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Taking back the streets

For generations the left has built campaigns by handing out literature on the streets and chatting with the public - but in Liverpool the police are trying to drive them from the city centre. Andy Bowman looks at the united response

March 23, 2009
7 min read

On 11 October 2008, campaigners from ten different political organisations – from the Socialist Party to animal rights groups – gathered to set up information stalls on Church Street, Liverpool’s busiest thoroughfare.

Merseyside Police arrived rapidly and asked them to move on, later claiming to be acting upon retailers’ complaints about ‘obstruction of the highway’ (a difficult task to accomplish with a few pasting tables, given the street’s breadth). Assured of the legality of their actions, the campaigners refused.

Without explaining what powers they were acting under, police officers began seizing campaign literature and tables. They also demanded participants’ names and addresses. Five people who complied with this demand were later issued with court summons. Those who refused to give their details were threatened with immediate arrest. Two quickly found themselves joining the tables and literature in the back of a police van, arrested for ‘willful obstruction of the highway’ and public order offences.

The event provoked spontaneous public outrage, with hundreds of passers-by surrounding the police and heckling them with cries of ‘freedom of speech’. The police vans were prevented from leaving for over an hour.

Disruption of protest

The mass street stall, carried out through the umbrella organisation Liverpool Freedom of Expression, had been set up as a response to sharply deteriorating conditions for political activists in Liverpool. Many reported that disruption of protest and political activity had risen dramatically in Europe’s ‘capital of culture’, as Liverpool then was.

Carol Laidlaw, one of those arrested on 11 October, explains, ‘Over the past year everybody who’s been campaigning in the city centre has been hassled by the police. It started with the animal rights people, but extended to everybody – the Socialist Workers, communists, anarchists – anyone who was holding a street stall.’

Just over a year ago, a group of animal rights activists began holding regular low key protests outside Cricket, a city centre clothes shop that sells fur. Katy Brown describes the experience: ‘Unlike the more rowdy campaigning I might have done in my time, this was completely within the law. Despite this we got constantly harassed. It got progressively worse.’ In December 2007, Katy was arrested: ‘I always stand my ground and argue the law, but the officer wasn’t interested … when I questioned his use of the Public Order Act, he nicked me, slammed me against the police van and twisted my arms up my back.’

She was eventually found not guilty. When later questioned over their actions, police claimed to be enforcing recently introduced council byelaws restricting ‘touting and importuning to the annoyance of passers by’. Such byelaws, now common around the country, don’t apply to political activity, which is guaranteed under statute law as a right to free expression. Liverpool City Council clearly states as much.

That Merseyside police were so incompetent in interpreting the law and aggressive in applying this misinterpretation, is reason enough for concern. However, those involved in the Freedom of Expression campaign feel the problem may run deeper. Activists have been threatened – or indeed arrested – for littering, obstructing the highway, public order violations and even, in one instance, for photographing a police officer. This suggests, they assert, a ‘zero tolerance’ effort to eliminate ‘nuisance’ political activity in the city centre through a flexible application of the law.

Correspondence between Merseyside Police’s sergeant McHale and the animal rights campaigners is revealing. He states:

‘Any unauthorised protests will be investigated and legislation applied … I am sure you see the merits of a regularly organised society, which benefits the residents and visitors to the city. An environment where any group of people are allowed to conduct random demonstrations or protests without control or organisation can quickly escalate to anarchy.’

The fear expressed by civil libertarians concerning the symbolism of the SOCPA (Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005) legislation banning free protest around parliament appears manifest in McHale’s comments: eliminating freedom of protest in the nation’s political epicentre legitimises more authoritarian attitudes towards protest elsewhere.

Social cleansing

Besides a need to counteract the political shifts in what activities are deemed tolerable on Britain’s streets (remembering that buskers and homeless people are also facing increasing clampdowns), changes in the economy of Britain’s city centres make campaigns such as Liverpool Freedom of Expression doubly important.

Urban redevelopment projects now frequently revolve around huge increases in private sector ownership and management of formerly public spaces. Liverpool provides a good example. Forty-two acres of the city centre are now occupied by the Liverpool One shopping centre. Opened in May last year, it belongs to multinational property developer Grosvenor, controlled by the sixth Duke of Westminster – third on the 2008 Sunday Times Rich List. It may be architecturally striking, but it is an enclosure of the commons in the classic sense. The ‘wall-less mall’ comprises 35 streets, and even a large park, all passed from public ownership with a 250-year lease.

Liverpool campaigners are concerned about what this will mean for freedom to protest, street culture and public engagement with the urban environment more generally. Ritchie Hunter, editor of the Liverpool-based independent magazine Nerve, which has extensively covered freedom of speech issues in the city, asks, ‘Why would you go there unless you’re going to spend money? They have an environmental policy which ticks certain boxes, and they have a park area, but it’s now a manicured, sterile area.’ And one patrolled by a large, highly visible private security force, at that.

Fur-sellers Cricket are expected to move into these safer confines, and animal rights activists fear that this will limit future protests. Liverpool One told Red Pepper that normal council byelaws will be enforced, and as such claim protesters won’t face different conditions to any other area of the city centre. The area, however, is still private land, and questions remain over the durability of such reassurances when they are put to the test.

Outside the shopping centre, Liverpool also has a business improvement district (BID), an idea borrowed from the US. BIDs involve retailers in a given area voting on the payment of levies to the council in return for increased influence on how the streets surrounding their business are managed and maintained – including issues of security and ‘tidiness’. Around 75 such schemes exist in the UK, but Liverpool’s was the first in the north west.

Sara Newton represented News From Nowhere, a cooperative bookshop, in the BID meetings. Sara views BIDs as ‘a social cleansing exercise’ whereby large businesses can exert unaccountable, un-transparent pressure upon the council to rid the streets of various ‘undesirables’. They are upfront, she says, ‘about the fact they believe streets should be run in the interests of business in maintaining a good consumer environment, and that they will pressure for it.’ Indeed, the byelaw that was used against city-centre campaigners, was, according to Newton, sold as the one of the major lobbying successes of the BID.

Reclaiming public space

Regular mass street stalls held on Saturdays have gone a considerable way towards claiming back public space for political purposes and raising awareness of the issues. The events of 11 October – seen by a passing local councillor and covered in the local media – seem to have softened the police’s stance. Katy Brown explains, ‘It’s given them a fright … we’ve fought back and we’ve got the public on our side. And part of the reason why is because people are so sick of the police harassing everyone, not just protesters.’

Liverpool Freedom of Expression provides a good example of a campaign that bridges the divides separating ideologically divergent protest groups. Other campaigners from around the country will no doubt be familiar with such crackdowns on legitimate political activity – Liverpool demonstrates how a little non-sectarian solidarity goes a long way in both attracting attention to the issue and resisting it.

‘In a sense, this harassment has united all left-wing campaigners,’ explains Carol Laidlaw. ‘People need to assert their right to campaign in public if they want to, and there are two ways you can do it: you can ask permission from the authorities, or you can say you’ve got a right.’

For more coverage of freedom of expression and development issues in Liverpool visit www.catalystmedia.org

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