Who’s afraid of flag-burning?

Police proposals to ban the desecration of flags should be shot down in flames.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

British police have suggested to the government that it should outlaw flag-burning on public demonstrations. Anyone concerned about liberty should shoot their proposals down in flames.

In a written proposal sent to the Attorney General, Scotland Yard also called for legislation dictating what can be written on placards and argued that cops should have a ‘firmer hand’ in determining how demonstrations are conducted and where they can be held. They’re concerned that there have been too many ‘rowdy and unruly’ demos this year, such as those that took place over the Danish cartoons (where placards said ‘Behead those who insult Islam’ and one toddler wore a hat saying ‘I Love al-Qaeda’) and another at Westminster Cathedral last month, where the demo organiser said the Pope should face ‘capital punishment’ for his comments about Islam (1).

What ever you might think of recent ‘Defend Islam’ demos (childish and backward, in my view), you should be deeply concerned about the police’s proposals. They are seeking to restrict our freedom of speech and assembly. As American civil liberties campaigners have argued, flag-burning is a free speech issue. The American Civil Liberties Union has shouted down various attempts by Congress to make burning or otherwise desecrating the Stars and Stripes a criminal offence, on the basis that it would infringe on freedom of thought and expression – burning a flag is an ‘expressive act’, a form of ‘political speech’, says the ACLU, and the authorities should keep their hands off it (2).

The British police are looking to go even further than Congress has tried but failed to: they want to criminalise ‘burning the flag of any country’, not just the Union Jack (3). This is more brazen than anything attempted in other states. Various countries have restrictive laws against the burning of the national flag: in Finland it is illegal to desecrate the flag or treat it in a disrespecting manner; the Basic Law of Hong Kong guarantees free speech except for the burning of Hong Kong’s regional flag; Ireland has a Protocol on the appropriate way to treat the Irish tricolour. In calling for a ban on any kind of flag-burning, the police show that their main aim is to clamp down on speech and protest. They are concerned not so much with ‘protecting national integrity’ – as those various other laws against national flag-burning dubiously claim to – but rather with outlawing what they see as inflammatory (literally) protest. It’s not the flag they’re worried about, so much as the fire, the fiery passions of protesters and the public.

The police also want to determine how offensive a demonstration can be – that is, not very. According to Len Duvall of the Metropolitan Police Authority, ‘People have the right to [demonstrate] but they must do so peacefully and without causing undue offence.’ (4) It is one thing for the police to monitor demonstrations for signs of violence, but for signs of undue offence? Their immediate concern is with those silly placards that say ‘Behead the Pope’ or ‘Crucify critics of Islam’, etc. But what else could be considered offensive? ‘George Bush: World’s No.1 Terrorist?’, that placard beloved of anti-war campaigners which, as a statement of political protest, is not that much more intelligent than the Islamists’ bizarre banners? What about a placard saying ‘Police – fuck off’? No doubt the police would find that pretty offensive, and yet it might aptly capture the tenor of a demo.

Often public protest is, by its very nature, offensive. In the Eighties, demonstrations by striking miners were loud, expressive and threatening, and sometimes involved the hanging of effigies from gallows. During the IRA hunger strikes in the early Eighties, republicans in Northern Ireland protested for British troops to get out of Northern Ireland or risk being ‘sent home in body-bags’. Restricting offensive protests would make protest pretty much meaningless, the public equivalent of writing an angry letter (but not too angry) to your MP. The police’s desire to monitor protests more closely for signs of offensiveness shows that they want to shape the content and message of demonstrations, as well as their conduct and route; they want to police our thoughts as well as our actions.

The great irony here is that the police and the Islamist protesters they seem so afraid of are playing the same game: both want to limit offensiveness. Radical Islamic protesters demand the punishment and censorship of anyone who dares to criticise their religion or hurt their feelings, while the police want to restrict protests that might make people feel afraid or belittled. Both sides are motivated by the narrow and pretty pathetic politics of self-regard and a desire to protect groups by surrounding them with a forcefield against scary words.

The worst of it is that the police are not responding to some great rise in flag-burning or violent protest. Indeed, protests tend to be far paler and more lily-livered than they were 10 or 15 years ago. A handful of cranky wannabe martyrs might kick up a stink over anti-Islamic cartoons, but that is little more than a front to disguise their powerlessness and the fundamentally PC nature of their demands – ‘Protect me from harm, please!’. Flag-burning remains rare in Britain. (Just as it is in America, as it happens. The ACLU points that there were only 45 documented incidents of flag-burning in the 200 years between 1777, when the Stars and Stripes was adopted, and 1989, when Congress first tried to ban flag-burning.) Of course, the police’s singling out of flag-burning as a problematic form of protest may now encourage more publicity-hungry types to carry it out.

The police’s demand for restrictions on flag-burning and protest is in fact little more than a PR stunt, intended to send a message about their values and sense of determination. It is about policing the images people see in the media, as well as policing people in the real world. Tarique Ghaffur, assistant commissioner at Scotland Yard, said the police called for these new measures because ‘there appears to be a growing public perception that policing of demonstrations is unduly lenient’. He says the public have seen too many ‘images of people who seem to be “getting away with it”’ (5). The new measures are meant to send a different ‘image’: one which shows the police are serious and resolute. This is a battle of media imagery rather than a war against any rise in violent protests.

If the police were proposing such serious restrictions on our freedom of speech and right to protest in response to real events, that would be bad enough. But restricting our liberty in order to make themselves feel a bit better? Fuck off.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Free speech

(1) Yard wants ban on flag-burning in crackdown on demos by extremists, Guardian, 30 October 2006

(2) Flag desecration, ACLU website

(3) Police call for ban on flag burning, The Times (London), 30 October 2006

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Topics Politics


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