Occupy Democracy this weekend: Support the right to protest

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OccupyHoldingHandsAs Occupy campaigners prepare to return to parliament square from 6pm tonight for the weekend, we re-publish this letter printed in The Guardian expressing support for protesters against restrictive legislation and heavy handed policing. See also details of the weekends programme and a briefing on some of the key ways protest outside parliament is being restricted.

The appalling treatment of protesters occupying Parliament Square last week (Occupy protesters forced to hand over pizza boxes and tarpaulin, 24 October, theguardian.com) calls for an urgent review of current legislation governing protest there. For 10 days, until Sunday, Occupy Democracy campaigners hosted a daily programme of assemblies and workshops outside parliament to address what they say is “a huge democratic deficit” in Britain today. Using the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 (PRSRA), which bans any “structure designed for staying” along with any “amplified sound”, police responded by kettling protesters and confiscating a wide range of items including umbrellas and sleeping bags which protesters were using to keep dry and warm. More than 40 people were arrested for the most trivial things, including sitting on a piece of tarpaulin and attempting to provide food and water to a protester who remained in the square after it was cordoned off with metal fences.

The PRSRA was introduced following widespread criticism of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, which outlawed “unauthorised” assemblies in the Westminster area. This criticism included the comments of the 2009 Joint Committee on Human Rights which stated that “no sanction should apply to those who choose not to notify the police of their intention to protest solely by reason of that choice”. Initially designed to evict Brian Haw’s peace camp, the first protester to be convicted under the PRSRA legislation was anti-war campaigner Maya Evans for reading aloud by the Cenotaph the names of soldiers who had died in the Iraq war.

When the PRSRA was introduced, the government claimed its intention was not to ban protest in Parliament Square. In practice, however, the legislation has given police enormous powers of discretion to restrict protest in the area and effectively criminalise any form of protest called in the spirit of the Occupy movement.

There can be no place for legislation which imposes so many constraints on the form a protest takes as to render it ineffective and which responds to those protesting at the current priorities and policies of government, by simply having them removed from view.

John McDonnell MP, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Len McCluskey Unite the Union General Secretary, Hannah Dee Defend the Right to Protest, Jules Carey Human rights lawyer, Bindmans LLP, Jenny Jones Deputy chair of London assembly’s police and crime committee, Raj Chada Hodge Jones & Allen LLP, Lydia Dagostino Kellys Solicitors, Michael Oswald Bhatt Murphy Solicitors, Natalie Sedacca Solicitor, Lochlinn Parker Deighton Pierce Glynn, Alex Gask Doughty Street Chambers, Simon Pook Robert Lizar Solicitors, Professor Bill Bowring Professor of law, Birkbeck, University of London, Dr Nadine El-Enany School of law, Birkbeck, University of London, Professor Adam Gearey School of law, Birkbeck, University of London, Keir Monteith Barrister Garden Court Chambers, Stephen Kamlish QC, John Beckley Barrister Garden Court Chambers, Piers Mostyn Barrister Garden Court Chambers, Anya Lewis Barrister, Garden Court Chambers, Michael Paget Cornerstone Chambers, Mark George Q.C. Garden Court North

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