The right to protest is not exclusive to the left
A new left-wing group defending the right to protest needs to defend the right of those they disagree with, too.
Last Thursday, a newly formed left-wing campaign group, Defend the Right to Protest, held an emergency meeting in London in response to police tactics at anti-cuts and student fees demonstrations. The following day, a member of the right-wing protest group the English Defence League (EDL) was served with an anti-social behaviour order (ASBO) restricting his right to protest. Has Defend the Right to Protest complained loudly about this shocking restriction on someone’s democratic rights? Not at all. Yet if this collection of left-wing activists is serious about defending the right to protest, it should unequivocally condemn the state’s curtailment of everyone’s rights of association and organisation – including those with whom we might disagree.
There ought to be no doubt that the EDL case represents a severe infringement of an individual’s rights. Over the next three years, 19-year-old Joel Titus is forbidden from attending any demonstration that is connected with the English Defence League or being ‘part of a group of 10 or more people whose actions could cause alarm or distress’. His ASBO from Uxbridge Magistrates Court also claims he must not ‘display a sign or placard or use defamatory or insulting language which could cause alarm or distress’. (What might constitute causing alarm or distress remains unclear.) He is also forbidden from entering mosques, Islamic prayer rooms or a defined area of Whitechapel in London.
What did Titus do to deserve such a punishment? Absolutely nothing EDL-related. Titus was instead convicted of a ‘section 4 public order offence’ and for obstructing a police officer as a result of an incident at a pub in Hillingdon, north London last year – an incident which the Metropolitan Police has confirmed to spiked wasn’t associated with EDL activities.
This use of an unrelated offence to remove an individual’s right to protest is the most insidious attack on the EDL’s political rights to date, yet protesting bans on EDL members are not new. In fact, this is the latest in a series of ASBOs that have been slapped on EDL members. In March, due to abuse he’d shouted at an Asian family at a train station, Shane Overton was banned from attending or organising any EDL demonstration or meeting or even visiting its website for 10 years. In addition, he was banned from travelling by train anywhere in the UK and from entering a mosque, meeting room, school or cultural centre.
And last December, two individuals pleading guilty to ‘disorderly conduct’ at an EDL march were given bans preventing them from engaging in EDL activities (including on the internet). They were also restricted from attending any protests anywhere in the UK that weren’t within a 10-mile radius of Birmingham.
Yet strikingly these affronts to civil liberties seem to have passed many of those on the left by. The newly convened Defend the Right to Protest group has yet to make any mention of these cases. Instead supporters complain about the fact that their pet project UK Uncut seems to have been ‘singled out’ for harassment by the police, blind to the fact that far greater restrictions to the right to protest are being routinely placed on the EDL.
This isn’t to downplay the importance of Defend the Right to Protest’s opposition to police actions, such as kettling and pre-emptive arrests. These do impinge upon our freedom to protest and should be stopped. And the official Defend the Right to Protest website is right to argue that ‘it is vital for all those who value our democratic right to protest to stand in solidarity with students and others who have been arrested or injured by police on these demonstrations’.
But it is equally as vital for those wanting to defend the right to protest to speak out against attempts to restrict the freedom of groups they may not agree with. After all, if, a few months down the line, left-wing activists start getting ASBOs preventing them from attending UK Uncut protests, then they will be in a poor position to protest – they turned a blind eye when such orders were imposed on others in the name of ‘public security’. Unfortunately there are precedents for such double standards. As spiked editor Brendan O’Neill has pointed out elsewhere, left-leaning liberals didn’t pipe up when police used authoritarian techniques against football supporters; they only started to complain when they start being used on them.
The idea of defending the right’s right to protest is not something certain groups on the left are likely to stomach. Indeed many have a terrible track record in terms of lobbying for No Platform policies to be applied to groups they don’t agree with. And left-leaning groups can often be found lobbying the state to try to get a demonstration they don’t agree with banned. Take Hope Not Hate, the group behind the anti-fascist publication Searchlight. It has promised to watch EDL demonstrations closely in the hope of spotting any members with ASBOs so it can then rat on them to the authorities. It seems that groups like Hope Not Hate have no problem with the idea of compromising the right to protest as long as the state only restricts the freedom of people with the Wrong views.
Defending the right to protest means nothing unless everyone has it, regardless of the content of their protests. Otherwise what exists is not a freedom to protest as one sees fit; it is a state-sanctioned privilege to protest as the authorities see fit. This is something that those on the left, who are now discovering the importance of defending the right to freedom of expression, would do well to remember.
Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked.