Hundreds of thousands of people marched through London’s streets Saturday, 20 June 2015, to protest against the newly-elected Conservative government’s proposed austerity measures.
Afsaneh Rigot, from the ARTICLE 19 Iran Programme, attended to observe and conduct interviews with protesters.
250,000 people took to the streets of London united against austerity measures in the UK and proposed plans to scrap the Human Rights Act, in what became one of the biggest UK anti-austerity protests in recent years. Celebrities, musicians, politicians, firefighters, teachers, nurses, union representatives, and students all joined, to march from the Bank of England to Parliament Square.
Walking through the streets, police presence could not go unnoticed. Roads were marked off, with the route of the protest clearly outlined. Riot vans, mounted police and on duty officers framed the outskirts of the protest as they surveyed the crowed.
Regardless of scaremongering about riots, the march remained peaceful. However, after such speculation, 5 activists were handed fresh bail conditions forbidding them from attending the protest. Following a visit to the UK in 2013, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly criticized the abuse of strict police bail conditions to deter the exercising of fundamental rights. The UN expert called for an end to the practice, and for the establishment of a protest ombudsman before whom such conditions could be more easily and speedily challenged. Such bail conditions being used to inhibit the right to protest requires immediate parliamentary attention.
The right to protest is guaranteed through the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporates to UK law the protections given to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights. These protections mirror similar guarantees the UK has signed up to at the international level, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
However, the right to protest has been limited by the augmentation of different powers granted to authorities. Laws intended to combat anti-social behaviour, terror and serious crimes are routinely used to unduly limit protest. With sweeping anti-terror laws; stop and search powers used disproportionately on peaceful protestors; bans on a variety of expression; restrictions provided for in the Public Order Act, and limits on protests around Parliament, the right to protest is must be protected more zealously than ever.
ARTICLE 19 is currently working to inform protesters about their rights and encourage debate on how governments should be protecting our human rights in protests. With increasing cuts and austerity measures, it is likely that the frequency of protests will rise in the UK. Thus Saturday’s protest, being a pivotal point for the anti-austerity movements, was a great opportunity for ARTICLE 19 to get on the streets and discuss these issues with protesters themselves.
Fire Brigades Union
Kevin spoke to me outside the Fire Brigades Union’s battle engine: “The right to protest is vital. The general public should have the right to protest in any way they choose… We should have our voices heard. The rich have their protest and voices heard loudly through the media. For the general public, this is how we are heard.”
“When it comes to surveillance of protests and protestors, I can understand it to a degree for national security. But what has been happening with the spying on protesters and blacklisting of workers and union officials is totally wrong and unlawful, and they should be held to account”. Kevin refers to the spying and sabotage of trade union members.
Kevin spoke about increased privatisation of public spaces: “Protests are a form of expression. The privatisation of public spaces is limiting that right for us to express ourselves. The Government should be protecting this right, not confining it more.”
Teacher and part of National Union of Teachers (NUT)
I spoke to Nick near the Parliament Square as he waited for the other member of the NUT: “The right to protest is essential. An opportunity to get out there, discuss the issues and be physically counted is one of the fundamental ways for us to exercise our right to free expression”.
Nick pointed to kettling and media smear campaigns as one of the methods used to inhibit the right to protest: “I’ve been kettled on several occasions. It was not a good experience and I feel has limited scope to be useful and only agitates peaceful protestors.”
Nick also worried about the increasing number of public spaces that have been privatised: “In this way they are not allowing them to be used by the public, including for protests. We have fewer places for this due to the increase of privatised space and that’s very sad.”
“The right to protest is our democratic right. A case of saying what you feel and think. It’s a whole point of a democracy. When it is limited you feel powerless. If you feel like you can’t have influence on what’s happening in the country, how else can you show your discontent if you can’t protest?”
For Stuart, kettling has much deeper psychological effects and counterproductive results: “They traumatize and fatigue protestors. You can’t allow protests then block them… Kettling should only be a last result and people should be informed before it happens – this is transparency. When people are kept in the dark then kettled it raises mental anxiety, fear and trauma.”
I spoke to Laura as she stood holding a sign that read “resistance is not futile”.
“For me the right to protest means I can voice what’s been happening to me and my loved ones because of the actions of the current government. It’s my democratic right and I want to be counted,” she said.
In the conversation we discussed the kettling Laura suffered during the post-election protests earlier in March: “Initially I didn’t realise what was happening. Then I realised I’m being held against my will, but I was just going to meet a friend. So many people where kettled there for no reason, just for walking past. We were held for 3 hours. It was excessive force”. Laura wondered what legal protections she would have in such a situation.
Sadia, her husband and two young sons attended the march together. “We’re very lucky here that we have the right to protest, but I am aware that certain subtle things are done to stop protesting. For example, blocking people from protesting in green spaces. This was what happened to Brian Hall… It’s like saying ‘yes you can protest, but no you can’t’… they say where you can protest and how you can do it. That’s not what a protest is about.”
Sadia mentioned how one-sided media coverage nearly prevented her from coming out and voicing her views “The coverage was so bad that I didn’t want to come and risk the safety of my children. I arrived here and it’s nothing like that. The biased coverage prevents others from voicing their concern and joining the protests.”
I discussed the necessity of protests with Ru (who did not want to be pictured) at some length, then his own experiences, especially in regards to kettling: “It gives credence to the crack down on protests. If you hold and confine people it frustrates them we can translate to violence and can lead to further curtailment of protests. It’s a very dangerous tactic.”
The notion of asking for permission before a protest was a point of distress to Ru: “It’s farcical. In order to protest you have to gain permission from the parties you are protesting to allow you to speak out against them. It’s illogical!”
Naomi and Camilla
As Naomi sat in her wheelchair with Camilla to watch the speeches, we discussed how they felt about the issue: for Naomi, protests allows them to “discuss an alternative and have elements of hope in what is really a set of desperate circumstances.”
Camilla felt that protests allow both sides to be heard: “The right to protest is partly about the right to reshape and reframe current norms, and showing another way to view things. It also shows others that if they are unhappy and doubting the current policies, they’re not alone.”
Especially for Naomi, the fear of being kettled raised many questions: “I’ve never been kettled. As a disabled person a lot of people raise concerns about me regarding attending these protests, just in case I am kettled. It is worrying to think what I would have to do if that happened. That threat should not stop me from attending and voicing my opinions”
Jeremy Corbyn Labour MP, Labour Party Leader Candidate
Labour MP, Labour Party Leader Candidate
With a protest which was attended by so many well known names, one name was continuously echoed throughout the day: Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour Party leadership candidate is no stranger to protests and is seen as one of the UK’s most rebellious MPS. He is a firm advocate of the right to protest and has advocated its protection throughout his years as MP for Islington North. “It’s protest that encourages people, it excites people and collectivises their imagination. It’s what’s happening here today, just as it has happened many times before. It’s timeless,” he told me.
“However this right is always under threat, either through the Sessional Orders approaching parliament, or various pieces of anti-terror legislation. It is authoritarian governments that attempt to reduce the right to protest and the right to assemble – so it is a very important civil and human right. We must therefore protect the Universal Declaration, the European Convention and the whole principle of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech in any way we can.”
Conducting interviews and walking the streets in solidarity with the protesters, my mind was constantly drawn back to the situation for protest in Iran. Britain is far from perfect in protecting the right to protest, and has routinely violated this right. Yet, in Iran, a protest of this type and scale would simply not occur without severe repercussions. The post-election protests in Iran saw protesters beaten, with thousands arrested, numerous casualties, and many who are still routinely harassed or incarcerated. Coverage of the protests was banned, and communication between protestors via social media blocked. Discussing this with the interviewees, they all echoed Sadia: “I just hope they can continue to fight it. We are completely with you and fighting too” and Stuart: “Stick by what you believe in and don’t give up. Carry on resisting in different ways and demand your rights”.
This is a fundamental freedom whichwe must continue to protect. Therefore it is important that we all, British, Iranian or from anywhere, have our say as to how this right should be protected and remain informed about the protections owed to us as protestors. So get involved and make yourself heard on our website.
This is OUR right to protest. #RightToProtest