The Future for Parliament Square Protests & Democracy Village
After the clearance of the Democracy Village from Parliament Square, several groups of protesters remain and the Democracy Villagers met to decide their future plans. London, UK. 24/07/2010
Since the Democracy Village was evicted from the square in the early hours of Tuesday and most of the grassed area of the square fenced off there has been considerable speculation about the future of demonstrations in the square.
Many of us worried that the eviction would be an occasion for further harassment of the Parliament Square Peace Campaign, but in the event Brian Haw and Barbara Tucker received a visit by police and the Greater London Authority representative as the eviction started who reassured them that they would not be affected and the fence has been carefully routed a little way back around their area - and has created a further opportunity for their display. The decision on the eviction of the Democracy Village the previous Friday did not directly effect them, and restated their legal right to remain on the pavement while sending the matter of continuing to occupy a small part of the green for tents to a High Court hearing. While I was with them two Birmingham fire-fighters taking part in a charity event, The Great Escape, came to visit and have their picture taken with Brian; their mission was to get as far as possible from Birmingham in 36 hours without any money and to take the most interesting photographs on their journey.
There are currently two other permanent protests along the pavement, Maria Gallastegui's Peace Strike and the hunger strike by Len Miskulin, now on his 29th day, both also left in place. Len has campaigned for years for the rights of fathers and children, and has built up a dossier on illegal seizure of assets which he sees as proving that the judicial system is totally corrupt and used by the state to deny our basic human rights. He has been denied contact to his two children for ten years and is the subject of a gagging order that means he cannot talk to the press about what has happened to him, although he has a considerable amount of information on the web.
The Democracy Village had called a meeting on Saturday afternoon in Victoria Tower Gardens, next to the Thames and immediately south of the Houses of Parliament. Around 30 people turned up, including most of the more active members from the camp, and sat around in a large circle. The start of the meeting was delayed while one of them went to collect the small oak tree that had formed the centre-piece of the peace garden in the square and it was placed in the centre of the circle.
Before the meeting started, Chris Coverdale (founder of Make Wars History and co-founder with Maria Gallastegui of the Peace Strike which supported the Democracy Village) stood up and informed everyone of the contents of a letter from the Metropolitan Police. He had applied for and been granted permission for a continuing demonstration on either of the two pavements of the square for a year, but there were significant conditions attached.
Police would be entitled to close the demonstration down if it created serious public disorder or serious damage to property and it "must not disrupt the life of the community" or risk the safety of members of the public.
The Parliament Square Peace Campaign were restricted to a 3 metre wide display by a court decision some years ago, and that appears to have become some kind of standard. The authorisation obtained by Coverdale covers an area of 3m x 3m and a height of 1.5 meters for any structures and would allow up to 20 people at any one time to protest within that area - and they could also hold banners and placards which could of course be taller. Maria Gallastegui already has a number of separate authorisations for four permanent displays and several ongoing 24-hour vigils on the square.
It seems as if the authorities have decided to accept that the square will be used for protests - both small permanent protests and also larger short-term protests. One of the Mayor and the court's justifications for clearing the Democracy Camp was indeed that its presence was restricting the rights of others to protest in the area.
The authorisation clearly received a mixed welcome from those present and was presented before the meeting so it could be discussed at it, although one or two people did not feel this was appropriate.
The meeting opened with those present standing and linking hands to sing Leon Rosselson 'The World Turned Upside Down' (as sung by Billy Bragg) about the Diggers who in 1649 occupied and cultivated St George's Hill in Weybridge. They were eventually forced to move out after gang attacks on them organised by the land owners and a court case in which they were not allowed to defend themselves.
The discussion then began, and I had to leave to go elsewhere, and am unable to make any comment on what decisions were reached about the future activities of the Democracy Village. Given the number who came to the meeting it seems that their protests are almost certain to continue.
While I was taking photographs I was approached by a PCSO who asked me if my pictures were "of any commercial value". Apparently these gardens are a part of the Royal Parks and photography - even news photography - is not allowed without a permit. This also applies to many other areas where I and others regularly photograph, including Hyde Park and most of the other major London parks, and to Parliament Square.
I'd previously assumed that only commercial photography rather than news coverage required a permit, and certainly photographers have worked for years across London under this assumption. But another photographer present told me that he had been moved earlier in the week while covering a demonstration outside Buckingham Palace because he had no permit.
The Democracy villagers were also told that there meeting in Victoria Square Gardens was also a breach of the regulations but took no notice. Later in the day, long after I had gone, they returned to Parliament Square for some symbolic acts of resistance, entering the square, climbing on the plinth of the Churchill statue and even erecting a tent for a short while on the site. They were removed by police and bailiffs. One person, sitting quietly on the grass holding a peace flag was arrested for a breach of the peace but later released. They intend to hold a similar open 'People's Assembly' next Saturday.