The erosion of the hard fought-for right to protest is being met with complacency. It's time to speak upby Rachael Jolley / January 24, 2018 / Leave a comment
In 1963, crowds took to the streets of Bristol to protest against a “colour bar” that prevented the employment of non-white drivers and conductors on city buses. The protests were part of the Bristol bus boycott, a campaign that ended with the bus company taking on its first black and Asian conductors.
Today, those protesters could find their path across Bristol blocked because a private company, not elected representatives, run the central squares, and decide who is allowed to access them. Marches and demonstrations can now be stopped at a whim, and without a backward glance at history, after the city’s council signed a 250-year management lease with the Bristol Alliance for the central shopping district Cabot Circus, and failed to quibble about protecting democratic rights.
Other districts in Bristol—up to 100,000 square metres—are also at risk of passing into private hands, including part of the main street of Broadmead. A creeping reduction in the right to protest could spread. As you enter Cabot Circus, signs high up on walls i
nform you, if you care to look, that your mobile phone is being “surveyed” to “improve customer service.” There is no right to opt out, your choice is only to shop somewhere else.
“These are the streets where people demanded universal suffrage, gay marriage and their right to education”
Other cities with long histories of demonstrations that created social change, including Manchester and London, are negotiating with private companies to run their thoroughfares and squares. These are the streets where people demanded universal suffrage, gay marriage and their right to education.
Over the years, politicians have sometimes yielded to public demands (as they did within a couple of years of the Hyde Park protest over extending the vote in 1866 and the poll tax riots in 1990), sometimes closed their ears entirely (Iraq), and sometimes the desired change comes in the end, but takes centuries to achieve. At all times, though, governments have learned something about strength of feeling.
Why then are so few voices raised in concern at these new deals? Historically Manchester has been a centre for dissent; it is the site of the 1819 Peterloo massacre, where soldiers slaughtered civilians for protesting for a right to vote and for bread to eat. But Beth Knowles, a Manchester city councillor, recently told Index on Censorship magazine, that she was worried that public space had become “a luxury” that cities could no longer afford, and that while local people valued its history of protest, there was not much panic about the erosion of those rights today.
Many American city centres are run by private firms, but more has been done there to protect constitutional rights. It is happening in Europe, too, but there the drift to private management is at least being monitored, in a way it isn’t here.
Half a century ago, we saw the Prague Spring and the Paris marches of 1968. The protest of French students at Nanterre University spread like a wildfire then. The iconic images of that summer are remembered, but it is sometimes forgotten that les evenements ended in improved working conditions and an education bill. As for Prague, although its hopes were crushed by Soviet tanks that same year, the dreams of freedom didn’t die, but were revived in 1989.
Now the erosion of that hard fought-for right to protest is met with complacency. Are we living in societies that are so contented that we no longer see the need to tell the authorities that there is a need for change? Clearly not. Politics is fiercely contested, with Trump and Brexit among the issues that have brought voters out on to the street in the west. New year demonstrations in Iran, where the risks of stepping out of line are far greater, kept the world watching out for abuse of human rights and economic hardship in that country, and so reminded us anew of the importance of protest.
The freedom to stand outside a place of power should be a basic right in any nation. Demonstrations are the most visible part of the discussion between the governing and the governed. To close them down by the back door, without considering the implications for democracy, is to treat freedom of expression with disdain—and to show disgruntled people a profoundly unwise refusal to listen.