Does Exercising Your Freedom Of Expression Make You A Terrorist?
Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson
It is not particularly shocking in 2018 to say that I have taken part in more than one peaceful protest in my adulthood. What is shocking, however, is that this could make me a terrorist.
Taking part in a non-violent, social movement in the UK (in other words, a peaceful protest) can see you labelled as a domestic extremist. Immediately, the word ‘extremist’ conjures associations with terrorism and solicitor Michael Oswald argues that this is “no coincidence”. He argues that the term is used
“to separate out and categorise certain types of protest and certain types of protesters as effectively terrorists and dangerous to the state.”
The change in responsibility for those alleged domestic extremists appears to support the link. Previously, domestic extremists were monitored by London’s Metropolitan Police but this was passed to the UK’s Counter Terrorism Network in 2015.
Netpol (The Network for Police Monitoring) observed in 2016 that the government and the police are in a “permanent state of war” on a number of fronts including the unending ‘war on terror’ and alleged extremism. Commenting on domestic extremism’s change in monitoring, Netpol feel
“political dissent is treated, in effect, like terrorism and thus immediately subject to blanket ‘national security’ restrictions.” (Netpol)
I, like many, was under the impression that protesting peacefully was entirely legal due to my rights to freedom of assembly and expression. I had no idea then, nor truthfully until today, that domestic extremism was a term that could be applied to me.
In Netpol’s newly released video, A War on Dissent, Green peer Jenny Jones, who found out that she was on record as a domestic extremist, commented on the change in policing she has seen since attending her first protest fifty years ago:
“It’s obvious to me that policing has changed a lot. The police seem to have lost focus on facilitating peaceful protest. What they seem to be doing is prioritising private companies and protection of property over local people who are there to protest something they care very deeply about.”
According to the video, police no longer differentiate between violent and non-violent protests. Instead the focus lies on whether the protesters are breaking the law, for example Grow recently reported on the Extinction Rebellion protest in London where arrests were made for obstructing the highway. Although this protest was deemed a peaceful one, those who took part in it would have fallen under the category of domestic extremists. Netpol coordinator Kevin Blowe drove home the point in the video, saying the police would argue that “any protest which involves breaking the law lacks legitimacy.”
Netpol’s report continues the metaphor of war between police and public, saying:
“Keeping the peace” (perhaps more accurately, pacification) involves the shrinking and ultimately denial of any space that your “enemy” might conceivably benefit from.” (Netpol)
The monitoring network argues that it is the nature of the protest that determines police involvement. Those protests which “directly challenge either state or corporate power” are more likely to see “aggressive and violent police tactics” and civil injunctions from major companies to “shut down any form of effective protest completely.” The report continues by stating:
“the definition of what constitutes a ‘peaceful protest’ becomes increasingly meaningless when protests are judged not on whether they pose a genuine risk of violence […] but instead on who the protests are directed at and whether protesters are likely to disrupt some aspect of state or corporate interests.”
An example of Netpol’s claim can be seen in the recent arrests, convictions and finally acquittals of the ‘fracking three’. This case saw three peaceful protesters charged with public nuisance and sentenced to prison terms between fifteen and sixteen months; the first prison sentence for this type of crime since 1932. Although the court of appeal later ruled the sentences were inappropriate and ordered the release of Simon Blevins, Richard Roberts and Rich Loizou, the damage had arguably been done by aligning peaceful protests with criminal activity punishable by law.
War on Dissent urges those who are considering taking part in peaceful protests to be sure of their rights, including having legal counsel with them before engaging in any verbal communication with police. Blowe concludes the video by highlighting the creeping encroachment on the civil rights of protesters, saying:
“If you’re constantly afraid of what’s going to happen to you if you attend a march or a rally then that poses as much risk to those fundamental rights as the state deciding that they’re just going to ban a demonstration completely.”
Space should not be denied to those who want to protest peacefully, whether the protest is small or large-scale, whether it is aimed at a corporation or a point of view. It is important that we understand our rights to freedom of assembly and expression, but equally that we find out more about the term domestic extremism in order to combat its fear-inciting links with terrorism.
To view the full Netpol video, click here.