The right to protest peacefully – we must cherish it, even if we disagree with the protesters

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The other day, I overheard someone describing how they would like the “Stop Oil” protesters to be dealt with. It was not pleasant and I am not going to repeat their words here for fear of inciting hatred.

Protests can be very tiresome and disturb our normal routine.

But we have to be patient with them. The moment we start suggesting forcible ways to restrict peaceful protests, is the moment we stop being a fair democracy and, I would also suggest, the moment we stop being British.

I was particularly appalled at the treatment of the young man in Edinburgh on September 12th. He shouted out “you’re a sick old man” as Prince Andrew passed in the Royal procession. He was pushed to the ground and there are currently two people who have been charged over an alleged assault. The young man will not face a court hearing, it has been decided.

I am pleased that the justice system seems to be working as it should with regard to that September 12th incident.

I think we should all remember to show patience and, perhaps, indulgence towards peaceful protesters.

We have a democracy and justice system of which we should be proud. Protest is part of it.

There has been a recent spate of Royalism. We should remember that Her Majesty the Queen put up with peaceful protests for most of her long life. Indeed, for many, she personified the British way of tolerating protest. So the last thing we should be doing now is trying to stamp out peaceful protest with draconian measures.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist and member of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • Massimo Ricciuti 22nd Nov '22 - 5:35pm

    I agree, Paul. Here I’m Italy too.

  • Paul Barker 22nd Nov '22 - 7:03pm

    I disagree on the case of “Just Stop Oil”, their actions go beyond protest to actual bullying in the case of the Road blockades. Non-violence has to mean more than simply not punching people.
    The attempts to destroy priceless works of Art are both inexplicable & vile.
    Simply being on the “Right Side” does not mean that normal rules don’t apply.

  • Kevin Maher 22nd Nov '22 - 7:23pm

    In a democratic society journalists should be able to report on demonstrations without fear of them being arrested, despite producing their cards, nor having their homes searched in the night. Absolutely disgraceful.

  • It seems that the liberal concept of “protest” and the anarchist concept of “propaganda by the deed” have become thoroughly confused. A potentially dangerous situation.

  • Chris Moore 23rd Nov '22 - 7:35am

    @Paul, destroying works of art would be criminal damage and is not peaceful protest therefore, which the article rightly defends.

    Blockading motorways is similar to the effect of a serious picket line. And is therefore a very grey area. “Bullying” is the wrong word. You need to find another description.

    Were the suffragettes also “bullies”?

  • I agree totally about the right to protest

    I am guessing this means you, and others, will be supporting the right for pro-life protests to continue near abortion providers? Because I only ever see support for banning these protests by elected Liberal Democrats. I never see support for the right of these people to protest (even of we disagree with them)

  • Wilf Forrow 23rd Nov '22 - 9:02am

    “Just Stop Oil” protestors have no personal gain by protesting – they’re doing it purely for the love of their planet, and their case is absolutely accepted by science and by governments.
    But apparently it’s totally OK to wreck the whole UK railway system for totally personal gain – ie higher wages? I’m not against withdrawing labour, but I don’t agree with wrecking a public system (and also driving people back to cars and wrecking the planet).
    I blame the government, by the way, for not imposing a realistic and fair pay settlement.

  • Barry Lofty 23rd Nov '22 - 9:22am

    If I was trapped on the M25 on my way to an important appointment ie hospital, Doctors, or delivering parcels on minimum wages etc etc I may not be inclined to think kindly about these types of protests and perhaps not the best way to persuade the general public to support your cause whether you agree with them or not?

  • I agree with Paul Barker and Barry Lofty. Sadly, the tactics of “Just Stop Oil” have only publicised their actions not their cause.

  • A number of points here –
    Just Stop Oil have tried to destroy works of Art, if that is Violence then they are not “Non-violent”.
    Theres a longish recent history of various “Green” movements using what I would call Soft Violence – Reclaim the Streets, Occupy, Extinction Rebellion etc. There is indeed an obvious line of influence from Anarchism & various strands of Communism/Revolutionary Socialism. All this is very much Anti-Liberal.

    I wonder if there isn’t something much Older emerging here – a streak of Puritanism with God being replaced by Nature. That might explain the peculiar obsession with attacking Works of Art, something usually associated with Religion.

  • It’s interesting to consider people like Nelson Mandela or some of the current Iranian protests in this. Both planned or carried out actions which would absolutely be illegal in the UK – from property damage well in excess of throwing a bit of paint around to failing to file proper pre-protest paperwork – they are going well beyond the mere “peaceful protest” that this article is already attracting disagreement for supporting.

    The point is that allowing “peaceful protest” – and being fairly generous with what counts as “peaceful” – is in the interests of the government, because it provides a very useful safety valve and corrective to allow things to be changed well before a critical mass of people get to the “burning down police stations” stage of anger.

    Wilf: “I’m not against withdrawing labour, but I don’t agree with wrecking a public system”

    That ends up with the very silly situation – unsustainable in the long-term – where workers in non-essential services can take industrial action to improve their pay and conditions, but workers in essential services “shouldn’t”, so the more essential your job is the worse it ends up paid.

    If the UK railway system is sufficiently important to the country that it must be kept running at all costs … then those “at all costs” should be given as wages to the workers directly so that we don’t get into this situation in the first place.

  • Re: “bullying”
    Whilst I understand the frustrations of people being held up due to the actions of “Just Stop Oil”, I suspect they would be equally frustrated at being stuck because of an accident etc. (I know how I felt when stuck on a motorway at silly o’clock on my way to catch a work-related flight…)

    The specific problem we have is that successive governments have in the main paid lip service to environmental concerns and dragged their feet over taking action, even though things are largely progressing as forecasted…
    Hence it is not unexpected that people feel that more confrontational direct action is necessary – as Paul notes there is a long history of this in the environmental movement, remember Swampy?

    @James Pugh
    “I am guessing this means you, and others, will be supporting the right for pro-life protests to continue near abortion providers?
    No because, as they have repeatedly demonstrated, their intent is the intimidation of care professionals and vulnerable women.

  • The problem with this debate is that it hinges on definitions of both “peaceful” and “protest”. The Stop Oil protests could be considered “peaceful” – but only if we ignore the harm to others (people missing critical cancer care treatments, delay to ambulances arriving at accident scenes, young people missing school, the list of people who chose not to participate but have been affected goes on). Because protests (“peaceful” or otherwise) do have the potential to cause harm, governments legislate to draw a line between acceptable an unacceptable. We can debate where that line is – there’s a spectrum between no room for protest (cf. FIFA land) and anarchy. But it is important to have a line – because it allows people who feel their case has particular merit or urgency (as the Suffragettes did and the Extinction Rebellion people seem to do) to overstep that line into illegality to make their point.

  • David Garlick 23rd Nov '22 - 2:25pm

    I agree with the right to protest being protected 100%.

    I will not be part of JSO aas they are too strong in their actions for me. However.

    THEY ARE RIGHT! The Gov’t knows they are right, we know they are right and with the planet in peril I am more then pleased that they are getting the attention the issue deserves.
    I draw the line at any sort of damage to people or property but if we are offended, disrupted, distressed even then rather than complain about the protesters we must take up the need for action with our Party leadership and our local MP. The UN Secretary General, King Charles, Prince William, David Attenbrough and 99% of the Climate science and scientists (IE those not employed by the fossil fuel companies) agree with JSO’s ambitions if not their actions.

    WE delay acting on the Clmate agenda at our, and the worlds, peril.

  • Massimo Ricciuti 23rd Nov '22 - 2:41pm

    Thank you everyone. It’s very interesting to read your comments to Paul Walter’article. It’s a good debate…

  • @Roland
    “”””No because, as they have repeatedly demonstrated, their intent is the intimidation of care professionals and vulnerable women.””””

    Where has this been demonstrated?

    Since the cause of banning protests near abortion providers was taken up by some liberals, I have looked at the various authoritarian anti-protest pressure groups who head this cause, and the most remarkable thing is that they have never provided any video footage of anything other than calm peaceful protests by these pro-life groups. These anti-protest pressure groups have shown up with cameras to countless such protests, clearly trying to provoke and incite some sort of reaction that can be used to paint the protests are intimidating and aggressive, but it’s always the same; a small huddle of pro-lifers peacefully protesting. Exactly like the pro-life groups I used to pass regularly at the entrance of two different hospitals on my way to work.

    It is a total myth and fabrication that these pro-life groups outside British abortion providers are threatening/intimidating. But the stereotype of a baying mob and women having to run a gauntlet continues in spite of it being fantasy.

    Contrast this to the very pushy and aggressive anti-Israel BDS protest I had to get passed to enter Marks and Spencer this summer, or the picket lines of striking workers. All legit in my opinion, because I do believe in the right to protest, which some clearly don’t. All protesters are there to enact a change they want to see. That’s liberty. That’s democracy

  • Chris Moore 23rd Nov '22 - 8:19pm

    I am pro-choice on abortion, but also support freedom to protest peacefully near clinics.

    My feeling is that the Just Stop Oil protests won’t work, because nearly all politicians and the vast majority of the populace still don’t really accept how utterly dire the situation is.

  • Andrew Tampion 24th Nov '22 - 7:05am

    James Pugh and Chris Moore are right to say that we have to respect all peaceful protesters, whether or not we agree with their cause. In this respect bans on protests outside abotion clinics are just as much an affront to democracy as recent changes to the law in England.
    If protesters commit other crimes such as public order offences in the case of protesters outside abortion clinics or criminal damage in the case of climate protesters then they can be charged and are free to argue a defence of necessity, which I believe has been successful for climate protesters in the past.

  • Andy Boddington 25th Nov '22 - 8:49am

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