Johann Hari: Your right to protest is under threat

Friends have started to say something they have never said before: I'm too frightened to protest

Friday 17 December 2010 13:55 GMT

So now we know. When our politicians complained over the past few decades, in a low, sad tone, that our young people were “too apathetic” and “disengaged”, it was a lie. A great flaring re-engagement of the young has take place this year. With overwhelmingly peaceful tactics, they are demanding policies that are supported by the majority of the British people – and our rulers are trying to truncheon, kettle and intimidate them back into apathy.

Here’s one example of the intimidation of peaceful protest by the young that is happening all over Britain. Nicky Wishart is a 12-year-old self-described “maths geek” who lives in the heart of David Cameron’s constituency. He was gutted when he found out his youth club was being shut down as part of the cuts: there’s nowhere else to hang out in his village. He was particularly outraged when he discovered online that Cameron had said, before the election, that he was “committed” to keeping youth clubs open. So he did the right thing. He organized a totally peaceful protest on Facebook outside Cameron’s constituency surgery. A few days later, the police arrived at his school. They hauled him out of his lessons, told him the anti-terrorism squad was monitoring him and threatened him with arrest.

The message to Nicky Wishart and his generation is very clear: don’t get any fancy ideas about being an engaged citizen. Go back to your X-Box and X-Factor, and leave politics to the millionaires in charge.

This slow constriction of the right to protest has been happening for decades now. Under New Labour, protesters outside parliament started to have to ask permission and suddenly found themselves prosecuted for “anti-social behaviour.” In 2009, a man who had committed no violence or threats at all died after being attacked by a police officer on the streets of London at a protest - and nobody has ever been punished. Now the Metropolitan Police’s instinctive response to any group of protesters is to surround them and ‘kettle’ – that is, arbitrarily imprison – them for up to ten hours in the freezing cold, with no food, water, or toilets. It doesn’t matter how peaceful you were. You are trapped.

In the past few weeks police officers have been caught responding to a disabled young man with cerebral palsy – who was protesting because his 16 year old brother is now too scared of debt to go to university – by hauling him out of his wheelchair and throwing him to the ground. They even tried to block a severely injured protester in need of brain surgery from being treated at the nearest hospital, on the grounds that police officers were being treated there too and it was ‘upsetting’ to have injured protesters in the same place. Now Sir Paul Stephenson, head of the Met, says a total ban on protests by students is “one of the tactics we will look at.”

These protesters are not defying the will of the British people; they are expressing it. Look at their two great causes: opposing £27,000-a-degree fees for university students, and making the super-rich pay the £120bn they currently avoid in tax. Opponents of top-up fees outnumber supporters by 10 percent, while 77 percent of us support a massive crackdown on the people who live here but do not pay taxes here. This isn’t an attack on democracy, it’s a demand for it. It’s a refusal to be part of the silent majority any more. When politicians are defying the will of the people – and breaking the “solemn pledges” on which they took our votes – protest is necessary.

Of course, it is never justified in a democracy to launch violent attacks on people. Anybody who throws a fire extinguisher off a roof, or throws fire crackers and snooker balls at police officers, should be arrested and charged. It’s morally wrong, and tactically idiotic: it puts people off the protesters’ just cause. That’s why whenever it has happened, the protesters themselves have immediately turned on the violent fringe and made them stop. Yet the government is claiming that to deal with this tiny number of people – a few dozen – it’s necessary to restrict the basic rights to free assembly that have been won over centuries.

In reality, these tactics are provoking more violent protest than they prevent. It’s enraging to turn up to peacefully express your views outside parliament and find yourself suddenly imprisoned by police officers who won’t even let you go to the toilet. It doesn’t cool people down, it makes them burn up. There is an obvious alternative to kettling, and it was the norm in Britain until the Mayday protests of 2001 when the tactic was born. It’s simple: arrest anyone who commits an act of violence, instead of imposing mass imprisonment on everyone present. It’s called good policing.

Today, when I suggest to friends that they come to protest against a policy they passionately think will harm Britain, they have started to say something they never said before: I’m too frightened to go. For example, a group of disabled people I know is terrified by the government’s abolition of the Independent Living Allowance, which makes it possible for them to keep living in their own homes rather than an institution. The Sunday Telegraph quotes a government insider admitting “it is quite possible there will be cases of suicide” as a result. But after seeing how the police threw an obvious fragile and immobilized disabled man onto the street, they are too scared to protest outside Downing Street. They are forced to watch, helpless, while their support is taken away to pay for – as a Financial Times headline put it recently – Cameron and Osborne’s new “tax boost for wealthy heirs.”

There is a cost to this chilling of protest. Every British citizen is the beneficiary of a long line of protesters stretching back through the centuries. Every woman reading this can vote and open her own bank account and choose her own husband and have a career because protesters demanded it. Every worker gets at least £5.93 an hour, and paid holidays, and paid sick leave, because protesters demanded it. Every pensioner gets enough to survive because protesters demand it. What what your life would be like if all those protesters through all those years had been frightened into inactivity? If you block the right to protest, you block the path to progress. You are left instead at the whim of an elite, whose priority is tax cuts for themselves, paid for with spending cuts for the poor.

In Britain, we are not suffering from an excess of civil disobedience. We are suffering from an excess of civil obedience. Our government is pursuing dozens of policies we, the people, know to be immoral – from bombing civilians in Afghanistan to kicking away the ladder that lets hard-working poor children stay on at school. We aren’t wrong when we challenge these injustices. We are wrong when we stay silent. As Oscar Wilde said: “Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man's original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”

Tomorrow, there will be a continuation of some of the most valuable protests in Britain in years. A group of ordinary tax-payers have banded together on Twitter to form an alliance called UKUncut. They are campaigning against the fact that successive governments have allowed the super-rich to legally refuse to pay taxes. They operate on our streets, but pay nothing towards maintaining our society. So UK Uncut is peacefully shutting their shops until they are made to pay. The 99.99 percent of British people who pay our taxes will benefit as this cause swells and succeeds – we will face fewer cuts and a better Britain. It’s an example of a democratic citizenry acting in its own defence.

Now imagine living in a country where this didn’t happen. Imagine a Britain where a cabinet of millionaires could exempt the super-rich from tax while taking away the £30 a week that keeps hard-working poor kids at school – only for the streets to stay silent and supine. If we don’t defend our right to protest, we may well end up living on that cowed and chilly island.

* You can donate to the youth club Nicky Wishart was campaigning to save by sending cheques to: Eynsham Youth Centre, Back Lane, Eynsham, Oxon OX29 4QW

* You can get updates on protests, and other issues, by following Johann on

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