Metro: Don't forget your chains: Non-violent direct action is the way to fight the Criminal Justice Bill, says Freedom Network. E Jane Dickson reports

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The Independent Culture
'CERTAIN far-left groups attract extremists, who can only explain their anger through violent confrontation' says Camilla Berens, founder member of Freedom Network, a national apolitical organisation mobilised against the Criminal Justice Bill.

'On last Sunday's march, the vast majority of people had come to make their point peacefully, and it has to be said that the police over-reacted in a disgraceful manner. But there will always be a minority of hard-boiled idiots who spend their time trying to make as much trouble as possible; perhaps these people have never been shown an alternative to violent action. We're trying to show that non-violent direct action is a positive response to a government that has finally lost the plot.'

The Network now has 50 offices in cities from Plymouth to Aberdeen. It was set up in January to address the effects on the individual of Michael Howard's Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill.

In June, members of Freedom Network chained themselves to railings at Parliament a la Emmeline Pankhurst, a pointed allusion to Section 5 of the Bill which 'threatens to criminalise peaceful political protest'.

When the leader of the militant suffragettes Pankhurst made her stand, the last thing she had to worry about was the cost of chains. The cost of peaceful protest has, however, risen sharply since then. The re-useable D-lock (a semi- rigid, plastic-covered bicycle lock) is now the favoured tool of protesters.

'D-locks are the modern weapon,'says Ms Berens, who was among those in the Parliament protest. 'They fit very snugly around the neck and are very hard to cut through, but they're expensive. When the police arrived with hydraulic clippers, we had one symbolic cutting and the rest of us saved our locks for the next time.'

Other Freedom Network 'stunts' have included Operation RIP, a funeral procession from Parliament Square to Downing Street, mourning the proposed loss of the right to silence, and the staging of a 'trial' in a disused court house in Brighton, in which the government stood accused of 'trying to pervert the course of democracy'. Simon Hughes, MP (Lib Dem), was chief witness for the prosecution and the recorded verdict was Very Guilty Indeed.

Berens, 28, is a striking, passionate, though softly spoken, figure somewhere between the Irish Nationalist activist Maud Gonne and Vanessa Redgrave. She believes that the young people of Britain are finally waking from the torpid political apathy of the past decade. 'The generation coming up now has realised that democracy isn't enough,' she says. 'This is the 1990s and we're in serious shit. Conventional channels of democratic dissent are nothing more than a stonewall. Non-violent direct action was the only way we could address the issues of the Bill and get our voices heard. Freedom Network isn't about dogma, it's about deeds.'

The Network, which has made its headquarters in the CoolTan Arts Centre in Brixton, is an assimilation of single-issue protest groups, from the anti-road movement to campaigners for squatters' and travellers' rights to warriors in 'the fight for the right to party' - festivals and unlicensed raves stand to be criminalised under the Bill with a maximum penalty of three months' imprisonment or a pounds 2,500 fine for disobeying police orders.

'We're not just about alternative culture,' says Ms Berens. 'The Bill will affect everyone. Everyone has the right to free speech and free movement.'

The Network has attracted the support of celebrities, including ex-squatters Sting, Bob Geldof and Mark Knopfler - although Richard Branson, Britain's most famous ex-squatter has yet to pledge solidarity - and legal notables, including the Queen's Counsels Michael Mansfield and Helena Kennedy. It could do, however, with the services of a good sloganeer. Somehow 'There's no justice. Just us' is less than inspirational.

Freedom Network: 071-738 6721

(Photographs omitted)