The right to protest is paramount, no matter the method

By Sofia Lammali

WHETHER it be blocking roads, strikes, throwing milk off supermarket shelves, gluing yourself to things or throwing tomato soup at iconic works of art; an air of restlessness has descended over Britain.

Protesting is back in fashion after a few apathetic years off. And consequently, so is the backlash.

Protests hold a strange place in cultural and political consciousness. Though we are praiseworthy of historical protests and acknowledge their role in obtaining our rights and improved living conditions of today; we are remain incredibly critical of current protests – even if we agree with the cause.

A little annoyance at your day being inconvenienced by a protestor in an orange vest with their backside on concrete in front of your car is – broadly speaking – fine. But we head into dangerous territory when we urge for these protesters to be punished or for tighter restrictions on protests in general.

It is important to remember that all protests are, by nature, disruptive and controversial. At its core, that is the point. If the message was universally uncontroversial, there would be no need for a protest. If a protest had no impact, it would be useless.

Just Stop Oil and their cause has become a household name through their action of blocking highways, vandalising building with orange paint and their now infamous pouring of tomato soup on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.

Insulate Britain adopted similar road blocking tactics earlier this year – in the wake of the energy and cost of living crisis, their urgency in these protests appear entirely justifiable.

Animal Rebellion’s disruption has included pouring milk on supermarket floors in protest of animal cruelty.

There is no doubt that these protests are disorderly and aggravating. Even those in favour of their message remain unconvinced at its impact.

However, crucially, these kind of protests are also non-violent – the benchmark of acceptability for most people. This makes any type of stringent legislation placed on these protestors and the backlash they face even more worrying. And it has already happened.

In this response to disruptive protests by Extinction Rebellion back in 2019, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 widened the range of conditions that police can impose on protests, as well as increasing penalties for protestors.

It’s clear that the government is utilising the bad will that people have developed for protesters to enforce stricter laws on the right to protest.

Recent Just Stop Oil protests have even resulted in journalists being arrested.

With this comes the distinct risk of a domino effect. A gradual curbing of protesting rights is bad for democracy and is bad for all of us. No matter how irritating or tasteless we find their methods, their rights to demonstrate remain fundamental and we should not let a reactionary press convince us otherwise; and avoid falling into the trap of supporting harsher punishments.

Freedom of speech, the great buzz phrase of our time, has always included right to protest, and true champions of freedom must be wary of any attempt to undermine or curtail it.

Featured Image: Mark Dixon @ Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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