By Nina Power
By denying one group its right to public protest, the government moves closer to banning us all
Last Friday Theresa May, the home secretary, agreed to the Metropolitan police’s request for a ban on all marches in five London boroughs for a period of 30 days, beginning on 2 September. The ostensible reason is Saturday’s English Defence League march in Tower Hamlets, but the ban will cover not only the large counter-march planned to oppose the EDL but also a whole range of events scheduled to take place over the next month in Tower Hamlets, Newham, Waltham Forest, Islington and Hackney. This could include East London LGBT Pride, a march against cuts to Homerton Hospital, and, most ironically, an event to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the battle of Cable Street.
While the government banning marches is nothing new – and there have been many such bans issued since the Public Order Act of 1936 – this latest blanket ban raises serious questions: is banning marches the best way to tackle racists and fascists? Will a ban be specific enough to affect only the EDL? Will a ban even stop the EDL coming to Tower Hamlets? All these questions could be answered with a simple “no”, but political reality, as usual, is more complicated.
It is clear to everyone that the EDL’s motivation for marching in Tower Hamlets is far less about exercising its right to freedom of expression than it is to harass and intimidate the local Muslim population. The EDL itself has no qualms about attacking other protesters. The EDL’s leader, Tommy Robinson, explicitly threatened student demonstrators last December, and the group violently attacked an anti-racist meeting in Barking in May, hospitalising a female NHS worker.
Calling for a ban on the EDL march has its attractions. But there is a question about who is being asked to impose a ban, and what consequences a ban might have beyond the resolution of an immediate situation. It is increasingly clear that the coalition government is doing its best to punish protesters of all stripes. Students who protested against fee rises last year were subjected to kettling and charged by mounted police, while many are still being dragged through the courts on serious counts; 30 UK Uncut protesters are still being “symbolically” prosecuted for peacefully occupying Fortnum & Mason on 26 March; and anyone who attended the 30 June strike would have been aware of police “snatch and grab” tactics used against anyone they had decided were potential troublemakers.
Following the student protests, police chiefs have called for extended powers to use rubber bullets and water cannon, while the recent riots have seen the courts impose very harsh sentences, refuse bail and fill cells to breaking point.
Asking for a ban on specific marches is dangerous: given the government’s obvious fear of people on the street, it is just as likely to ban everyone as it is to ban a few. And what of Labour arguments regarding the ban? A recent letter sent to the Guardian, signed by Labour MPs and councillors, argued that “while we have no doubt that the Met could contain [the EDL] demonstration, the cost of policing it … would simply be too great”.
Calling for a ban on marching because of cost is incredibly foolhardy – the next time trade unionists march, or students protest, will we see the government deny them the right for “economic reasons”?