Activists battle police over right to protest

Sarah Morrison,Jerome Taylor
Tuesday 10 May 2011 00:00

Anti-cuts campaigners are calling for an end to "political policing" as they launch a new movement backed by MPs, artists and activists to defend the rights of peaceful demonstrators across Britain.

Defend the Right to Protest, an organisation founded to support students and activists arrested in recent rallies against the government, say police must be challenged over their role in what they are calling "increasingly serious attacks on the right to protest in the UK".

Anger from protest groups against policing tactics was already running high following last year's student demonstrations and the arrests after UK Uncut's occupation of Fortnum and Mason. But tensions have been increased by a string of pre-emptive arrests on the eve of the royal wedding.

"In the past few months the police have been at the forefront of a campaign to criminalise and intimidate protesters," said Hannah Dee, from Defend the Right to Protest. "The police should be facilitating peaceful protest, not preventing it."

The coalition held a rally outside Westminster Magistrates' Court yesterday to show support for the 138 members of UK Uncut who face charges of aggravated trespass after occupying Fortnum & Mason on 26 March. The group, which is planning a further demonstration against Scotland Yard, has received support from MPs such as John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, trade unions and public figures, including Ken Loach, Irvine Welsh, Judith Butler and Billy Bragg.

Many of those who attended yesterday's rally expressed particular concern about the arrests around the royal wedding. A total of 55 people were arrested on the day of the wedding and nearly 25 people were arrested before most planned demonstrations had even taken place. The majority were either detained on conspiracy to cause a public nuisance, or were held under Section 60 stop-and-search rules on the day itself. Almost all of them were released without charge once the events drew to a close.

Hannah Eiseman-Renyard, 25, from north London, went to Soho on the day of the royal wedding, dressed up as a zombie bride. She was talking to four friends when she was approached by more than a dozen officers and arrested for suspected breach of the peace.

"I was wearing a bridesmaid dress, and used lipstick to look like blood – I didn't even think I was dissenting," she said. "I think it was part of a PR exercise by the police who are trying to criminalise protest."

A spokesman for Scotland Yard said: "We support the public's democratic right to peaceful protest. However, officers reserve the right to take appropriate action where there is a real perceived threat of public disorder taking place."

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