In the shadow of Parliament’s Big Ben, a global symbol of democracy, I spent the evening of the 23rd October holding hands with protesters standing together to reclaim Parliament Square outside the Palace of Westminster in London to fight for a fairer democracy in the UK. The event was part of the Occupy Movement – a peaceful protest taking place across nine days to show solidarity with protesters in Hong Kong and to highlight the impacts of austerity, inequality, neoliberalism and a lack of liberty on our society.
No politics outside Parliament…
Despite being peaceful, the protesters have been constantly harassed by the police, resulting in a number of warnings being issued for a range of acts including having an umbrella, wearing a hood, and sitting on a sheet of tarpaulin. As a result, the protesters have dubbed the event the “#TarpaulinRevolution”. But why have the police been so heavy-handed, and what has the role of the Green Party been in this movement?
Parliament Square has long been used as a site of protest and is both historically and symbolically an important site of demonstrations. The square is directly visible from the Houses of Parliament, meaning that the space is relevant to protesters to communicate their message to the decision makers inside. Despite the symbolic role that this area holds to the British public, it has been illegal to demonstrate here since 2005, after a new by-law was created to stop an ongoing demonstration by long-term activist Brian Haw who camped out in the square against the Iraq war. Brian’s protest lasted 10 years until his death in 2011. Brian was able to stay at the camp due to the wording of the by-law which said that protesters need permission from the police when the “demonstration starts” – and since Brian’s protest started in 2001 he won a judicial appeal that allowed him to remain on the square – although his life there was filled with constant police harassment.
This law inhibits citizens’ rights to free speech and the right to assemble within a half-mile radius of the Houses of Parliament, and has been challenged under the European Convention on Human rights. The experience of Brian and the current Occupy protesters have shown that the laws that protect the square and property in the area have been given preference over the civil rights of citizens. Fundamentally, while policing Parliament Square, the police do not take a human rights approach to policing, but instead use a property rights approach, such as evicting people to ensure that the grass of the square was protected, and arresting anyone who stood against this order.
This response to demonstrators also works against the role of police in the UK to “facilitate peaceful protest”, instead using heavy handed techniques to forcibly remove demonstrators from an area where protests have taken place for hundreds of years.
The hypocrisy of Britain’s elite
As noted, one of the key focuses of this protest was to show solidarity with the protesters in Hong Kong, whilst highlighting the lack of democracy in the UK. There are many comparisons between these protests – to begin with, both of these protests started by the invasion of a square; both Civic Square in Hong Kong and Parliament Square in London are protected by arbitrary laws making protest illegal in the area. These comparisons highlight the hypocrisy of UK politics. Whilst the pro-democracy protests were taking place in Hong Kong, the UK Foreign Office issued a statement calling for the right for protesters to demonstrate there – even deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg tweeted his support for the “brave pro-democracy demonstrators”. During both this movement and the clashes in Ukraine, the UK government’s stance was underpinned in a belief that citizens have fundamental rights and freedoms including the right to protest – yet when this happened on the doorstep of the UK Parliament it became a whole different story, with police stopping protesters using any equipment that would “facilitate sleep”. This meant that unlike in Hong Kong, protesters were not allowed sleeping bags or even umbrellas, but had to sleep rough to use their right to protest. Even pizza boxes were removed from the protesters as ‘sleeping equiment’, exemplifying the bizarrely arbitrary and draconian nature of UK laws on free speech (or lack-thereof).
One of the outcomes that the UK hoped for in Hong Kong was for both sides to talk about the issues. Despite the fact that the Occupy Movement managed to fight and remain outside the Houses of Parliament for nine days, few politicians came out to discuss the issues that were being challenged by the protesters.
The role of the Greens
One party played a key role in these discussions – the Green Party. Although the party didn’t lead nor direct these demonstrations, Green Party Peer Jenny Jones, MP Caroline Lucas, Councillors as well as Leader Natalie Bennett and Deputy Leaders were all in attendance to show solidarity and support. This support came in multiple forms, from flasks of tea to speeches on the right to protest and even Baroness Jenny Jones getting arrested before being promptly de-arrested (she sits on London’s top policing committee!). On top of that, many of the protesters were or have since become Green Party members.
With this, Green Party support brought media attention to the protests. Usually, something that both the Occupy Movement and the Green Party of England and Wales have in common is an ongoing media blackout of our work and policies. However, with the arrest of Jenny Jones and the near arrest of Caroline Lucas MP (for trying to feed a demonstrator with some omelette), the situation captured the media attention of the movement, successfully securing articles in many of the major newspapers for leading elected Greens as well as the Occupy Movement.
It’s possibly inevitable that it was only the Green Party that would support the protestors, since the issues they were discussing such as fighting fracking, wealth inequality, making the minimum wage a living wage and taking real action to tackle climate change are all fundamental to Green Party policy, but are widely ignored by the other parties in the UK. In fact, despite just having one MP in the House of Commons, some people argue that the Green Party are the real opposition party, as they are the only party who are standing up for something different to the coalition government.
I am proud as Deputy Leader of the Greens to have stood alongside so many demonstrators and passionate Green Party members fighting for a fairer future – people who remained peaceful despite the disproportionate response from the police who barely let them sleep for nine days, and ensured that they lived in fear of arrest at every moment using every possible by-law to do it. Apparently even singing is now illegal on Parliament Square due to the potential noise pollution!
The camp has brought together people who are passionate about change, and they have submitted a list of demands for change to MP’s this Monday. Demands they have created through open discussions and meetings throughout the nine day event, and demands that have been supported by the range of speakers that have engaged with the event to support and educate people about new issues or first-hand experiences. From the inspiration that this camp has generated, they hope that will capture the imaginations of more cities throughout Europe – cities and countries which are also suffering the impacts of inequality, austerity and ‘democracy’ weighted to benefit the 1%.