Labour attacks freedom to protest

The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA) became law on 7 April 2005. Its main purpose was to provide for the establishment of a new FBI-style ‘Serious Organised Crime Agency’. However it has become most notorious for the anti-free speech measures tagged on at the last minute by then Home Secretary David Blunkett. FRFI supporter Barnaby Tasker is currently awaiting trial under Section 137 of SOCPA for the explicitly political ‘offence’ of ‘using a loudhailer for the purpose of encouraging the crowd to chant pro-Palestinian and anti-government remarks’.

These measures were aimed at removing Brian Haw, the anti-war protester who has camped in Parliament Square for four years, and attempting to ensure the government would have the power to prevent or severely limit any future protests.

The SOCPA provisions, which came into force on 1 August 2005 prohibit any demonstration of one person or more within a one square kilometre ‘exclusion zone’ around the Houses of Parliament, unless prior permission has been granted by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. An individual may be charged with organising a demonstration, participating in a demonstration, or demonstrating as an individual without permission. Even an authorised demonstration can be severely curtailed, limited and have conditions imposed on it. In other words, it is no longer possible to have meaningful demonstrations near Parliament. The use of megaphones is not permitted within the exclusion zone whether the demonstration is authorised or not. The Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) demonstration on which Barnaby was arrested was ‘authorised’.

Brian Haw is still in Parliament Square, having successfully argued that his protest pre-dates the legislation. A high court decision, made just three days before 1 August, ruled that his protest was immune as the new act could not be applied retrospectively and he had been there since 2001.

In April 2006 Maya Evans became the first person to be convicted under section 132 of SOCPA for reading out the names of 97 British soldiers killed in Iraq and names of dead Iraqi civilians at the cenotaph in Whitehall. She was given a conditional discharge and forced to pay £100 costs.

On 28 August 2005 Mark Barret was arrested for meeting fellow activists for tea and cake in Parliament Square. On 8 April 2006 he was found guilty of violating SOCPA protest laws and fined £500.

Five PSC activists have been summonsed to court to face charges of breaching SOCPA following an emergency Palestine solidarity demonstration at Downing Street on 14 March against the Israeli attack on Jericho prison.

Barnaby Tasker’s arrest occurred on 20 May on the annual march in support of Palestine called by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in London. He is due to appear at Marylebone Magistrates court on 29 September and a picket in support of the right to protest will take place outside the court. Using a megaphone is essential for effective protest and communicating information and slogans on a demonstration. The state knows this and the banning of loudhailers is a serious attack on freedom to protest.

On 18 June Steve Jago carried a placard outside downing street bearing the George Orwell quote: ‘In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.’ He was promptly arrested under section 132 and was assaulted by police in the process.

The legislation also permits the Home Secretary to ban demonstrations in places designated by him to be ‘in the interests of national security’. Under SOCPA, protesters who breach any one of 10 military bases across Britain will be treated as potential terrorists and face up to a year in prison or a £5,000 fine. Helen John, 68, and Sylvia Boyes, 62, both veterans of the Greenham Common protests 25 years ago, were arrested on 1 April after deliberately setting out to highlight SOCPA by trespassing on the US military spy-base at Menwith Hill.

SOCPA is another repressive piece of law in the armoury of laws which form the building blocks of Labour’s police state.
Laurie Mitchell

FRFI 192 August / September 2006


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