Friday 26 August 2011

Why Calls To Ban Demonstrations Are Dangerously Shortsighted

Yesterday the Metropolitan Police finally confirmed that it is seeking the authority of Home Secretary Theresa May to exercise powers, under Section 13 of the Public Order Act 1986, to impose a banning order on an EDL march in Tower Hamlets. Approval is almost inevitable and a ban will therefore last from 2 September to 2 October and affect five London boroughs - and seem likely to affect all marches in east London, including a protest by Unite Against Fascism on 3 September.

This was always the likely outcome of the concerned campaign organised by Searchlight / HOPE Not Hate and backed by London's municipal establishment. Previous attempts by the EDL to march in Bradford and in Leicester led to blanket restrictions on demonstrations, including those by anti-fascists. However, the wider ramification of what the Met is actually asking for hasn’t worried 'HOPE Not Hate' coordinator Nick Lowles, who called yesterday’s announcement "great news" and "a victory for common sense."

Nevertheless, it seem even the police recognise a month-long blanket ban is likely cause significant disruption to life in east London and as Dave Hill has pointed out, some exceptions are expected for, amongst other things, funerals and processions that are "deemed part of local cultural custom and practice".

Even without a banning order, the police already have considerable public order powers to limit and contain marches on Britain’s streets. However, a protracted banning order would represent something new: for the first time in decades, the state wouldn’t need to negotiate with protest organisers but instead can pick and choose whether to sanction or flatly deny the right to freedom of assembly, depending on how innocuous, low-risk and 'cultural' it decides an individual procession might be. Anything spontaneous, anything urgent, anything likely to involved raised voices - anything political, in other words - is far less likely to pass an arbitrary 'acceptability' test

As yet, the east London boroughs affected have not been named but a banning order could potentially disrupt protests against the DSEi arms fair on 13 September (although after a decade, these may fall under into the category of ‘local custom and practice'). Ironically considering its organisers support for a ban on the EDL, the East London Pride parade on 24 September could also be affected. As cuts in local services are only now starting to hit home in London, it could also prevent local people calling, for example, any march in September against the closure of their local library or other services.

There is nothing that 'HOPE Not Hate' has said about the EDL itself that I profoundly disagree with. It is undoubtedly a “violent racist organisation that seeks to vilify Muslim communities" and the EDL's marches and pickets are clearly intended to "embolden local racists and seek a violent reaction from local Muslim youths, which in turn creates a new cycle of violence." However, these are also good arguments for physically confronting the EDL instead of calling for a ban. Having spent almost twenty years as an anti-racist campaigner in east London, working with Newham Monitoring Project, I therefore think it's worth picking apart some of the arguments made by those favouring a ban and seeing how they stand up.

For at first glance, the position of those supporting a ban seems to place no value on public protest at all. Last month, a letter from the great and the good in Tower Hamlets dismissed the famous Battle of Cable Street - when Jewish working class anti-fascists stopped Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts from parading in the East End in 1936 - as a failure, one of the "mistakes of history". This is an astonishing claim, considering that Mosley was forced to abandon the march through Whitechapel and his thugs were dispersed towards Hyde Park. Cable Street represents an important working-class victory, not a failure, one that gave enormous confidence to the East End’s Jewish community.

In mid August, I know that at one Tower Hamlets community meeting, Bengali 'leaders' adopted a different tack, reasoning that a ban was vital to prevent 'their' young people from getting involved in confrontation that might lead to arrest and criminalisation by the police. This is an admission that the borough has less of a “cohesive atmosphere” than Mayor Lutfur Rahman and the local MPs like to pretend, particular in the relationship between Bengali youth and the police. It also mirrors similar attempts in other parts of the country to stop young people, ‘for their own good’, from engaging with political ideas and taking to the streets in opposition to the EDL. It’s a fear, too, of the militancy of the young. As a Network for Police Monitoring report [PDF] pointed out in March, police in Leicester “strongly promoted a ‘stay at home’ message “ and “issued leaflets to young people advising them they could be picked up at the demonstration, held by police and referred to social services under provisions in the Children Act”.

Then this week, a collective statement from London Labour council leaders argued that an EDL march would simply be too expensive, a "drain on resources" after the recent riots in the capital. Placing a monetary value on the freedom to assemble is an argument that could (and, in the minds of Labour politicians, probably does) apply to any street protest and treats political processions as little more than a costly public nuisance, rather than an essential part of democratic participation. It's a dangerously illiberal position to adopt.

It strikes me that none of these arguments are really about trying to halt the growth of the EDL or defeat the racist ideas they propagate, but are instead about shutting the gates of the village and desperately hoping the EDL will simply disappear. It's a strategy that is likely to fail in the longer term. It seems highly unlikely that a ban will stop the EDL from seeking a future march in Tower Hamlets and almost inevitable that we’ll be back with the same demands for a ban again next year.

Collecting 25,000 signatures, as 'HOPE Not Hate' has done, is an admirable achievement – but imagine 25,000 people, from every community, standing on Whitechapel Road and inspired by the anti-fascist slogan ‘¡No Pasarán! (They Shall Not Pass)’. Then ask yourself if proudly taking to the streets in collective opposition to the EDL, rather than a police ban, is more likely undermine the vilification of Muslim communities and terrify, rather than embolden, local racist sentiment.

Update: according to Defend The Right To Protest, the ban will cover "Tower Hamlets, Newham, Hackney, Islington, Waltham Forest + possibly the City too"


RooftopJaxx said...

@righttoprotest just tweeted "OK: boros involved in ban: Tower Hamlets, Newham, Hackney, Islington, Waltham Forest + possibly the City too"
Is it known whether EDL are specifcially targetting the Olympic Boroughs? What's Islington doing there, and shouldn't Greenwich be on the list too?

Anonymous said...

Amusing typo there, "No Parasan" actually means "Don't Stop"!

(vb. 'parar', to stop, vs. 'pasar', to pass.)

Kevin said...

For the sake of accuracy, I've amended the post to say ¡No pasarán!


Anonymous said...

Thank you and well said. I like controversy and debate but I can't find anything I disagree with here.

Anonymous said...


Increasing restrictions on political activism will render legal forms of protesting ineffective.

The only form of democracy we will be left with is to choose a representative from the list provided by the political elite.

We seem to be moving in the direction of the Chinese model.

Random Blowe | Original articles licensed under a Creative Commons License.