If you thought that the square outside Parliament is an obvious place for political action, you were wrong. Turns out there’s a whole new section of law, passed in 2011, to stop any kind of Occupy-style protest on Parliament Square, where our delicate MPs might actually have to see it on their way to work. This being a top priority, hundreds of police have been deployed to enforce it. One of them told me that protesting isn’t allowed because Parliament Square is private property – a metaphor for British democracy, especially as the ‘private’ owner is the Greater London Authority.
Yep, after Russell Brand turned up late at night with a stack of pizzas for the protesters, a police officer warned activists that if any of them fell asleep on an empty pizza box, they would be prosecuted under the 2011 law for using sleeping equipment in Parliament Square. One protester tested it out by pretending to sleep on an empty box in front of an officer. He got away with it, because the policeman said he was ‘pseudo-sleeping’.
Tents and structures for sleeping in are also banned, but the police have stretched the definition of structures to include umbrellas, and have even claimed that tarpaulin, placed flat on the ground for people to sit on, is a structure. (At other times they have deemed it sleeping equipment.) On the night of Sunday 19 October, protesters non-violently resisted hundreds of police for hours in the epic Battle of the Tarpaulin. Simply sitting on the tarpaulin could land you some manhandling from a police officer. The police dragged the offending tarpaulin away, but where one tarp fell, another rose in its place (or vice-versa), and on 21 October came the Second Battle of the Tarpaulin. That ended with the protesters being evicted from the central square, which was then sealed with a two metre high metal fence patrolled by police dogs, like a bizarre inversion of a prison camp. But the #TarpaulinRevolution continued on the pavements and borders.
At the climax of the Second Battle of the Tarpaulin, Green Party politician Jenny Jones arrived on the scene and was promptly arrested. When the youngish police officer realised that he had arrested a member of the House of Lords (and also, exquisitely, the deputy chair of the London Assembly’s police and crime committee) he suddenly ‘de-arrested’ her. Asked why, he just said ‘That’s my decision.’ Jones later wrote of how it was the first time she had been arrested: ‘I like to think I’m a law-abiding citizen. I don’t drop litter, run red lights on my bike, or take backhanders to lobby on behalf of dodgy corporations.’
5. Michael Swain, a private security guard, apparently commands hundreds of police.
Not many people have heard about ‘heritage wardens’, like Michael Swain here. He works for private security company Accent on Security, but you wouldn’t know it from his official looking uniform. Heritage wardens are like traffic wardens for people, descending on anyone who has parked themselves in a prohibited area. They even claim authorisation to use ‘reasonable force’ – Swain tried unsuccessfully to lift up a protester to remove him. The Greater London Authority contracts these private guards to patrol sites like Parliament Square and confers on them unaccountable powers with no apparent means of challenge – a practical example of the kind of outsourcing and privatisation that Occupy Democracy has been protesting about. And here’s the remarkable thing: Swain and his private security colleagues have effectively been directing police officers. By wandering round requesting officers’ assistance to enforce their arbitrary decisions, the wardens have enabled the police to act in ways they might otherwise not have been able to.
Banners and protest go together like bankers and crime. A protest without banners is like fracking without gas. But occupiers have been told that, even if they have a right to protest, they can’t have banners to communicate what they’re protesting about. Apparently banners and signs breach by-laws specific to Parliament Square, although that hasn’t been the only reason given – protesters were told that one banner constituted a structure. When they picked it up and walked around with it, it became a ‘moving structure’. Of course, plenty of recent protests in Parliament Square have featured banners (along with amplification, tarpaulin and the rest), like the People’s Assembly rally just a few months ago. The decision to police Occupy Democracy differently is deliberate and political. After all, if they’ve gone to the trouble of drafting special laws for these protesters, they’re going to want to try them out.
It turns out repairing democracy was not what the sign meant
On Tuesday morning, 21 October, a major policing operation was launched involving tens of officers forcibly evicting protesters and arresting 15 people for one pressing objective: to protect the grass. Taking this stated reason at face value, two occupiers tried the only logical response: they walked to where the grass was lush and green and sat down there instead. ‘This is perfectly good grass,’ said protester George Barda, patting the ground and patiently explaining to three unresponsive police officers that they had a duty to facilitate his right to protest – a fundamental human right enshrined in law – as well as an obligation to the grass. In this clash of rights, the grass won.
Denied the ability to protest on the fenced-off grass, Statueman, aka Plinthguy, aka Danny, climbed to fame when he scaled Churchill’s statue and stayed there for over 28 hours, even reaching down to swipe the hat of a policeman who got too close. (He gave the hat back, but police were determined to charge him with theft. ‘How can he have stolen the hat when he’s given it back?’ someone asked, and was told that it wasn’t a victimless crime – the hat would have to be professionally cleaned.) When two other protesters attempted to throw Statueman some water – which the police were denying him – they were arrested. Green MP Caroline Lucas arrived and tried to throw him an omelette, but was warned she would be arrested. Her Green colleague Jenny Jones was nearly arrested for a second time, and probably would have been if she had better aim – lucky for her, the bottle she threw missed the statue entirely. Statueman eventually came down and was arrested, but returned the next day, scaled the fence, ran around on the grass, fed the police dogs sausages and got arrested again.
Occupy Democracy didn’t start out with big numbers. It was initially ignored by the media and even by most of the left. Of the 100,000 people who marched to Hyde Park under the TUC banner on 18 October, only about 100 black-bloc anarchists, samba players and others made the extra trip from Hyde Park Corner to join those already in Parliament Square (call them the 0.1%). Although Occupy Democracy got on with discussions ranging from NHS privatisation, TTIP, fracking and war to democracy itself, it might have passed by under the radar. But by deploying hundreds of police, constantly harassing and intimidating protesters, enforcing petty rules about grass and banners, pretending that pizza boxes and even people’s clothes are sleeping equipment, confiscating people’s stuff including medication, evicting people from the grass, fencing off the square, threatening court summonses, making over 40 arrests, hurting people, dragging people, punching people, using pressure points on people, bringing young, well-intentioned protesters to tears, the authorities have made the occupiers’ point for them. The politicised role of the police, working in collusion with a private security firm, has only exposed the outrageous infringements on protest in Parliament Square, and demonstrated that privatisation has spread to core public functions. Even the occupiers in Hong Kong haven’t faced the quantity of restrictions as those outside the ‘mother of parliaments’. Denied space, sleep, shelter, banners, signs, music, microphones and tarpaulin, their technical right to protest is rendered almost meaningless. Occupy Democracy’s victory is that it has not only defied these impediments but turned them back on themselves to create a powerful political action.
#231: People, Power, Place ● International perspectives on municipalism ● 150 years since the Paris Commune ●100 years since partition in Ireland ● Re-thinking home in a pandemic ● Moving arts online ● Simon Hedges’s vaccine ● Latest book reviews ● And much more!
And you choose how much to pay for your subscription...
Judith Herrin's masterwork of scholarship provides insights into how imperialism deals with times of upheaval, writes Neal Ascherson
Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin details the long campaign to overcome colonial suppression of the Irish language in Northern Ireland
Emigration may be at the core of Irish national memory but this has not translated to into a welcoming embrace for its immigrant population, writes Ola Majekodunmi
As various Covid-19 vaccines continue to be rolled out in the Global North, Remi Joseph-Salisbury explores how nationalist vaccine programmes exacerbate global inequalities
Sophie Long uncovers the progressive unionism overshadowed by Northern Ireland's right-wing mainstream
A hundred years on from partition, Pádraig Ó Meiscill diagnoses the many ills of past and present Northern Ireland