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Defend civil liberties

Rights threatened in Blair's new Britain

The Labour government is embarking on a programme of legislation that should ring warning bells for Marxists and all those interested in defending civil liberties. Measures include the revision and extension of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, mandatory drug testing for suspected criminals, and an increase in the government’s powers to intercept private communication.

The new anti-terrorism bill will broaden the definition of terrorism, amending the current ‘use of violence for political ends’ to ‘the use of serious violence against persons or property, or the threat to use such violence to intimidate or coerce the government, the public or any section of the public for political, religious or ideological ends’. Like the existing legislation, the purpose of this is to reinforce and strengthen the core proposition of all capitalist legality – the protection of private property and the capitalist state’s monopoly of violence and threatened violence.

The new definition allows the police and justice system to interpret the concept of ‘threat’ very broadly indeed, and constitutes a clear attack on the right of free speech. It could include mere discussion of the likelihood or moral legitimacy of violence against property, whether in Britain or abroad – which could then be seen to constitute an offence subject to special provisions more draconian than the usual justice system. This is an undisguised threat against anyone wanting to organise opposition to the policies and practices of the state on issues of a ‘political, religious or ideological’ nature.

John Wadham, director of the civil rights group Liberty, rightly points out that the bill will create a ‘two-tier criminal justice system, where those who commit crimes with a political motive have fewer rights and safeguards than those who commit crime for personal gain, malice or revenge’ (Guardian, 7 December 1999).

The new bill also includes powers to proscribe organisations – currently only applicable to Irish groups – and to criminalise ‘incitement’ to acts of violence abroad. Police will be able to arrest and charge merely on the grounds of ‘reasonable suspicion’ of terrorism, or on the basis of holding information about ‘terrorism’.

The original Prevention of Terrorism Act is known for its suspension of usual civil liberties, such as the length of time a suspect can be held before being charged and lower standards of evidence required to prove guilt. It was created for and has historically been used against those suspected of connection with Irish republicanism, and has repeatedly been associated with ‘miscarriages of justice’ such as the cases of the Birmingham 6 and Guildford 4. Because of its controversial nature, it has to be renewed by parliament each year. Under the new provisions, this will no longer be the case.

With the Irish ‘peace process’ and the counter-revolutionary fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, state repressive forces have found themselves with a shortage of traditional targets, and state repression has consequently become more specifically aimed at internal political groups. Tony Blair, Jack Straw et al have been steadily moving towards these kinds of legislative changes since election in 1997. Labour’s desire to keep ‘middle England’ happy means vulnerability to politics from its left, and, as the London mayoral fiasco shows, the party is almost pathologically anxious to keep control.

‘New terrorism’

The anti-terrorism legislation is already increasingly used in areas unconnected with the politics of Northern Ireland, and the intention is for the new act to widen the field further. The state is particularly concerned with upsurges in activism beginning in the environmental movement, but now moving onto a wider stage. In the wake of the 18 June 1999 ‘Carnival Against Capitalism’ (J18) in the City of London, a full-scale programme of police harassment has been launched against those suspected of participation. This has seen the capitalist media more than usually prepared to aid the Metropolitan Police in tracking down those responsible for partying and protesting in the heart of the capitalist money markets.

Amid horrified media declarations that the 18 June event was ‘organised on the internet’, the state is also increasing its power to monitor email and other private communication with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill. The bill threatens two years in prison for anyone refusing to turn over their electronic encryption keys or the details of any encrypted message in plain text to law-enforcement officials. It also calls for a five-year prison term for ‘tipping off’ the sender of messages that they are being investigated.

Even discussing an investigation in public, such as complaining about alleged abuses of law enforcement to the media, may also be punishable by imprisonment. The only avenue of complaint available is to a secret tribunal of five judges. The bill also contains provision to extend the 1985 Interception of Communications Act to include all forms of internet traffic (such as web sites visited as well as emails sent) and will require internet service providers to provide records of all such information on demand.

On 18 June, it seems that police were taken unawares by the scale of the protest and responded with considerable brutality. Protestors were run over by police vans and horses and many, including bystanders, came under attack from the vicious new steel batons. Up to 65 people have been arrested in connection with J18 – some have been jailed for 12 months for violent disorder. Many others face serious charges, in some cases intensified by suspicion of involvement with political organisations.

The police have been tracking down political activists, regardless of whether they were actually present on 18 June. Following the Anarchist Book Fair on 16 October scores of police violently attacked customers at a pub in central London. The Legal Defence & Monitoring Group, which is providing legal support for those arrested at J18, says in its October 1999 newsletter: ‘The cops are on a trawling exercise. As well as putting photos on the net, the cops have raided a couple of squats in Brixton.’

A demonstration against rail privatisation held at Euston station on 30 November, organised by some of the same groups as the J18 events, was targeted by police in a self-styled ‘Operation Overkill’. A huge riot squad cordoned off a group of about 150 protestors in the station forecourt, unsurprisingly resulting in violence between cops and the mostly young people present, many of whom were still angry at the police brutality they had witnessed on 18 June. On the day 28 arrests were made, several resulting in violent disorder charges, while the police assiduously collected names and addresses and photographed those present.

The political views of the participants in these events vary from uninformed anger against ‘the system’, through environmental and other single issue campaigns, to those who are beginning to have an inkling of what being ‘anti-capitalist’ really means. The police response is likely to have taught a few sharp lessons on the role of the state – the real essence of understanding and organising opposition to capitalism – but in general the politics of this movement is a long way from the realisation that it is necessary to overturn the rule of capital and organise to struggle for a new state power committed to defending the interests of the working class and the oppressed. However, incidents of co-operation between these activists and the workers’ movement around class-based issues, such as support for tube workers and the Liverpool dockers, show that part of this milieu can be won to class-struggle politics and a socialist perspective.

We defend the participants in anti-capitalist actions against the police and court system regardless of whether we agree with their particular views. The issue here is the right to political expression. Over 70 photos of suspected J18 participants have been posted on the internet site of the City of London Corporation, the local authority in charge of the City. A lurid media campaign has followed with the photos featuring on TV’s Crimewatch and in the tabloid papers which appealed to the public to ‘dob in’ their neighbours, and in a clear case of guilty until proven innocent asked ‘do you know these thugs?’. The police boast that ‘Hundreds of video tapes and thousands of still photographs shot on the day have been scanned to identify persons committing offences. Some of this evidence supports the case against persons already charged’ (

Photo imaging software is now able to pick out faces in crowds, and the police are able to closely identify participants in public protests, which are regularly monitored by police video.

The Crimewatch programme ties in nicely with Labour’s ‘tough on crime’ mantra, using fear of crime within the population to justify an entirely illegitimate attack on civil rights. Meanwhile, it is the supposed ‘people’s paper’, the Mirror, that leads the tabloids in this attack. Like Blairism itself, this campaign uses liberalism to attack liberties, and disguises a series of attacks on the rights of individuals as protection of individual rights. The same Labour Party that many on the left claim can act, albeit in a deformed way, in the interests of the working class and oppressed is increasingly revealing itself as the bourgeoisie’s agent for increased repression to protect capitalist property and the state’s monopoly of violence.

In the light of this repression, all those affected need to join together in launching an active political defence campaign, one that goes beyond fundraising and lawyers and seeks to mobilise mass support including that of the organised workers’ movement. Many fear that raising political issues may increase the severity of the state’s response to those involved – but a campaign that relies only on legal defence is a short-sighted approach aimed at gaining favours from the forces of bourgeois ‘justice’ and ultimately leaves the situation entirely in the hands of the state.

This is not an issue of individual frame-ups but of wider questions to do with the policing of demonstrations and consequent arrest and sentencing procedures, and the wider programme of repression the government is putting into place. This suppression of the right to political expression (and the danger it poses to the democratic rights of all) should be widely publicised and the anger against those carrying out the harassment channelled into a strong campaign – one that leaves the state less able to impose severe penalties on its critics.

Civil liberties involve the rights of all sectors of society, but have considerable intersection with the question of class oppression. State repression has always been particularly aimed at trade union and workers’ actions. During the Scottish parliamentary election campaign in May 1999, janitors at an Edinburgh secondary school were disciplined after they spoke out against privatisation during a high-profile visit to the school by New Labour education secretary David Blunkett. They were accused of having undermined Blunkett’s visit. Unison has called for an investigation over lack of freedom of speech for council workers.

The Tory anti-union legislation, which Labour continues to enforce, proscribes any industrial action beyond very narrow issues of pay and conditions, banning secondary picketing and anything that can possibly be construed a ‘political’ strike. In October 1999 the courts banned a rail strike by workers protesting at the lack of safety provisions highlighted by the Paddington train disaster. Unfortunately the leadership of the rail unions backed down and missed an opportunity to unite rail workers and passengers around a burning political issue.

Doing their job

The British ‘Bobby’ who many on the left mistakenly believe can be made ‘accountable’ under such regulatory bodies as the new London police authority has also been showing his true colours on the streets of the capital with three recent high-profile murders. Harry Stanley was shot dead in a Hackney residential street for carrying a piece of wood in a plastic bag, Sarah Thomas died a violent death in Stoke Newington police station and Osmond Hayes died in the custody of Kennington police. As a motion passed by Lambeth Unison stated: ‘We note that the similarities with the tragic death of Brian Douglas are striking and that the increasing level of deaths in police custody, particularly of black men, stands in condemnation of a thoroughly racist police force.’

This is in tandem with a campaign to vilify Winston Silcott after he successfully sued the Metropolitan Police for false imprisonment and malicious prosecution during the investigation into the death of PC Keith Blakelock at Tottenham’s Broadwater Farm in 1985. The Police Federation is encouraging Blakelock’s family to sue Silcott. Black commentator Darcus Howe wrote in the New Statesman (25 October): ‘Silcott was stitched up. Young men were bullied into signing statements involving themselves and him.... Yet ... the Police Federation seem to wish to deny Silcott the benefits that the legal system affords ... the actions of the Police Federation have always contributed to the continued oppression of blacks.’

Harassment has also extended to activists campaigning to save the life of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a militant black journalist and former Black Panther on death row in the United States, unjustly convicted for the killing of a policeman. In striking similarities with Silcott’s case, Jamal was imprisoned after a sustained police campaign to get him inside, by any means necessary (see page 4).

Last summer police prevented supporters of Mumia Abu-Jamal outside the US embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square using a hand-held megaphone, saying they were ‘in breach of local authority noise regulations’.

Police harassed an IBT supporter leafleting about Mumia’s case at the Gay Pride Mardi Gras in Hyde Park in July, threatening arrest and informing him it was forbidden to distribute political material in a royal park, revealingly declaring that Jamal’s case had ‘nothing to do’ with the event.

Clearly, this low-level harassment of the Mumia campaign has more to do with the subject matter and an increased willingness by the state to throw its weight around, than with enforcing petty park regulations. It is, all the same, significant that the cops feel bold enough to be talking about an intention to keep politics out of Hyde Park, the site of Speaker’s Corner and countless demonstrations over the years.

Media ‘discover’ state repression

The capitalist media was surprised to discover these same ‘antiquated rules’ banning demonstrations in royal parks and their invocation by the state during Chinese president Jiang Zemin’s visit in October 1999.

The pro capitalist-restorationist Free Tibet Campaign (which we, as defenders of the Chinese deformed workers’ state, politically oppose) said the metropolitan police was guilty of ‘gross violation’ of the protesters’ rights to free speech. It complained that protesters were wrestled to the ground and had flags torn from their hands. The campaign may bring civil action against the police under the European convention on human rights.

The press was horrified. The Independent said: ‘The treatment of those who seek to criticise the Chinese government is despicable. “Shameful” is too gentle a word for what we have seen.’

An editorial in the Guardian demanded: ‘Who was it who ordered the police to breach British civil rights?’ It advised that one of the manhandled demonstrators bring a civil action. ‘The police – and politicians – clearly need reminding that civil rights matter as much as public tranquillity.’

The letters pages of the Daily Telegraph were dominated by correspondence from ‘appalled’ lords, viscounts and ex police officers. The Tories said that preventing people from waving flags was ‘not how the British do things’, hypocritically suggesting that political pressure had been brought on the police.

Equally hypocritically, home office minister Paul Boateng denied the government had placed any pressure on the police to prevent demonstrators disrupting the visit, saying ‘We have in the Metropolitan police an unprecedented level of expertise of policing demonstrations and public events. I congratulate them on their work.’ (Guardian, 25 October 1999)

It is significant that this uproar from the establishment comes around the issue of opposition to the Chinese regime. While the Stalinist bureaucrats who rule in China undoubtedly deny full democratic rights to the Chinese people, the cries of ‘human rights abuses’ from Western governments and their allies are merely a cover for opposition to the deformed workers state which still hangs on to life in China. This forms part of their strategy to destroy the remaining elements of the planned economy and collectivised property, and to fully restore capitalism, imposing the same misery suffered by millions in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe after counter-revolution there. Meanwhile the abysmal human rights record of Britain, the United States and other imperialist powers continues.

While we do not agree with the politics of the supporters of the Dalai Lama, Marxists un-ambiguously support the right to civil liberties under attack by New Labour in Downing Street and town halls up and down the country.

Civil liberties are not something bestowed on us by a beneficent and benign state; they have been won from the state through bitter fights over many generations. Revolutionaries have no faith in the ability of the police or the criminal justice system to even apply their own laws fairly; their function is repression and the protection of capitalist property. Consequently, Marxists vigorously protest all frame-ups and victimisation of leftists and pro-working class militants, but we avoid promoting illusions by calling on the capitalists’ court system to provide impartial justice for the oppressed and exploited. We do make demands on the state, for example calling for the release of prisoners such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, Winston Silcott and Satpal Ram, and we must be prepared to back up these demands with mass pressure, demonstrations and action.

Lenin said that a revolutionary party should be the ‘tribune of the people’; that is, must fight all oppression wherever it manifests itself. While the working class is the organised force that can lead humanity out of the impasse of capitalism, in order to be successful we must have the support of the rest of the oppressed. This is an essential part of the programme around which we must form a revolutionary party – a party which can fight for a new socialist society where civil liberties are safeguarded as a matter of course and not subject to the needs of property owners and the state apparatus they hire to defend them.