Large or Small, Why Protests Still Matter

A police officer at the Women’s March on London, January 2017. PHOTO: Bruno Mameli / Shutterstock.

Feedback from supporters who took part in last week’s Domestic Extremism Awareness Day was very clear – people believe strongly that the freedom to protest remains valuable and important and deserves protection from efforts by the state to undermine and disrupt its effectiveness.

Campaigners resent the smearing of their activism as ‘extremism’, not only because this label is evidently so easy to apply without the slightest evidence, but because it seems deliberately intended to drive away wider public support.

Over the last month, tens of thousands have taken to the streets in protest against the election of Donald Trump. Like last year, when the streets of London were filled with people demanding the government act on the refugee crisis, the Women’s March in 14 UK towns and cities and the protests across the country against Trump’s Muslim travel ban were collective emotional responses to a widespread outpouring of public anger. These demonstrations represent, potentially, the start of new and exciting movements and campaigns.

Other large national protests in recent years, including regular TUC-sponsored marches in central London, have brought together local anti-austerity activists and trade unionists who, as anyone involved in most progressive campaigns soon discovers, experience far more defeats than victories. These marches play an important role in bolstering energy and sustainability by offering solidarity and renewed enthusiasm.

What is significant about all of these demonstrations is just how lightly policed they all were. This is not simply because organisers negotiate routes in advance or because protesters are somehow more ‘peaceful’. It is because the protests themselves are about the symbolism of the numbers who attend, the images that appear online and in the media the next day. “We are here!”, they aim to say (or in some cases, “we are still here!”)

The moment, however, that new (or newly revitalised) movements decide that powerful corporate and political interests are often surprisingly susceptible to collective action and are open to direct challenge, the way the police respond quickly changes.

By blocking a road, trying to shut down a weapons factory or slowing deliveries to a fracking site, it is almost as if campaigners have suddenly crossed an imaginary line drawn by the police about what constitutes ‘acceptable’ or ‘legitimate’ protest. This is when people suddenly find themselves labelled as alleged ‘extremists’, facing increased surveillance and subjected to arbitrary and often unlawful arrest.

It is why anti-Trump demonstrators who might try to disrupt or shut down events during the US President’s state visit to the UK this summer are likely to experience a significantly different style of policing than the one they saw in January. As we speak, the police are almost certainly building new intelligence profiles on possible organisers.

For many years, enthusiasm for huge protests in Britain seemed to dwindle. Perhaps it was our inability to stop the war in Iraq, the massively increased security at international summits or the lack of clear alternatives from anti-austerity movements since the 2008 financial crisis. Instead, many campaigners have chosen to focus on specific, often local priorities and more tangible, winnable goals. Coming together in significant numbers seemed like a tactic that no longer worked.

If, however, new movements start to emerge, this may change – but whether future protests are large or small, symbolic or more confrontational, it is essential we collectively reassert that the police have no absolutely business making what are always political judgments about their legitimacy.

That is why we are calling for an end to the labelling of political dissent as ‘domestic extremism’. This highly politicised vilification of campaigners, one that the police and the government have found impossible to legally define, is used simply to provide a justification for targeting a particular cause for increased surveillance.

Even if protesting is temporarily disruptive, or if organisers fail to provide advance notice, or if it leads to arrests, it is still a fundamental right, one that has been instrumental to every significant example of political progress and social change anywhere in the world.

Unsurprisingly, all those who label protesters as ‘extremists’ have found themselves, almost always, on entirely the wrong side of history. 

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