Earlier, I posted the Democracy Camp’s Press Release. I confess I probably would not have worded the statement as they did – “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” may be good rhetoric, but it is also a tacit admission that the camp is indeed seriously unhygenic! Since those who oppose the protestare using a public health argument against the campers, I worry that this admission only gives more ammunition to the authorities.
My understanding of the peace camp is that it is primarily a protest against the British presence in Afghanistan, with a dash of the anarchic “Don’t vote” message thrown in for good measure. However, the eviction controversy has replaced these demands with a version of Marshall Macluan’s “The Medium is the Message”. More important than anything they say, is the fact that they are there. As Westminister Council and the GLA seek to remove the protesters, the issue of the right to protest becomes paramount.
Making your point outside the seat of government is an essential component of any democracy, however unsightly it looks, and however inconvenient it is for everyone else. It is right and good that the tourists who come to photograph and tour the so-called Mother of Parliaments should also see people openly dissenting against the decisions of that parliament. I have ambled around Parliament Square a few times in recent weeks, and the contrast between the grandeur of the Palace of Westminster, and the ramshackle protest camp, says something important about free speech and democracy. Even the poorest and most humble of us can challenge what happens in the most ornate and powerful of places. This is an image we should promote and propagate.
If the authorities are genuinely concerned about hygeine then they should provide modest facilities for ablutions and waste disposal… thereby facilitating the protest, not hampering it. It would be unfair for residents of the City of Westminster, or Greater London, to foot the bill for this. Instead, UK taxpayers should pick up the tab.
Update 19th July
Here is the Court of Appeal judgement against the Democracy Village. I think the key paragraph is here (hat-tip to Intifada Kid):
48. It is important to bear in mind that this was not a case where there is any suggestion that the defendants should not be allowed to express their opinions or to assemble together. The claim against them only relates to their activities on PSG. It is not even a case where they have been absolutely prohibited from expressing themselves and assembling where, or in the manner, in which they choose. They have been allowed to express their views and assemble together at the location of their choice, PSG, for over two months on an effectively exclusive basis. It is not even as if they will necessarily be excluded from mounting an orthodox demonstration at PSG in the future. Plainly, these points are not necessarily determinative of their case, but, when it comes to balancing their rights against the rights of others, they are obviously significant factors.
Taken together with points in the comments from MattGB and David, I would probably back away from my uncompromising stance in favour of the camp. If the activities of the protesters turn Parliament Square into a no-go area for other demonstrators, then they are engaging in the denial of other people’s freedom of expression, as they excercise their right to their own.
Such an argument makes me uneasy, because similar arguments are used mendaciously in other instances – For example arguments of the “your right to free expression impedes my right to freedom of religion” kind (c.f. Behzti, Satanic Verses, Jerry Springer The Opera). In this case however I think this formulation just about holds up – not least because the example of Brian Haw shows how someone can mount a permenant protest on Parliament Square without making it a no-go area for other.
Memo to Democracy Camp: Next time, pick one small quadrant of lawn and stick to it!