How Smash EDO's Brighton protests raise important questions over freedom of expression (From The Argus)
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How Smash EDO's Brighton protests raise important questions over freedom of expression
The Smash EDO campaign is refusing to co-operate with police over plans for a demonstration this month – just as it has throughout its five-year history.
The stance is likely to mean disruption on the streets of Brighton, echoing that of the May Day protests last year, and to raise the cost to the taxpayer of policing the event.
The people of Brighton would certainly welcome co-operation by protesters if it helped avoid mindless vandalism, traffic delays and the fear hundreds of masked men and women evoke as they rage through the streets.
Those consequences aside, though, the campaign’s attitude raises important questions about the lawfulness of such events and how far people should be expected to co-operate with the authorities.
Smash EDO has become as much about the right to protest as about the weapons its supporters claim are used in illegal military actions overseas.
Early in the group’s existence, what was then known as EDO MBM Technology obtained a High Court injunction banning protests outside its factory in Home Farm Road, Moulsecoomb.
An attempt to create a half-mile exclusion zone around the site failed and the company was forced to pay the campaign’s legal costs of £200,000.
That was the first exchange in a series of confrontations in which campaigners seem to have come to identify the police with the very cause they are fighting.
It is notable publicity material for the Remember Gaza demonstration on January 18 carries not an image of a bombed-out Palestinian home or stricken refugee family but a line of masked protesters confronting police.
The refusal to co-operate by notifying officers of the route and activities planned for demonstrations has been fundamental to the campaign’s stance.
Seasoned protesters claim their previous experiences of working with police made it harder to hold events.
They say organisers are warned that unrelated activities they are involved in could be cancelled if a protest gets out of hand and costs spiral with requests for things such as stewarding and litter-picking.
This is simply the tip of the iceberg, however.
What really lies behind the refusal to cooperate is a belief the police are an arm of the Government and aim not to facilitate lawful protest but to stop effective protest altogether.
At protests in London against the G20 summit in April, police “kettled” demonstrators, effectively denying them the opportunity to gather or move in large numbers – and the death of newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson exposed what appeared to be indiscriminate violence by officers.
More than 100 people were arrested before a protest in Nottinghamshire last year by police claiming demonstrators were planning to trespass and cause criminal damage.
Months earlier, 11 Greenpeace activists had walked free from court after successfully arguing their protest at the Kingsnorth power station in Kent was legally justified by their aim of preventing a bigger crime against the environment.
At the Copenhagen climate summit last month, Sussex students were among those taken off the streets by Danish police making pre-emptive arrests to stop demonstrations.
Here, police “forward intelligence teams” who take video footage at demonstrations are seen as enabling similar preemptive activity and blamed for the trend for protesters to hide their faces with hoods or masks.
Groups are also targeted by police infiltrators.
Individuals claim they have been harassed by police because of their involvement in demonstrations.
John Catt, 80, was pulled over by an anti-terrorism unit in London because his number plate was noted by police at a protest in Home Farm Road.
On The Verge, a film about Smash EDO, was controversially pulled at the last minute by the Duke of York’s cinema in Brighton after a police officer notified the city council it did not have correct certification.
Anyone who has been told by police they are unable to intervene in civil matters may raise their eyebrows at this point.
It will not be lost on campaigners that the net result of refusing to co-operate is to ensure a heavier police presence on the day.
Officers must plan for all contingencies.
They cannot allow any possibility of being unable to cope – hence the £560,000 cost of policing the May Day event.
Alarger number of police confirms protesters’ beliefs they are an oppressed minority the authorities are out to silence.
Campaigners have been explicit that they do not necessarily reject unlawful activity in pursuit of their cause.
Away from the public glare, firms linked to EDO have been the targets of vandalism.
The factory itself was trashed last January.
The damage was put at £250,000 and led to charges against eight people who have not yet stood trial.
Anyone who has witnessed the behaviour of Smash EDO demonstrators near police lines will know there are few shrinking violets in their vanguard.
There is nothing to say a largescale protest, if left to itself, would not cause destruction and potentially endanger life.
By refusing to co-operate with police, Smash EDO can play up to its outlaw image, polarise its cause with the authorities and stretch police resources to the limit.
Annoying and inconvenient it may be but there is nothing fundamentally wrong with doing so.
The law requires protesters to notify police when they intend to demonstrate, not to co-operate.
There is an important difference between obeying the law, which most see as their responsibility as a citizen, and simply doing as the police – or Government – ask.
It would be easier for those in authority simply to be able to tell us what we could or could not do but that would not mean it would be desirable.
Rights such as those to assemble or speak freely are not immutable and permanent.They are the legal equivalent of a disputed territory which, if left undefended, could easily fall to the deliberate or unintended consequences of policy and legislation.
It is up to each individual to obey the law, the police’s job to enforce it.
Behaviour cannot be pre-judged and if crimes are committed, we have courts to try the defendants.
Until then, those who wish to exercise their freedoms to the full must be allowed to do so, whether we agree with them or not.