Speech to Young Labour and Young Labour Lawyers
Porticullus House – 12/06/2014
It is apt that we are having this discussion so soon after the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square; if you ever need reaffirmation of the importance of the right to free speech – remember that iconic image of a sole protestor standing in front of a line of tanks – still we don’t now what happened to him or who he even was.
I was quite young at that time – it was one of those images that made me want to do Free speech work. I have no doubt that protest changes the course of history; Arab Spring, Civil rights movements in the US and Northern Ireland, suffragettes, Nor is this a matter of history; I have no doubt that 1 million people marching against the Iraq war changed things. It may not have stopped the war; but it is one of the factors that changed how we have approached other conflicts.
I have no doubt that the student protests on tuition fees helped shape people perception of broken Lib Dem promises; I have no doubt that the UKUNCUT protests helped put tax avoidance at the heart of the political debate. Protest are incredibly important; even when they fail on a specific aim – they can still set mood music and future direction that can be incredibly important.
In the words of one judge, protests are the “lifeblood of democracy”
Problem is that these fine words are not always the way the Government or the police behave; the right to free speech is not an absolute right. In human rights language, it can be restricted – to prevent crime, to keep order and so on
So we all recognise that a balance needs to be struck in how new legislation is drafted and how it is enforced by the police; It has have gone too far…..
There are two particular areas that I want to consider
Undercover Officers/ Surveillance
There is a public inquiry of sorts and we wait to see what I going to happen. There have already been a number of cases – and I recommend the book “Undercover” by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis.
George Monbiot has reported much of this in the Guardian as well and what we already know is astonishing. Police have been running undercover officers into protest movements since 1968.
Their purpose was to counter what they called subversion or domestic extremism, which they define as seeking to “prevent something from happening or to change legislation or domestic policy … outside the normal democratic process”.
That is pretty much any progressive lobbying or protest movement over the last 40-50 years.
This is what they are alleged to have infiltrated
1 the British campaign against apartheid in South Africa,
2 the protest movements against climate change,
3 the Stephen Lawrence Campaign.
Undercover officers, often using the stolen identities of dead children, worked their way into key positions and helped to organise demonstrations. Several started long-term relationships with the people they spied on. At least two fathered children with them. I’ve represented one of those children and taking the background detail from them is horrific. Officers illegally used their false identities in court. They collected intelligence on trade unionists that was passed to an agency which compiled unlawful blacklists for construction companies, ensuring that those people could not find work.
The policeman who infiltrated the Stephen Lawrence campaign was instructed by his superiors to “hunt for disinformation” about the family and their supporters that could be used to undermine them. As the unofficial motto of the original undercover squad stated, it would operate By Any Means Necessary. 56 people having their cases or convictions overturned, after police and prosecutors failed to disclose that officers had helped to plan and execute the protests for which people were being prosecuted. But we know the names of only 11 spies, out of 100-150, working for 46 years. Thousands of people might have been falsely prosecuted.
The second issue is that of mass arrests. There is an increasing tendency for the Met police to arrest large number of individuals at peaceful protests
In the last couple of years, there were
1. 145 people at Fortnum and Mason – sit in protest
2. 186 Critical Mass Cyclists – opening night of Olympics ; police said that
3. 54 at anti BNP protest in parliament
4. 270 at Tower Hamlets at an anti EDL protest
These were all non violent protests in the main; there were ½ incidents that were minor ; but this was in no way mass disorder – even on the police case – but the whole protest itself was alleged to have. Can you guess how many actually had to go to court for a trial (655 people arrested – 50 people got to court, 14 convictions – all given condition charges or fines)
Yet everyone was fingerprinted, photographed and records kept unless you asked for them to destroyed. In the anti-BNP march, they arrested people who were actually there at a nearby demo – protesting about the badger cull; but everyone is caught up in the net.
Think of the psychological damage that does – some of my clients have said that they didn’t want to go back to go on demo.
I am not going to go into the detail of each case or indeed the legislation that has allowed the police to do this ; but it surely must raise concerns.
Protest is under attack; Too often police forces have abused their power and we have drafted more and more legislation that allows them to do it.
All the fine words that we have will mean nothing if we don’t stand up to protect these rights and ensure that the lifeblood of democracy is not in intensive care.