Occupy Wins Parliament Square Fence Stand-Off

Photo by David Holt in the Londonist Flickr pool

Occupy Democracy protesters have won the latest round in a series of scuffles over access to Parliament Square, after fencing erected in October 2014 was taken down at the weekend.

The group had organised a 10 day protest in the square last year, but found itself unceremoniously evicted by police getting creative with the 2011 Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act (PDF). Under the Act, anything which can be construed as sleeping equipment or a structure is banned, which now includes umbrellas, backpacks and pizza boxes (go figure). The area was then fenced off, with Greater London Authority (GLA) workers claiming it was for maintenance work and to allow the grass to grow back.

Human rights campaign group Liberty launched a judicial review, calling the restrictions ‘repressive’. Liberty lawyer Rosie Brighouse said:

“The irony of preventing peaceful protest in the heart of the world’s oldest democracy can’t have escaped the Mayor. Surely exercising democratic rights is to be celebrated not censured, especially in an election year — Parliament Square is not his private back garden.”

The Occupy Democracy protest saw the overnight occupation of Winston Churchill’s statue, as well as the arrest and subsequent de-arrest of Green Party’s Baroness Jenny Jones.

Parliament Square has long been the focus for protests — the late peace campaigner Brian Haw spent 10 years defying two governments over his occupation. With a general election coming up, the coalition government and the GLA are presumably keen to head highly visible protests off at the pass. Occupy London legal advisor Matthew Varnham said in response to the removal of the fencing:

“The Greater London Authority is suggesting that the Occupy Democracy protests are illegal since they have not sought permission. However in 2012 the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association said that in his opinion ‘the exercise of fundamental freedoms should never be subject to previous authorisation, but at most to a regime of notification’.

“Requiring permission to be sought for protest is only part of the regime which restricts activity on Parliament Square — BBC journalists were threatened on Saturday with arrest for filming on the square without first gaining permission. The absurdity of such a threat highlights the dangers of empowering the GLA with the authority to determine what conduct is appropriate, particularly at Parliament Square and when in response to time-limited peaceful protest.”