Sunday, 18 September 2011

Police in Manchester attack freedom of speech

On Saturday, Manchester City Council had socialist campaign stalls cleared off Market Street. The police forcibly broke up the gathering around the stalls, which were confiscated, and arrested two people. The arrestees were later released without charge, but this is the second week in a row that anti-cuts campaigners have been forced off the streets of Manchester in the run-up to the Tory conference.

The local activists, members of the Socialist Workers' Party, issued this statement;
The Highways Obstruction Act does not affect paper sellers and those handing out campaign materials, and we will defend our legal right to do this. In addition, the Notice of Obstruction was on unheaded paper, and we intend to take this up with Manchester City Council and the local police authorities.
There is a meeting on Tuesday, in Manchester's Methodist Central Hall, to "discuss how we can prevent this attack on our civil liberties." There is also likely to be a petition issued on the subject. However, as a way of directly challenging the ability of the council and the police to do this, I would suggest that activists look to Liverpool for inspiration.

Back in 2008, there was a long-running battle against harassment of stalls and sellers on Liverpool's streets. But it was when Socialist Party member Tony Aitman was arrested for "wilful obstruction" that the campaign grew. As Adam Ford reported at the time, it was Nerve magazine who then "organised a campaign to unite all local radical and protest groups against this police repression." A day of action was organised to coincide with international Freedom Not Fear day, and when the police moved in to make arrests the response was spectacular.

According to Liverpool Indymedia;
Working their way around the stalls systematically, they confiscated materials (in some cases refusing to give receipts), provoked and patronised campaigners, demanded names and addresses, refused to quote law or give reasons to stall-holders, threatened arrest for non-co-operation and generally harassed and intimidated their way through every stall. Persistent demands for an explanation of this behaviour gleaned only the response that it was something to do with “obstruction”, though questioning how stalls backed onto a brick-built raised planting area in the widest street in Liverpool (with crowds easily moving past and around them) could possibly be an obstruction, or indeed what Act this obstruction “law” came under, met only with “You’ve already been told that” (untrue), “I don’t have to tell you that” (untrue and impolite) or shame-faced requests to ask Officer Phnemumble, who never seemed to be available when his or her encyclopaedic knowledge of this non-existent law was needed.

The first arrest came when an activist at the Anarchist Federation stall refused to give his name and address, the second when one of the stall-holders shouting “shame!” and “let him go!” at the arresting officers happened to touch the police van door with her hand (thus leaving an unsightly clean patch), and was promptly dragged inside for criminal damage.

As the remaining stalls were picked clean, activists, supporters and the public gathered around the police van holding the arrested activists, chanting “Let them go!” and “Police State!”. When the engine started, three women sat down in front of the van and others moved behind. The chants continued, and pallid police officers started murmuring anxiously into their walky-talkies. As activists with loud-hailers informed the passing public of what was happening, passers-by joined the chants and the crowd grew.

When the police backup arrived, they forced their way into the crowd and began viciously pushing back the protestors. Police pushed a disabled woman with a walking stick, hit a young woman of 17 in the chest and kicked protestors’ bags and belongings out of the way to clear a path for the van.

Though the police succeeded in arresting the two activists, the levels of unnecessary force (not to mention the pointless and suppressive nature of the entire operation), were extremely visible to the public. Today, a packed square of city centre shoppers saw first-hand the brutal repression of freedom of speech that has become endemic in this city, and they made a stand against it. The spontaneous, joint action of people who know a wrong when they see it turned what the police clearly thought would be a simple and quiet operation into a near riot. They have embarrassed themselves; they have shown themselves to lack judgement, intelligence, capability and a sense of common decency, and they have lost yet more of the public’s faith in a corrupt system that takes our money to pay for the thugs who limit our freedoms. This is a victory for those who try to educate and disseminate information on the injustices of our society, above and beyond anything our stalls would have achieved alone. Today, the police demonstrated our point for us.
The result, the week after, was that activists were able to hold stalls unmolested. As ever, direct action got the goods, and the point remains that rather than relying on the law to guarantee us rights we must always be prepared to act in defence of it.

Thus, my solidarity goes to those who suffered this repression in Manchester, as should everybody's who values free speech, expression and assembly. Our rights do not exist at the behest of those who govern society but because those who went before us fought for and demanded them. And they exist only as long as we are prepared to stand up for them with defiance and direct action.