-rules the claims of all civil authority and ethics. Others are simply addicted to violence.

Amongst all the forms of illegal protest, vicious protest – however it induces fear – especially deserves to be called wicked.

The UK's particular history of protest
The UK's recent history of protest has been a little different to that of the US. In the UK, mining and forestry have produced campaigns which are mostly vociferous rather than violent. Nor do we have an equivalent of the US 'anti-Federalist' movement. We do however have a strong 'peace' movement.

Environmental protest
We do of course have a wide range of environmentalists and conservationists, and some of these believe in 'direct action', which at its mildest includes street theatre and heckling corporate chiefs at AGMs. Tougher manifestations have included various occupations of smokestacks, offices and even the famous 'Brent Spar' incident in 1995 during which Greenpeace members occupied a huge floating oil facility belonging to the Anglo-Dutch oil company, Shell. (They objected to its being dumped in the deep north-east Atlantic at a cost of about £20m, as had been approved as ecologically and economically sound by regulators, and succeeded in requiring the company to 'recycle' the structure at a cost of an additional £40m.) This sort of action may be reprehensible and may require a response involving the use of force, but it does not constitute vicious protest.

The UK does, however, have a loose movement of 'new age travellers', who are 'grunge' drop-outs, living in camps and in convoys of vehicles. They number a few thousand and have an element which protests, and sometimes does so by 'direct action'. There have been various 'occupations' of land to try to stop the development of airport runways (in Manchester, recently, for instance), various new roads (at Twyford Down, near Winchester, at Newbury in Berkshire, and at the east end of London, all in the 90s, for instance). These occupations were time-consuming and expensive for the firms and authorities involved, but produced stand-offs and confrontations which were usually more theatrical than seriously menacing. Indeed the protestors were seen to be putting themselves at risk by burying themselves in tunnels, or perching in trees: to that extent, they were menaced rather than menacing. They have infuriated those people who believe that a very full democratic process has at every stage endorsed these proposed developments and who regard the protests as grandstanding. The authorities and commentators have often been surprised by the extent to which some respectable middle class and middle aged people neighbouring the sites have almost hero-worshipped the mostly young protestors. However, some of that protest has involved a good deal of criminal damage and allegations of criminal damage. There have been relatively few prosecutions of such protestors.

Peace protests
There have been cases of 'peace' campaigners occupying Ministry of Defence land and in Scotland especially campaigns against British nuclear submarines have been persistent. They have frequently engaged in 'direct action' involving criminal damage such as token damage of submarines, and of aircraft destined for sale under UK government licence to foreign governments deemed illegitimately violent by the protestors. These have often resulted in short prison sentences, but have as often resulted in acquittals by juries which have seemed reluctant to criminalise these protests.

Anti GMO protest
Some 'New Age' protestors and others in the last two or three years have acted against the field-scale test-planting of genetically-modified crops in advance of government approval for commercial planting. These have produced a few confrontations between the farmers and the protestors, and at least one single woman farmer in Scotland has claimed that she did indeed feel threatened by the 'invasions' and threats of invasion of her fields.

Because these actions – usually called crop-trashings – involve actual destruction of valuable property and the disruption of democratically-endorsed official trials, they have seemed to the public at large to be rather more serious, even though many share the protestors' doubts about GMO technology. Even so, whilst some protestors have been deterred by civil injunctions against their activities, others have proceeded. In October 2001, the High Court quashed a conviction of anti-GMO protestors on charges of aggravated trespass under the controversial Public Order Act of 1994, on the grounds that there was no one else in the fields they were trashing.

In a famous case in 2000, 27 Greenpeace protestors, led by Peter Melchett (a hereditary peer of the realm), the then UK executive director of Greenpeace UK, were acquitted following a trashing in July 1999 of a GM trial crop in Norfolk, the county where Lord Melchett farms. They claimed that their actions were legitimised by a clause in the Criminal Damage Act of 1971 which allows that damage perpetrated in the serious belief that it was necessary to avert damage to oneself or someone else is legitimate. The jury accepted this case, to the surprise of many observers.

Animal rights protest
By far the most persistently threatening and occasionally violent protest has happened around animal rights protest, and especially involving

1) The use of animals in research for scientific, medical and product research

2) Fur farming and retailing

3) Hunting with dogs

4) Live export of farm animals

5) Other cases

1) The use of animals in research for scientific, medical and product research
Various groups have campaigned against 'vivisection' for well over a hundred years, and several continue to do so today. This protest has always been passionate, and it has contributed to some major acts of Parliament – the Cruelty to Animals Act, 1876 and the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, 1986 particularly - to intensify the regime under which research is monitored and controlled. In the 1970s, 80s and 90s there were increasing numbers of incidents, with some protests numbering over 5,000 people. In some, a minority of research scientists were persistently targeted, with occasional incidents of fire damage to cars, paint daubings of cars and homes, and the occasional letter, nail and car bomb. Some of this activity has been extraordinarily persistent, going on year in and year out. One activist was prohibited in February 2000 from further activity around the home of an Oxford University academic who has been targetted for several years. A handful of protestors have been convicted for theft, criminal damage, conspiracy to arson or actual arson, and one very recently died in prison, following a hunger strike during his 18 year sentence. His 'martyrdom' has doubtless fuelled the movement's sense of righteousness.

In the past few years there have been sustained protests against cat, dog and rabbit farms where animals were bred for research purposes. In one case, the target was a farm which housed imported monkeys prior to their use in research. All these farms were regulated, all were providing animals for research required for legally-mandated or authorised research. Most of the sites were the scene of regular mass protests during which workers were shouted at, and worse. In most cases, the owners also received threatening letters and phone calls and in one case in 1999 an owner's wife was waylaid during a country walk, verbally abused, and left shackled (until she freed herself after a few minutes) to a fence. All the farms ceased operation.

Most firms which undertake contract research work on animals have been subject to occasional mass protest, but in the case of one, Huntingdon Life Sciences, the protests have been extraordinarily sustained, very large-scale, threatening, violent, strategically clever, and in part successful.

In March 1997, Channel 4 (a commercial national TV station) broadcast the results of undercover filming at HLS which showed poor animal management at the firm. The firm insisted that this was an isolated case, and took disciplinary action, but has faced sustained protest ever since. New management has taken over. In any case, all HLS's activities have always been subject to regulation. This has not deterred the protestors from mass pickets of the main entrance and a range of other activities including threatening staff at their homes by phone, in person and through the mail, damage to the private vehicles of staff at their homes. In one case, the firm's managing director was hit about the head by man wielding a baseball bat. There have been few prosecutions for any of these actions, though in November 2001, three activists were gaoled for a year (half of the term suspended) for conspiracy to incite a public nuisance (they had persistently produced newsletters encouraging their subscribers to target HLS and its supporters by telephone and mail).

The HLS management has remained resolute in the face of all this hostility. Perhaps because of this, protest was widened to include shareholders, and to any financial institution doing business with HLS. Some of the firm's original banks and market-makers gave into the resulting pressure, though one or two were exceptionally bold in sticking with the firm. In the end, the Bank of England (the UK's central bank) offered to run a checking account for the firm, whilst several other financial functions and shareholding functions were switched to US investors, who have since faced protests in their turn, including at their London offices. Any firm known to use HLS for the testing of products (as the law requires) receives attentions, both in public and private, from protestors: these currently include the oil and chemicals giant, Shell.

2) Fur Farming and retailing
The wearing of fur has been seriously controversial in the UK for at least 20 years, and for as long has been the object of protest, some of it violent. The Animal Liberation Front (founded from other groups in 1976) has been particularly active against the small fur-farming sector (around a dozen farms in the 1990s), with regular trespasses which have occasionally resulted in vivid film of distressed animals. These were presented as evidence of bad management though in fact they may well have been evidence of how distressing sudden farm invasions and the attendant noise can be to animals more used to the problem of tedium than excitement. In one instance, undercover filming produced evidence of bad management on a farm not typical of the industry. It led to a successful prosecution of a farm worker. During 1999 and 2000 there were isolated cases of the ALF releasing animals from mink farms, leading to distressed animals and some fatalities.

Prior to the 1997 election, the New Labour opposition received £1m in funding from an animal rights umbrella group and included a promise to ban fur farming should it be returned to power, which it was. In 1999, the Queen's speech announced that the government would introduce a ban on fur farming (the announcement being made by Her Majesty wearing a flowing white fox stole as she sat on her ceremonial throne in the House of Lords).

In 2001, Calman Links, the furrier 'by Royal Appointment' supplier of furs to her Majesty, and also to many of the peers of the realm whose official robes they looked after, was closed. Its shop in Knightsbridge had been the target of mostly small but occasionally very large pickets by protestors. The staff and directors had been routinely intimidated at home. The closure was one of a series which had seen, in the 1980s, Harrods close its in-store furriers, and, during the 90s, several other West End fur businesses close.

At the present time, there are many stores in the centre of London which stock furs and fur-trimmed garments, but in most cases these are a 'back-of-the-store', or an incidental, operation, which attract some protest, but not the full-scale protest which is reserved for the city's sole fully-fledged, high-profile furrier, Philip Hockley, of Conduit Street.

This case is noteworthy because it involves a shop which is owned by a firm whose directors include the chairman of the British Fur Trade Association, an individual who has attracted the wrath of protestors both at home and at his store. Persistent picketing at the shop and occasional 'home visits' led the owner to deploy a relatively new piece of legislation, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which allows a court to impose an injunction which defines an 'exclusion' zone within which named and unnamed protestors (where they could be presumed to know about the injunction) are not allowed, even if they claim not to be protesting. The act requires that the 'victim' has to prove that there have been acts of a harassing kind and that there are people willing to testify that they have been so harassed. When protestors challenged the original injunction in the High Court in late 2001, it was not only upheld, but their victims were allowed to give their evidence under pseudonyms. The victims' real names, and their addresses, have been lodged with the court, but not publicly revealed. The courts seems to have accepted that in such cases it was hardly sensible that victims of harassment who had hitherto been anonymous should have been forced to make the work of vicious protestors all the easier when the case comes to court.

The Hockley case is important because it is an early example of the use of a law which in principle it makes it far easier to secure the places of work and the homes of the targets of most public protest and even some covert protest. The Harassment Act was needed because traditional offences such as breach of the peace and obstruction of the highway had often proved inadequate, mostly because protestors could strategically adjust their behaviour so as to maximise their inconvenience to customers and staff, or other targets, without clearly infringing the law. Parliament has recently introduced the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 which, in part, forbids protestors to take their activities to the homes of individuals, but its working may be no less fraught than the traditional laws have already proved.

The present situation is that fur is increasingly fashionable and that many people, including men, now wear it, especially in the form of more or less ostentatious linings and as trims to, especially, the collar, cuffs and hoods of outer garments. There is no sign that the minority of the public who find the habit offensive are diminishing in their hatred of fur; but there are signs that those who want to wear fur are becoming bolder in asserting their right to. There is, by the way, little or no evidence that anyone in Britain was ever sprayed with paint whilst wearing fur, though many believe that such incidents did happen in the 80s. Urban myth-making seems to have been at work here. There is good evidence of people being frightened out of wearing fur but little of the protestors' arguments having changed people's minds on the matter.

3) Hunting with dogs
Hunting deer, hare and foxes with dogs (usually called hounds) and horse-mounted riders has been part of British country life for centuries, but became pursuits of the 'ordinary' farmer and anyone who could afford a mount or to follow the activities on foot in the 19th century. During the 20th century it became almost a mass rural pursuit, especially with the advent of the car, which allowed very many people to become involved. The activity has been especially controversial in the 1970s, 80s and the 90s. 'Hunt Saboteurs', mostly young urban protestors, became very skilled in disrupting hunts, and there have been many examples of violence on both sides during heated confrontations, often far from the gaze of over-stretched rural police forces in the deep countryside. More recently, in 2001 there were some cases of more direct intimidation of hunt staff and hunt supporters, including some mobbing of people's homes, with fire damage to cars belonging to them. There are reports that hunts have been stopped from starting their 'meets' at some public houses, as had been traditional.

4) Live export of farm animals
During the late 1990s, there were sustained protestors against the export from the UK to continental Europe of live animals, especially young calves destined for the production of veal (milk-fed calf meat) in crated production systems prohibited in the UK, and also sheep, some of which were destined for consumption in the far south of Europe and occasionally for Hal-al slaughter (that is, slaughter without prior stunning) for consumption by Muslims. These protests were mainly at ports, and became very heated, with one woman dying when she was run over by a lorry whose progress she was attempting to halt. These protests also spilled over to the homes of lorry operators and exporters, and these were occasionally very menacing.

5) Other cases
There has been disruption of fishing matches and the full range of intimidatory tactics against proponents of angling, and letter bombs delivered to fish and chip shops (as familiar as doughnut and coffee bars in the US, these provide a take-out dish which is very traditional in the UK).

Some features of animal rights protest

1) The people and organisations involved
The animal rights 'movement' is a complicated phenomenon, not least because the range of its support runs from members of the very public Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (founded in 1824) through to the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and many other groups whose membership is shadowy and organised on the 'cell' principle by which small numbers of committed people join to share an acronym (ALF, or whatever) but who do not know the members of other similar cells. Anyone can claim to be ALF. As one of its founders has said: 'The ALF is not an organisation, it is a state of mind'. Very many of these groups have spokespeople and even hold meetings which are more or less public, but it is clear that they also have deliberations and organisation which the outside world could never see.

2) The 'not condoning, but understanding' and 'moral outlaw' arguments
The public spokesmen of even the most extreme groups never say that they condone or conduct violent acts. Instead they tend to use a formula such as: 'I would not condone violence, but I do understand how strongly people feel that there is animal abuse about which the politicians will never do anything, and if this anger results in violence, then it's hardly surprising'.

It is sometimes said by protestors that people who abuse animals put themselves outside the normal moral sphere: almost anything which happens to them can be justified by the suffering they have inflicted on animals.

3) The 'We know where you live' tactic
It is regularly stated by protestors that it is important to take the campaign to the home addresses of staff, directors and customers of businesses of which they disapprove. By doing so an 'innocent' message is made menacing. To receive an anonymous letter requesting that one consider the morality of one's business activities may be a mild enough matter when it is received at one's business address; it is quite another when it is addressed, quite unnecessarily, to one's home. Protestors are wickedly disingenuous when they pretend not to spot the difference.

Many protest groups, some of them almost certainly with links to violent protestors, freely use and publish in newsletters and websites language intended to incite violence, and often publish the home addresses of anyone of whom they disapprove. They do so with apparent impunity.

4) The well-advised protestor
Protestors are adept at presenting themselves to police and courts as innocent and ignorant. In fact, many are canny, devious and well-advised for free by lawyers specialising in what they see as civil liberties issues and often motivated by agendas shared with protestors.

5) The law as an economic weapon
It has been little noticed that unemployed protestors representing themselves in court, and too poor to pay costs, can often involve firms and authorities in big legal and other costs at no cost to themselves. Masquerading as pursuing civil liberties, protestors have admitted in their newsletters to using these tactics as an economic rather than a purely legal weapon.

Legal responses to protest
As mentioned earlier, police forces have had some difficulty deploying traditional law against threatening protestors. Public order offences are notoriously hard to prove, especially when the activity falls short of actual violence, or when even large numbers of people gather in a way which does not perhaps actually obstruct the passage of customers into, say, a shop, but whose presence deters anyone even trying. As seen, the Harassment Act has helped in those cases.

It is much harder to deter the menacing use of telephone or mail by anonymous activists, though in one case in 2001 several people were convicted for a mass mailing campaign against supporters of HLS.

In very recent years, the Home Office (the Government department which roughly speaking corresponds with the 'Ministry of the Interior' of other countries) has framed and Parliament has introduced laws which make it an offence to protest outside people's private homes (as already noted), and there have been moves to make it easier for directors and shareholders of controversial companies to obtain a degree of anonymity. Parliament has introduced the Terrorism Act 2000 which classifies animal rights and other forms of violent protest as terrorist activity (and limits the rights of people suspected and charged with offences) when it involves terrorist methods, such as bomb-making. But such moves routinely incur the suspicion of civil liberties groups and the media and will be used by the police only with great circumspection.

Larger scale, anti-capitalist, protest
The recent history of events at Seattle, Prague, and Genoa have shown how great the problem of large set-piece protests can be. On the one hand, a generation of politicians now in office can remember, sometimes with nostalgia, the protesting activity of their own youth. On the other, events in London in recent years have seemed to many to be wholly unacceptable. In May 2000 there was wide-scale disruption, in effect a riot, in central London to mark what has become a traditional May Day anti-capitalist protest, and it led to over a hundred arrests and 55 convictions for violent disorder, threatening behaviour, affray and other offences. In May 2001 the city was better prepared and there were fewer incidents of violence, but only at the expense of a large police operation which corralled some potentially violent and many more probably more or less non-violent protestors for several hours in a large road intersection, Oxford Circus, in the centre of London's West End. The strategy was hailed as successful because it 'took out' some potentially violent protestors, unfortunately along with many 'innocent' protestors, whilst allowing the police to concentrate on the remaining activists, who were loose on the streets and more or less self-defining as mischievous.

It is important to note that in 2001 the police were more successful in explaining prior to this sort of protest that people should not join in for a reason which had previously not been made clear. Most large scale protest passes off more or less without incident because its organisers consult with the police as to routes, marshalling, etc. The May Day and other anti-capitalist events are run by a hard core of people who refuse to consult and it is important that well-intentioned should be aware of that, and stay away. They may need to develop new avenues of protest which keep them clear of the hard core and aggressive police action.

These events had followed the 'Poll Tax' riots of the late 1980s, which had similarly disrupted central London and which seemed to attract very much the same leftist, anarchic, 'grunge' dissidents and a much wider fringe of more or less dissident or by-standing students and other young people. The core of these anti-capitalist protestors are organised, multinational, free-wheeling, committed, intelligent. Amongst the core, who promote wide spread civil disobedience and public manifestations, there is clearly a smaller, more sinister tendency who deploy menaces of the more insidious, covert kind.

The politics of protestors
Most protestors have fairly limited core issues about which they are passionate. Few are political revolutionaries or even leftists of the kind with which Western history is familiar. The environmental, conservation, animal rights and anti-capitalist protestors are not the same people, though many individuals may adopt causes outside their main concern. The most violent of the protestors seem to despise the more moderate protestors, though the moderate tend, often unconsciously, to provide cover – both actual and political – for the more violent.

In general, the most visible protest – even when it involves large numbers of people – is fairly manageable, albeit at a cost in damage to property and disruption and sometimes actual danger to the public. It is the menacing, covert activities of the most vicious protestors which are the hardest to address, even when the nature of their offences is well understood and framed in law. Such crimes are hard to investigate, and the perpetrators too wily and committed to be easy to deter.

The future of protest
It is widely believed by the UK authorities that electronic data systems – the web, email – will provide attractive targets for protestors seeking to disrupt their opponents.

The police and protest
The British police at the highest level believe that it is important not to be heavy handed against protest. They believe there is widespread sympathy for many of the causes which have attracted some violent support. Many senior police believe that it is important to tolerate as much protest activity is as possible, consistent with resisting the worst kind of behaviour. What is more, they believe that the forces of authority can only succeed if they are sometimes seen to fail: that is to say, in a street protest, the 'mob' must sometimes be allowed to win, because it is better that TV news viewers see the police as victims who sometimes take setbacks, rather than as hard-ball aggressors who succeed by being heavy-handed.

One difficulty the police have faced is the acquittal of large numbers of protestors arrested in good faith and on pretty good evidence. Usually, as remarked, the grey areas of criminal law have allowed protestors successfully to plead innocence and police over-reaction. The resulting damages paid to protestors by police forces have been expensive and embarrassing. Until recently, police have felt that politicians did not support them in general in their handling of protestors, and that losing cases played into the hands of those amongst politicians who were sceptical of their behaviour.

Protest and politicians
As remarked, New Labour came to power having given various commitments, some of them in their manifesto, about reform of legislation with a bearing on animals. Committed to allowing a free vote on hunting, for instance, they have since found that though a majority of Members of Parliament would probably prefer to vote for a ban, there has been a surprising resistance to the idea from both hunting people and – what was not expected – people roused to defend hunting on libertarian grounds. There has also been a backlash against the intimidatory habits of some protestors.

Similarly, it may have surprised New Labour ministers and parliamentarians the degree to which illegal activity on the part of protestors against GMOs and fur has proved unpopular with the public.

However, the biggest shock to New Labour in government has come from the HLS case. When this first arose, the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, seemed sympathetic to the outcry evidence of poor management by HLS provoked, and certainly did not rush to defend the company. Arguably, at first he added to their problems. The realisation that HLS' activities were required by Parliament, and that many major and profitable British and multinational firms fulfilled their legal obligations by contracts with HLS, seems to have jolted ministers into an understanding that if this firm did not exist, government would probably have to invent it.

Besides, as news of the levels of intimidation employed against HLS staff and others filtered through, ministers must have realised that the public was even more shocked by the abuse of humans, which was deliberate and large-scale, than they had been by evidence of abuse of animals at HLS, which appears to have been rare and was punished.

Protest and the media
The UK media prides itself on the robustness of its defence of free speech and has tended to believe protest represents democracy in action. It has preferred to overlook or gloss over much violent protest, and especially intimidation in private, where the word of the protestors tended to be heard, whilst the victims' was not.

This has quite dramatically changed in the last year or so, and many papers such as the Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Times have covered these issues with far greater seriousness. Several commentators on what might be called the left have also been much more forthcoming in defending the rights of inquiry represented by animal research, and the rights of tradition or even fashionable whim represented by hunting and the fur-trade.

There is a long tradition of vigorous and vicious protest on many issues in the UK and it has not allways been well handled by the media, politicians or the courts. Recent excesses by the protestors have produced a backlash which will quite likely strengthen the hand of the victims against their aggressors. However, there is no sign that this changed atmosphere will do anything to weaken the resolve of those determined to impose their will on society without recourse to the ballot box.

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