Authors:Sue James
Last updated:2024-05-24
Editorial: Serious disruption
Marc Bloomfield
Description: Protest sign_Charles Stirling_Alamy
I think I can say that I have carried out a bit of ‘serious disruption’ in my time, especially in my student years. One of them was a demonstration at the University of Warwick when the education secretary at the time, Sir Keith Joseph, decided to visit. The demonstration was an opportunity to show publicly what we felt about the cuts to education being made by the Thatcher government (which resulted in the students’ union being fined £50,000). You could also find me outside a mink farm, protesting noisily about wearing animal fur, on a hunt sab (where I was slapped across the face by a hunt supporter when I questioned why she had brought her child to witness the kill) or, more recently, outside an abortion clinic where women were being harassed by pro-life protestors as they entered the clinic.
But does a protest need to be disruptive?
The answer must surely be yes. If a protest isn’t disruptive, then isn’t it just standing around or taking a walk in the park? And who would notice that? So, it’s worrying that the government is currently reviewing ‘far left’ involvement in disruptive protest, which includes activism against climate change and war. John Woodcock, who is conducting the review, has, at the same time, been chairing and advising lobby groups representing arms manufacturers and fossil fuel companies. It’s not surprising, then, that Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSV) are being considered as organisations that the government would ban MPs and councillors from engaging with.
There is no doubt that the suffragettes were instrumental in women getting the vote with their ‘seriously disruptive’ tactics of setting fire to letterboxes and smashing windows. The anti-apartheid movement used a range of tactics, including open non-violent confrontation in the 1950s before taking up arms in the 1960s. I’m not suggesting we begin an armed struggle, but the ability to protest is a hugely important part of a civilised society and the possibility of change. Protest movements succeed when they are disruptive. The ability to protest about the change we want to see is crucial and must be preserved in a democratic society.
I have previously described the erosion of the right to protest over the past 50 years as like watching fast-motion footage from a David Attenborough documentary on the melting ice caps and asking yourself: ‘How did we let that happen?’ So, well done to Liberty for challenging the widening of police powers further, and to the court for finding that the government’s attempt to do so was unlawful. In its judgment of 21 May 2024, the Divisional Court found that the anti-protest measures passed in June 2023 by the then home secretary, Suella Braverman, were unlawful as they significantly lowered the threshold of when police can impose conditions on a protest from ‘serious’ to ‘more than minor’ disruption. Following the judgment, Liberty confirmed that hundreds of protestors had been arrested under these measures since they were created, including Greta Thunberg, who was acquitted of all charges at a hearing in February 2024.
Having been around a while, and in my position of leading a national access to justice charity, I have power (to a degree) and have other ways to express my discontent (here, for instance), but what for students now? They aren’t having the best of times in the US, with more than 1,000 arrested for their pro-Palestine protests, and as more students start to occupy UK campuses, what action will the UK government take?
As we have a general election in July (announced as I write), we may have to wait to find out. And as for the result, let’s hope we are in for a bit of serious disruption …