This blog by Greenpeace UK exective director John Sauven first appeared on the Guardian's Comment Is Free.
Today reports have begun to circulate that police have carried out what according to the Guardian "is thought to be the biggest pre-emptive raid on environmental campaigners in UK history, arresting 114 people believed to be planning direct action at a coal-fired power station". The arrests don't really come as a huge surprise to me. What we are witnessing today is a massive increase in police surveillance of environmental campaigners and an increasing number of environmental groups being infiltrated by informers.
I have witnessed Greenpeace staff walking into our office in north London having to run a gauntlet of police photographers and videographers filming all who enter and leave. Hardly undercover surveillance. More like over-the-top harassment. I have also received reports of staff being stopped and their details taken after attending meetings of groups opposed to aviation expansion at Stansted. The list goes on. And its not just the UK government. Last week I learned that EDF, the French state-owned nuclear giant and sponsor of the London Olympics, had been charged with conspiring to hack into Greenpeace's computers. They are all at it.
As Cesc Fábregas of Arsenal said, commentating in Monday's Guardian on the match against Wigan, he takes man-marking as a compliment, "because they feel I can do something". Should we take surveillance as a compliment, as a sign of our effectiveness? Well maybe for Greenpeace - we are strong enough to take the intimidation without it affecting our performance. But we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that protest and free speech are crucial parts of political life. What concerns me is the increasing variety of measures that are undermining this strong British tradition.
In the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, which was first introduced in 2004, onerous restrictions were placed on the rights of individual protest and assembly within the vicinity of parliament: the linchpin of British democracy. Soon after Gordon Brown became prime minister in 2007, he said: "While balancing the need for public order with the right to public dissent, I think it right to change the laws that now restrict the right to demonstrate in Parliament Square." Nearly two years later and nothing has changed. Maybe "public order" won and "public dissent" lost. Man-marking is still in vogue at No 10!
The right of peaceful assembly and protest is the lifeblood of any
democracy. Peaceful protest is the direct means by which the corresponding
right to freedom of expression can be enforced. Peaceful protest also
reinforces the accountability of those who govern and it is the mechanism by
which people are able to actively assert their membership of a democracy.
The UK has a long and proud history of peaceful protest. From the lobbying and petitioning of the early anti-slavery movement, to the Chartist's first public meetings in the 1800s, through to the anti-war march of 2003, Britain has acquired and developed a vital political culture of peaceful protest and dissent. Central to this has been the ability of ordinary people to organise, gather, collectively express their grievances and agitate for reform.
Given the crucial role that photographers and videographers played during the G20 protests in the City of London, it was a bizarre act of timing that on 16 February in the UK, section 76 of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 came into effect, allowing for the arrest, fining and imprisonment for up to 10 years of anyone who takes pictures of police officers. Man-marking is only allowed one way!
The law will increase the anti-terrorism powers used today by police officers to stop photographers, including press photographers, from taking pictures in public places.
Picture a protest or demonstration. A bunch of riot police wade in with
batons and a bystander takes out a camera to preserve the evidence. The right
of citizens to maintain surveillance over their own police is vital to any
So maybe take man-marking as a compliment. Don't be intimidated. The climate protesters in Nottingham will be back. The challenge of tackling climate change is too important for us to be silenced.