The white noise of protest

Harry's place logoThe right to freedom of expression does not entitle indefinite occupation of public land.  Brett Lock of Harry’s Place responds to Index’s support for Parliament Square protesters

The right to freedom of expression is precisely that: a right to receive and impart ideas. It does not enable a man to live in a tent on public land for nearly a decade, if he has no independent right to do so.

It is legal to advertise goods and services but illegal to fly-poster the side of a public building with advertising material.  There is no law against singing sea shanties, but you may be ejected from a cinema if you decide to do so in the middle of a film. You cannot play a country and western record at top volume at 2am. All these examples restrict what can be said, expressed or broadcast, but none are forms of censorship. They are merely controls on the time and place of expression.

This is a crucial distinction. Censorship seeks to silence and suppress ideas. Telling a person to shut up at this particular moment, in this particular place, is not censorship. Doing so does not seek to suppress their ideas. It protects the rights of others to peace and quiet. All reasonable people understand this.

So, what of Brian Haw, the “protester” who has lived in a tent on Parliament Square for almost a decade, wafting from one issue to another and drawing all manner of fringe causes to his orbit? Recently I walked past and there was a wall of placards claiming the Freemasons had murdered a range of people, including the late wife of Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who died in a car accident. Haw also believes that 9/11 was an “inside job”.

That said, we should not be distracted by the fact that many of the views presented for our consumption by the Haw camp are quite mad. They are ideas and they are being expressed. That is sufficient for their protection. That is why temporary and short-lived demonstrations, in the symbolically important environment of Parliament Square, should most certainly be permitted.

However, I would not be allowed to install a booth providing information about the products and services of my business in Parliament Square or on any other public land. I would not be allowed to set up a small stage and host an alternative Glastonbury. So why should Haw and his colourful troupe be any different? Disseminating his ideas he is free to do. He may push leaflets through our doors. He may participate in radio phone-ins. He can set up a website. He can even hold a daily protest. But what he can’t do is live in a tent on public ground indefinitely merely because he’s scrawled a political slogan on a bit of old cardboard.

Haw’s protest is repetitive to the point where it is just white noise. He can’t shut up because he’s afraid not for his ideas (which are expressed daily by millions) but for himself: that he might be an irrelevance without his tent and his bit of cardboard.

Quite frankly, I am alarmed that Index on Censorship has taken such an
unsophisticated view of this case, and indeed, is enabling the self-destructive behaviour of a man who strikes me as quite possibly mentally ill. I feel so strongly about it, that I’ve written an article on the subject. But I most emphatically do not have the right to express my opposition by setting up a permanent camp outside Index on Censorship Chair Jonathan Dimbleby’s house.

Or do I?

Brett Lock was the editor of Gay Humanist Quarterly. He is also a regular contributor to the political blog Harry’s Place and a campaigner with the gay human rights group, OutRage!.

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As Boris Johnson wins his fight to “democracy village”, Bibi van der Zee asks if the courts intend to end the great British tradition of camping in protest

Parliament Square protesters face eviction‎

As Boris Johnson wins his fight to “democracy village”, Bibi van der Zee asks if the courts intend to end the great British tradition of camping in protest

There is an oddity to the traffic arrangements around Parliament Square, but it will take the casual visitor several minutes to spot it. In fact even the keenest of observers may not spot it immediately, until he, or she, wants to cross the busy road to the green square in the middle.

There are no pedestrian crossings. It’s hard to work out where they’ve gone, but they’re just not there now. Instead commuters and tourists who want to break out of the bustle and shove off the pavements and make their way to the green island in the centre have to stride out bravely into the traffic. It’s like The Beach or something.

And this peculiarity makes it a little hard to stomach the fury of some commentators that the protesters in Parliament Square are “removing the liberty of people to walk across a public square”. The fact that the authorities, for reasons of their own, did that years ago, makes the Parliament Square democracy village just the very latest incarnation of the great British tradition of ideological squatters.

Setting up protest camps is something we Brits have done with huge enthusiasm and regularity since time immemorial. Where other nations feel the yoke of the oppressor upon their neck and think “grr, time for revolution”, we think, “ooh, where did we put those tent pegs?”

During the English civil war, the Diggers, led by Gerard Winstanley, tried to take over and cultivate communal land: Winstanley declared that if “the waste land of England were manured by her children, it would become in a few ideas the richest, the strongest and [most] flourishing land in the world”.

And ever since then, at the slightest sign of trouble we just move in. Housing shortage? Take over anything you can find. Don’t like nuclear weapons? Put up tents around the military bases. Opposed to apartheid? Take up residence outside the South African embassy. Want to stop a road being built? Unroll your ground mat right where the inside lane would have been.

Our legal system, which often treasures anomalous rights you’d imagine (if you’d grown up under New Labour) that it would just have hacked to the ground, has carefully preserved the right to do this. In a country where property is God, it is still possible to squat without having your deed-signing hand chopped off. And if you are setting up camp on private land, you can only be “directed to leave” if you’re in a wheeled vehicle or have “caused damage to the land…or used threatening, abusive or insulting language to the landowner” and all who surround him. On public land similar conditions hold, although increasingly military bases and the like can often convince friendly secretaries of states to pass bylaws that sneakily boot the camps.

More recently, our own police were forced to confirm in public (through the means of their self-flagellating Policing Protest report) that we do indeed have a right to peaceful protest which does not necessarily have to be “lawful”.

So what does all that mean for the protest camp in the heart of Parliament Square? Some may think it’s a mess and they’re right, it is a bit of a mess frankly – surely they could neaten it all up a little bit and pitch those tents in straighter lines?

But nevertheless, when I walked through the camp a couple of weeks ago I felt a swell of pride that tourists coming to Britain, visiting our Houses of Parliament and our grand cathedral, would be reminded that here, this is the way we do things. What, I thought, would Chinese, Cubans and Colombians make of it? In those countries protesters are thrown into prison or killed, not allowed to set up a permanent picket.

Despite all the best efforts of the government to make Parliament Square a no-protest zone, we’ve politely declined that option. Thank you but no. We’d rather have the freedom to express our mad, anarchic British feelings in public, under canvas, with a primus stove, a cup of tea and a handy parliament to pass legislation on whether Steve in tent four should be allowed to play his wind-up radio until 9pm or 10. Now, can we have the crossings back so that we can pop over to congratulate them without being run over?

Bibi van der Zee is a journalist and author. She recently published Rebel, Rebel: The Protestor’s Handbook