Case Studies

Security in history: on-road protest

by Mark Rowe

Mark Rowe continues an intermittent series of articles taking today’s UK security issues and seeing how they’re mirrored in the past.

Battle lines have been re-drawn, between the new Home Secretary Suella Braverman and the climate change protest movement Extinction Rebellion (XR).

On the one hand, Ms Braverman told the recent Conservative Party conference in Birmingham that ‘the mob needs to be stopped. The police must have all the powers that they need to stop protestors who use guerrilla tactics and bring chaos and misery to the law-abiding majority. It’s not a human right to vandalise property. It’s not my ‘freedom of expression’ to protest violently. No – you can’t just start a riot or glue yourself to the roads and get away with it.’

On the other hand, such sentiments appeared to make no difference to XR, which has just held a ‘weekend of resistance’ and promises to work towards a climax in spring 2023; and Just Stop Oil, who have since carried on marching and stopping traffic by sitting down in central London; thrown soup at the painting of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London (as captured by the protest group and posted on Youtube); thrown paint over the Met Police sign outside its headquarters; and on an Aston Martin showroom frontage in the West End; and today and yesterday disrupted traffic at the Dartford Crossing. Essex Police acknowledged that the two protesters atop the bridge over the Thames was frustrating for drivers.

For the two opposing points of view see this post on the Just Stop Oil website.

This afternoon Essex Chief Supt Simon Anslow said: “The two people who remain at height on the bridge have put themselves in considerable danger and as a result, we and our emergency services face a considerable challenge. Our priority is to keep our county moving but we also have a duty of care to the two people, as well as those who may be involved in any resolution at height.”

The 1930s in protest terms was most famous for the Jarrow March (also known as a Crusade) of October 1936 that saw unemployed men walk from Tyneside to London. By the later 1930s, whether because such marches did not make any political difference, or because rearmament as war loomed took away the worst of northern unemployment, protest methods had evolved to something much more modern-looking. For why walk for weeks over hundreds of miles when you could gain the same publicity for sitting on the road at Piccadilly Circus?

Hence on February 1, 1939 some 50 defendants appeared at Bow Street magistrates court in central London for public order offences such as obstructing police and the highway, on Parliament Square (pictured in 2018); and at Piccadilly Circus, after a demo urging the left-wing cause of ‘Arms for Spain’ (the Spanish Republic after a three-year civil war was about to go under to Franco’s Fascists).

The court heard that, to quote the Press Association account of the cases, ‘an attempt was made to carry an object resembling a coffin into the House of Commons’. A taxi with the coffin and umbrellas drew up and people sprang from the queue of people waiting to enter Parliament. Police thwarted the effort to force the coffin – presumably for some stunt – into the Houses. In the court next door were the Piccadilly cases where the magistrate told one accused: “You will get run over if you lie down in Piccadilly Circus, and will do no good to Spain or anywhere else.”

The ingredients in 1939 were the same as now; seeking to cause disruption to everyday London, and (as XR explicitly has stated) clogging up courts, that at most will fine the demonstrators (fines that can be paid by well-wishers). And even if courts were to hand down prison sentences, that would prove no deterrent either, as a jail term would be a mark of prestige among protesters.

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