Monday 4 July 2005

The war on dissent

Our green and pleasant land grows more Orwellian with each passing day.

If you are attending the Make Poverty History rally in Edinburgh today, you need to be a "good" protester. The event is intended to lobby G8 leaders to do what the title suggests. Demonstrators are asked to march alongside Gordon Brown, wearing white, and to stay on-message. Don't mention the war. Ditto for any critique of capitalism. Suggestions that G8 policy, far from alleviating poverty, is a direct cause of it, are not welcome. That constitutes "bad" protest. Shut up. Disappear. Stay at home.

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This is not to suggest that the Make Poverty History (MPH) march is wrong - who would argue with its protester-mobilising power, its demands for debt cancellation, trade justice and aid for developing countries, or its plea that 30,000 children should not die of hunger each day?

But this campaign may strangle any other form of protest about the G8. An article in this month's Red Pepper magazine refers to leaked emails to MPH, from its events-management people, asking how it intends to deal with certain people at the rally - red-shirted socialists, Tannoy-wielding anti-war campaigners - who would thereby be "ignoring our ownership of the event and our key messaging". There is dissent within the MPH campaign; some NGOs have argued that the group's democratically agreed message on trade, aid and debt has been swallowed up by "celebrity luvvies and praise upon praise for Brown and Blair". NGOs from the global south, meanwhile, are horrified by a campaign that makes demands on the G8: it is responsible for most of the problems of the developing world, they say; protests should be directed against the G8, not through it.

The march, and the government reaction to it, has established that protest is allowed in a limited format. Tony Blair thinks it "very odd" that anyone would want to demonstrate at the Gleneagles Hotel, where G8 leaders will meet next week. What is there to protest about, when all valid concerns are being voiced in Edinburgh, via the rally, and within the G8 summit itself?

So, in a situation dripping with irony, we have the illegitimate, self-serving and unaccountable G8 dictating how we might legitimately protest against it. And it's a particularly fraudulent set-up because, while our government says legitimate, peaceful protest is fine, it has been rewriting the definition of what this actually is.

The past few years have seen a steady removal of protest rights. In the run-up to the assault on Iraq, anti-war protesters were stopped and searched under terrorism laws - 995 times, according to a report from Liberty. A party of 120 protesters in three coaches on their way to a demonstration against the war at Fairford airbase in Gloucestershire in 2003 was deemed illegal, under a different law, and escorted by police back to London. Demonstrators at an arms fair in London that same year were also searched under anti-terrorism legislation. When this law was passed in 2000, we were assured it would not be used to limit protest.

We have since seen even more curtailments to what constitutes legal protest. Earlier this year, EDO MBM, which makes bomb parts used in the Iraq war, was granted an interim injunction that views anti-war protesters as stalkers. Protesters in breach of the harassment laws, now in effect outside its head office in Brighton, have been arrested. Harassment, in this context, is seemingly defined as being too vocal about EDO's trade in killing.

This month the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act comes into effect, ushering in various other mechanisms to redefine protest. Unauthorised protests within a 1km radius of parliament are banned. Protests that cause economic sabotage to a company are illegal. Trespass on a "designated site" on grounds of national security - which is not defined - has become a criminal offence.

We are about to witness how "illegitimate" protest is dealt with at the G8 summit. Already, anti-G8 protesters-to-be say they have been intimidated by police and now fear attending demonstrations. Hundreds of individuals have been filmed going into public meetings held by peaceful protest groups. More have been searched, visited at home, had notes and computers seized, and been offered cash rewards for information on other protesters.

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