24 October 2012

Masks & Protest

Demonstrators gather outside a branch of Starbucks before the start
of an anti-austerity protest march through central London.

Photograph © Matt Dunham/AP.
Retrieved from The Guardian (20 October 2012).

What is wrong with this picture? Well, for starters, these folks might well  be violating the law if they chose to demonstrate not in the UK but here in the 'land of the free.' Take NYC, for instance, where - as protesters outside the Russian consulate last summer discovered - it is illegal for more than three persons to wear masks simultaneously at public demonstrations. So, actually, there is nothing wrong with the picture. There is something wrong with the laws.

I have been preoccupied lately [1] [2] with restrictions on the constitutional right to assemble in public. It is astonishing to see the lengths to which authorities have constrained the space of politics. In this we are in good company - with Russia, for instance - where the laws are similarly enlightened. But if The New York Times can refer to "Russia's Chilling Anti-Protest Laws," shouldn't we be taking a good look in the mirror?
P.S.: As an aside, according to this report in The Guardian, two of the members of Pussy Riot who's arrest triggered the NYC protests in the first place have been banished to remote prison camps [1] [2] [3]. You,ll recall that the the women of Pussy Riot themselves wore masks during the initial "hooliganism" that has set off this entire chain of political and legal events.

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Blogger Sam Dodsworth said...

There is actually a UK law (Section 60 of the Public Order Act) that lets the police order the removal of face coverings, but it's not automatic or universal - they have the power to order an individual to remove their mask and to arrest them if they don't, but simply going masked isn't an offence in itself.

In principle, Section 60 is supposed to be invoked in a limited area and for no more than 24 hours when senior police officers have reason to believe that incidents of serious violence may take place. In practice, those limits are flexible - it's very common to see Section 60 invoked over the whole of central London on the day of a demonstration, even when there's no obvious threat of violence. It's mainly used as an excuse for stop-and-search and to identify activists - police photographers tend to appear while the search is under way.

There was no Section 60 in place on the day that picture was taken, although I'm told a number of officers on the ground thought there was. I don't know if that was an oversight or a change in policy.

25 October, 2012 07:38  

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