Police cordon on Whitehall. PHOTO: Kenneth John Brown on Flickr

Police cordon on Whitehall. PHOTO: Kenneth John Brown on Flickr

News that the Metropolitan Police and Westminster council require organisers of the Time to Act climate demonstration on 7 March to pay for a ‘traffic management plan’ and specialist stewards has been greeted with understandable outrage. Sam Fairbairn, the national secretary of the People’s Assembly, told the Guardian that the decision means it is “virtually impossible to hold a protest unless you have rich backers.”

This is far from the first time a local authority has used ‘traffic management’ as a reason for imposing costs on protest organisers. In 2008, Salford council expected pupils at St George’s Roman Catholic High School to pay £2500 costs for a march against the school’s threatened closure.

However, the proposed conditions for next month’s climate protest seem to reflect a new Metropolitan Police policy of withdrawing completely from certain protests, in favour of professional event security. Only last month we predicted increasing pressure to “offset the costs of policing protests, particularly to the private sector”. This is apparently the driving factor in the Met’s decision-making, not just for the climate march but also for other London protests.

Back in October 2014, the joint organisers of last month’s Wrap Up Trident demonstration, CND and Action AWE, were told at their initial meeting with the Metropolitan Police that they had to hire a private firm to steward the protest and to undertake the traffic management plan. Police said CND’s years of experience of stewarding was no longer suitable and campaigners were expected to hire an ‘approved’ firm.

Organisers of the annual Million Women Rise march have also been told, for the first time, that this year they must pay for “certified stewards”, one for every 20 people attending the protest, at a cost of £120 a day per steward. Sabrina Qureshi from the group told the BBC that the traffic plan could cost them £10,000, which they cannot afford.

Million Women Rise told Netpol:

All the women involved in organising Million Women Rise are totally unpaid: we do not even have money to cover expenses. There is no question of us being able to pay for traffic management plan – we just can’t do it.

We do have the right to march though, and this is the one day of the year when women and children come together nationally and internationally to raise awareness of all forms of violence that women continue to face, from domestic violence and rape to so called honour killings.

Protests, by their very nature, will always upset or inconvenience somebody: most people are likely to describe historical examples of effective protest as provocative, disruptive or challenging to state or corporate power. However, the Met’s verdict on the climate march seems to conveniently downgrade it from the status of ‘protest’ completely: because of an expectation of a “crime-free” event with “little requirement for it to provide a policing operation”, it has been treated as more an afternoon saunter through London’s streets requiring the kind of stewarding associated with a festival parade.

The same is true of Million Women Rise, which the Met’s Chief Superintendent Colin Morgan does not even describe as a march but as a “private event”.

It is not yet, of course, “virtually impossible” to hold a protest without deep pockets. This limits the idea of protesting to a particular kind of negotiated march along an agreed city centre route. It also seems likely that the principal organisers of large central London demonstrations in recent years – the trade unions – will simply absorb these type of costs without a fuss.

For more cash-strapped campaigners of such events, however, there appears only two ways forward to resist a ‘pay-to-protest’ policy.

The first option involves welcoming a policing-free march as a positive step away from the stereotyping of all protesters as ‘violent’, but also refusing to agree to requirements for private security when the normal volunteer stewards are more than adequate. The Palestine Solidarity Campaign challenged police attempts to impose similar conditions for one of its marches and the Met eventually admitted private security was not a legal requirement. ‘Wrap Up Trident’ organisers used this knowledge to force the police to back down.

It is important to remember, too, that the right to use the public highway is not restricted only to vehicles but includes a variety of reasonable activities, including protest marches. There is also a positive obligation on the state under human rights legislation to take reasonable steps to facilitate the right to freedom of assembly.

Considering the limited duration of any obstruction of the highway by a march, we expect both the police and local councils will back down when faced with the threat of legal challenges over unreasonable restrictions on Article 11 rights to assembly, particularly in circumstances where the police themselves consider the prospects of public disorder are minimal. Unless the position adopted by the Metropolitan Police and Westminster council changes, a judicial review seems inevitable.

The second option is perhaps less complicated, although far from suitable for every kind of protest march. Organisers may start choosing to ensure their protests are just as provocative, disruptive or challenging as the best examples from history and, if necessary, walk away from negotiations when restrictions are unreasonable. As we are reminded so often, the police cannot approve or sanction a protest, only ‘facilitate’ it.

In those circumstances, the idea of outsourcing to the private sector is suddenly likely to become far less attractive to public order police commanders.

If you are planning a march and you are asked to pay for ‘traffic management’ or a private stewarding company, please let us know. Other campaigners have shown that it is possible to resist unreasonable protest conditions and force the police to back down. You can contact us here.