On 5 September, a trans rights protest (see here) scheduled for Parliament Square, London, was cancelled by its organisers because the police threatened them with mass arrests.
The organisers wrote: “On 3 September we liaised with the Metropolitan Police and they assured us, after the news of Piers Corbyn’s arrest [on 29 August, at a Trafalgar Square anti-virus-precautions protest] that there would be no risk of arrests or fines because our protest posed no risk of danger.
“[Then] on 4 September the police called us and informed us that there is a likelihood that us, any participants, stewards and even British Sign Language interpreters of the Trans Rights Protest [would] be arrested on 5 September”.
Many other demonstrations of different sorts have taken place and are due soon. The Uyghur Solidarity Campaign held its regular monthky protest at the Chinese Embassy the same day, with care but with no trouble from the police.
Far-right anti-asylum-seeker protesters blocked main roads in Dover on 5 September. Ten were arrested, but on charges like “assaulting an emergency worker”, not on the basis of any ban on protests. Migrant rights supporters held a counter-protest elsewhere in Dover, and had no trouble with the police.
Extinction Rebellion protests have incurred arrests, but that is not new for them. NHS workers are confident about their protests on 12 September.
There are regulations restricting protests, under the Coronavirus Act, which are periodically amended. As it stands, it is legal to organise a demonstration of over 30 people as long as:
• you are a “political campaigning organisation” (in a broad sense)
• you’ve done a risk assessment (which does not have to be shown to or approved by police)
• you take reasonable measures to reduce risk (covid-distancing, using hand sanitiser, wearing masks).
Even if some people attending your demonstration behave recklessly, as long as the organisers have taken reasonable measures to promote virus-precautions, they’re covered.
Moreover, if the protest is static, it is covered by different legislation. Organisers do not have to liaise with the police or get permission for static rallies. There is no need for risk assessments.
If protesters keep our nerve, and the labour movement stands up for civil liberties, then we can sustain our rights.
The dangers are shown by events in New South Wales, Australia. Back in early June the police got a court to ban a Black Lives Matter protest, overturned on appeal only minutes before the 60,000-strong march started.
Since then the police have squeezed down protest rights bit by bit. A new appeal, “Restore the right to protest in NSW” (see here), says:
“Following the NSW police’s recent interpretation... any public gathering of more than twenty people, for the ‘common purpose’ of protesting, no matter how distanced the participants or large the area, is deemed illegal.”
“Yet in NSW, up to 10,000 are now allowed to attend Rugby League matches, and 50 in a single corporate box. Three hundred can be in a casino, pub or restaurant.
“Not a single documented case of coronavirus spread has occurred at a protest in Australia [where the public health authorities have much wider tracing of infection sources than in Britain]. We now know that outdoor activities, combined with mask-wearing, are one of the safest things you can do...”