In Britain, Austerity and Arrests as Government Curbs Right to Protest
The right to protest is under threat from the British establishment, while they are determined to impose austerity on the people and ignore any corporate and financial sector crimes. People have been locked up for group meetings, taking photos, blocking bulldozers to save public green spaces, cycling, and now, swimming in the Thames.
Last Friday, protestor Trenton Oldfield was sentenced to six months in jail for interrupting a university boat race in April, despite only disrupting it for 25 minutes. Oldfield’s action aimed to highlight the destruction of public services, the growing inequalities in society and the establishment’s attacks on the right to protest. Oldfield was originally charged with a minor offense; however, it was increased once a Government MP called for a custodial sentence.
The British Law Commission has defined this as an “unacceptable law” to a “modern democracy” as it can be manipulated to attack the right to protest. And this is exactly what's happening.
With expectations of prison, prior to his sentencing Oldfield asserted,
Most nation states work very hard at creating and maintaining untrue myths about themselves. Great Britain has convinced many it is the home of democracy and the “gauge” for civilization. Anyone who lives here today or who has experienced even a moment of its attempts at colonization knows Britain, particularly England, is a brutal, deeply divided class-ridden place. Let there be no mistake, there has long been a deficit of democracy. Today it is at breaking point. It is time for a revolution.
Earlier this year, three campaigners from Save Leyton Marsh were sentenced to five days in prison. Their crime? Peacefully blocking digging machinery from entering a rare piece of marshland in East London to halt its destruction for an Olympic basketball training facility. The local group's actions - and the consequences - highlight how alternative sites were dismissed and their objections completely ignored.
One of those imprisoned, Simon Moore, said, "Peaceful protest is not dangerous, but fundamentally necessary for a democracy to function properly.” Dan Ashman, who was also imprisoned, reflected, “I was expecting to be incarcerated, for using my physical being to effect is illegal. On any land that is private, democracy doesn’t exist. In that way you could say only a small percentage of our country is actually a democracy.”
While taking photos of Leyton Marsh and the impact of the Olympics on East London, photojournalist Mike Wells was also arrested and imprisoned for eight days. Commenting since his incarceration about the state of Britain, he said,
Democracy’ is looking increasingly undemocratic. While ‘leaders’ prioritize the wishes of a tiny financial and economic elite, the needs of the majority are meet to a minimum, and then only as a concession to political expediency. The incumbent elite know their position is untenable, unjustifiable, and precarious. But voters are generally left to select between a menu of politicians who serve almost identical ideologies, while those who complain and protest about such a status-quo are spied on and placed on a police list--the Domestic Extremist List. With the knowledge that their position is unjust," he added, "the elite are frightened of the masses and in particular of protest, and mass social movements.”
And then there were the bicyclists.
During the opening ceremony of the Olympics, 182 cyclists were arrested from the pro-cycling group Critical Mass. The event wasn't even a protest, but a monthly cycle ride that swarms around London, normally without police interference. (Except, of course, in New York.) The police applied a dubious public order to criminalize the bike ride and justify the arrests.
They used the same tactics against the Occupy protest on May 12, which was in solidarity with the anniversary of the Spanish Indignados movement. When Occupiers sat in a public meeting on the steps of the Royal Exchange, which is part of the Bank of England, the police defined the meeting as illegal.
In court, their motivation to act on behalf of the bankers became clear. Chief Inspector Hancock said, "Taking into account the example of other protest camps, there was going to be serious disruption to the life of the community, in particular the business community, and that area of London is an iconic economic symbol where a lot of people come to visit and I thought that the economic reputation of the City of London and of the U.K could be damaged."
Of course Mr. Hancock and, seemingly, the government, are ignoring how allowing business as usual is seriously disrupting Britain and the people beyond. Thus disruptions and "threats to the life of the community" seem to sum up the policies of the government - unless, of course, you are part of the elite who are doing extremely well. We can only understand this to mean that there are two very separate ideas of community - in fact, two entirely different "communities" altogether.
Despite the austerity cuts this year, chief executive pay in the top FTSE 25 rocketed by more than 41 per cent. Bankers are enjoying massive bonuses and pay packages even though the taxpayers bailed them out, and they are allowed to get away with corrupt schemes such as the Libor interest rate scandal. Speaking of taxpayers, corporate tax avoidance in Britain is costing the country billions of pounds. These are the same billions of pounds that are being leveraged out of hospitals, schools and other public services.
The severity of prison sentences given to activists is further revealed when compared with the sentences handed out to bankers who commit crimes. The message: in the eyes of the law, protesting against injustice is far worse than creating injustice. It is only this month, when the Financial Conduct Authority is talking about the possibility of prosecution in response to massive fraud or corrupting interest rates. As the new chief of the FCA says, “We have barely got started.” With all the corruption, tax evasion, speculation, price fixing and other unethical corporate deeds, let’s hope they get on with it.
None of this, of course, is new. Britain has historical precedents of governments imposing measures that increase inequality and poverty hand in hand with reducing the right to protest. The Industrial Relations Act of 1971 diluted union laws and attacked the right to strike. It was introduced by the Conservative Party and came before a decade of pay freezes, price rises, the three-day week and the economic turmoil of the 1970s. It marked a reduction on workers’ rights, which culminated with Margaret Thatcher's destruction of trade unions, coal mining and other manufacturers in the 1980s.
Equally, the 1994 Criminal Justice Act that was brought in by the same unpopular Conservative Government criminalized many civil offenses and targeted the many varied environmental and social protests, especially the anti-roads movement.
Austerity is having a negative effect on the British economy, a fact so visible that even the IMF confirmed it earlier this month. With the government’s latest creative actions to erode democracy as well, the need to protest is massive, and it is increasing. Which can only mean one thing if this government remains in power: that the space in our overcrowded prisons is likely to get tighter.