Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Anti-War Protesters Told To Keep Off The Grass - Again

Let's face it, the government has form when it comes to using excuses to try and prevent anti-war protests. Who can forget that in February 2003, Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell tried to ban the massive two-million strong rally in Hyde Park before the outbreak of the Iraq war, using the excuse of 'damage to the grass' and hiding behind advice from the Royal Parks - an executive agency of Jowell's Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Everyone knew it was political - and it is hard not to believe that the same is true of the decision by the Metropolitan police to refuse to allow protesters to demonstrate this Friday immediately outside the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster, when Tony Blair gives evidence to the Iraq Inquiry.

Previous protests have been held on the conference centre's grass forecourt, but the police are claiming that, whilst protests "would be manageable", the final decision "lay with the management of QEII and not the Metropolitan police". However, the centre's chief executive Ernest Vincent has told the Morning Star that it had had little input in negotiations, adding, "we are a commercially run organisation. The Iraq inquiry is but one event taking place on Friday and we have to respect all our occupants." This is of course incredibly disingenuous, for the QEII like Hyde Park is not private land but government owned and as the centre's website makes clear, it is another executive agency, this time of the Department for Communities and Local Government. Furthermore, as massive security has been laid on for Blair's appearance, costing as much as £250,000, the idea that other occupants of the QEII centre aren't likely to face a far from typical day on Friday unless protesters are kept as far away as possible is frankly laughable.

Theoretically, the final decision lies in the hands of Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, John Denham - ironically, one of the few ministers to resign over the Iraq war. CND and Stop the War are both blaming government interference but it does look suspiciously like the decision to ensure that Friday's anti-war protest is kept out of sight of the QEII centre originated within Scotland Yard.

Channel 4 News
reported yesterday on the decision by protest organisers to pull out of negotiations with the police and added that events on Friday are "the first major test of public order policing since the 'Adapting to Protest' review by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary". As I suggested when the first part of this review was published in July 2009, it is precisely because protesters have become disillusioned with the 'self-kettling' that comes with the severe restrictions imposed by the police that they have switched tactics, recognising that the Public Order Act 1986 does not make a protest without prior notification unlawful – its organisers may be guilty of an offence, but participants are not.

The HMIC review made much of the need to 'facilitate peaceful protest' and 'improve dialogue with protest groups' but it seems, as Stop the War have now discovered, that little has changed and severe restrictions are still standard practice for the Met. The SWP's Chris Nineham must be wondering whether it was worth all the bother - and worth the prospect too of shouldering all the responsibility.

Moreover, as long as the police choose to borrow heavily from the Tessa Jowell Book of Bullshit Excuses, it is hard to see why anyone else will do so either in the future.

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