15 December 2007

Sometimes the law is an ass

By Juliette Harkin

On this day in 1791 the American government adopted the Bill of Rights as an amendment to the United States Constitution. Article 1 of this Bill recognised the right of people to "peaceably assemble" and to "petition government for redress of grievances".

These new rights didn't help the legendary Sioux leader Sitting Bull and his community, as they opposed the mass land grab and clearing of native Indians by American settlers and demanded a "redress of grievances" against them.

As with the African American slaves, the rights enshrined in the Constitution were of no use to the Sioux people. These rights were only extended to the white settlers. Sitting Bull was arrested on the 15th December in 1890 for his alleged involvement in resistance to giving up remaining Indian land and he was shot dead by Indian police loyal to the white settlers.

But today things are different, right? The injustices against the native Indians would not happen on our watch? But, who is watching? Well civil rights group Liberty are for one. They might beg to differ as we reassure ourselves that we have come a long way since the injustices of colonial rule and settlement and that dissent against such injustices would now be heard. As their website states:
    "Protest and free speech are crucial parts of political life, with a strong British history, yet a variety of measures undermine them. Laws intended to combat anti-social behaviour, terrorism and serious crime are routinely used against legitimate protesters".
We look back on history and admire the suffragettes who fought for the women's vote, William Wilberforce and the Quakers who played a role in calling for the abolishment of the slave trade, and Rosa Parks who, like all protestors since her time, have defied the 'norms' and the conservative tide to question injustice and demand a change.

Today, activists, protestors and even those following the 'wrong' religion at the wrong time, are often attacked, vilified and oppressed in our society and can be imprisoned with or without trial; as Liberty points out, free speech is one of the first victims in the 'war on terror'.

Now, it seems, we have to fight for our rights to ensure that they are not eroded. In March 2003 people exercised their right to protest against the bombing of Iraq, travelling to RAF Fairford for a rally they were stopped by police. In a landmark case in December 2006 the law lords ruled in favour of the protestors in what Amnesty International described as "a case of fundamental importance for the right to freedom of expression and peaceful protest". The police were found to have acted unlawfully in first delaying a coach load of demonstrators and then in forcibly making them return to London.

People are making thei voices heard but it comes at a great and often unjust personal cost. Protests here in Norwich at the entrance to a company producing weapons have ended in one anti-war campaigner being charged with aggravated trespass. Yet the concerns these demonstrators were trying to highlight are real – the arms trade kills. The Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) has stated that 2,000 deaths and injuries are happening daily around the world as a result of our acquiescence in dealing arms.

Brian Haw has spent over 2,300 days camped outside our Parliament in peaceful protest against the suffering of the Iraqis due to sanctions and war. Liberty have supported his right to protest and successfully appealed against charges that he was in breach of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA) of 2005, new legislation that criminalised him.

SOCPA makes it illegal for a person or persons to protest within one square kilometre of the Houses of Parliament without prior written permission from the police. This has led to ludicrous situations in instances in which individuals have to have police permission to don the Red Nose and can be stopped for wearing t-shirts with political messages.

A prime example of the law being an ass and a reminder that we probably need to exercise our rights in order to keep them.

So: Let us not be quick to judge protestors as anarchists, hippies and criminals; there must be a reason why pensioners and mothers risk their liberty in order to raise real concerns about wars being waged, about the nuclear industry and about dangerous climate change – issues that do and will affect us all.