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<nettime> -ALLSORTS- new attack on civil rights [UK]
reclaim the streets on Sat, 3 Apr 1999 23:13:39 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> -ALLSORTS- new attack on civil rights [UK]


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Date: Wed, 31 Mar 1999 20:42:47 +0100
To: rts {AT} gn.apc.org
From: "George Monbiot" <g.monbiot {AT} zetnet.co.uk> (by way of genetics
<genetics {AT} gn.apc.org>)
Subject: -ALLSORTS-new attack on civil rights
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DAA21624

Sorry about the delay. Here's last week's column. Best wishes, George
 

We are entering, the government would have us believe, a new era of civil
liberties. The Human Rights Act, incorporating the European Convention on Human
Rights into British law, comes into force next year. Jack Straw has just
announced that he will extend the Race Relations Act to the police. At the
beginning of this month, the Law Lords overturned the conviction of two
protesters prosecuted under the previous government's pitiless "trespassory
assembly" provisions. Our peculiar legal system, which protects property
fiercely, the individual capriciously and society scarcely at all, is gradually
turning into a defender of liberty, diversity and dissent. Don't believe a word
of it. {AT} 

Britain is on the threshold of the biggest civil rights clampdown in its recent
history. The party which has worked so hard to contain internal dissent -
stifling Rhodri Morgan, Ken Livingstone and Dennis Canavan - is now seeking to
eliminate extra-parliamentary politics. Nothing Michael Howard did compares to
the new assaults on fundamental liberties which Jack Straw is engineering. He
has opened his attack on several fronts. {AT} 

In seven days, anti-social behaviour orders will come into force. Designed
ostensibly to contain nuisance neighbours, bullies and vandals, they are the
perfect weapon for eliminating protest. The police can apply to a magistrates'
court for an order against anyone they deem to be causing "harrassment, alarm
or distress" to someone else, or whom, they believe, is "likely" to do so. The
defendant will be prohibited from doing anything deemed to offend the order for
at least two years, on pain of a five-year prison sentence. {AT} 

"In theory," the Home Office concedes, "it could be used against protesters".
In practice, the new law will be used by any force which would rather prevent
dissent than police it. When the anti-stalking laws were introduced in 1997 to
protect people from sexual harrassment, the Home Office insisted that they were
not designed for use against protesters and would never be deployed for that
purpose. Of the first five prosecutions, three involved protesters,
demonstrating peacefully outside the offices of people they accused of harming
animals. {AT} 

Nine days ago, the consultation period for the government's Legislation Against
Terrorism proposals closed. The Home Office would like the definition of
terrorism to be expanded to include "serious violence against persons or
property, or the threat to use such violence ... for political, religious or
ideological ends". It would like the definition of "serious violence" to be
broadened to include "damage and serious disruption" which might result from
attempts to hack into computers or interfere with public property. In other
words, offences currently defined as criminal damage could, as long as they are
politically motivated, be raised to the status of "serious violence". {AT} 

Campaigns whose members might plan to pour sand into the engines of
earthmovers, for example, or disrupt the unloading of genetically engineered
grain at a public port could be classified as terrorist organisations. Trade
unions, environmental and social justice movements, disability campaigners,
striking lorry drivers, indeed anyone who dares to take politics into public
places, could, if these grotesque proposals were implemented, find themselves
treated as if they belonged to the IRA. The government insists that it has "no
intention of suggesting" that public order offences should be tackled as if
they were terrorist crimes. Again, however, it offers no means by which the
legislation could distinguish between the two. {AT} 

As if in preparation for these proposals, the Home Office has just opened a
"National Public Order Intelligence Unit". Its purpose is to compile profiles
of protesters and potentially troublesome organisations, follow and monitor
them, and devise action plans to prevent them from operating. Even these
measures, however, are considered insufficient to contain the threat of
extra-parliamentary dissent: last week the Inspector of Constabulary proposed
that the Home Office draw up new legislation to prevent protesters from
building camps. {AT} 

Trouble-making is a costly nuisance, a drain on public resources, an impediment
to the smooth functioning of government. It is also one of the only means by
which our political leaders can be forced to address the concerns of the
excluded, the dispossessed or, indeed, anyone who does not number among their
target voters. It saved the country 19 billion when the demented road-building
programme was largely abandoned. It helped to secure a right to roam. It might
yet wrest Tony Blair from the tentacles of the genetically modified food lobby.
Without trouble, political systems sclerotise and succumb to corruption.
Protest is the prerequisite of democracy. {AT} 

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