FENCED IN: The statue of Mandela behind metal fencing in Parliament Square, central London, on November 23 (Bart Chan)
LONDON MAYOR Boris Johnson and the state of British democracy have come under increasing criticism following a decision by authorities to erect more temporary metal fencing across Parliament Square which has blocked public access to iconic statues, including those of Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill.
The move, taken by the Greater London Authority (GLA) and enforced by the Metropolitan Police, has been in response, over the last few weeks, to sporadic gatherings of people coming together to discuss the state of British politics and society at large.
A group named Occupy Democracy attempted to hold workshops and talks, despite pouring rain and the cold from Friday (Nov 21) to Sunday (Nov 23), beneath the world-famous landmark of democracy – the Palace of Westminster. However, police and GLA officials scuppered activists’ attempts to gain peaceful entry into the square, which is normally only rendered tricky to access due to the constant stream of motor traffic.
Although dubbed as a “leaderless” movement, Occupy Democracy campaigner Donnachadh McCarthy, a former Liberal Democrat politician and councillor, has been at the forefront of the group and its efforts to peacefully occupy the space and hold group discussions on issues ranging from climate change to media ownership and its relationship to politicians.
On Sunday afternoon, McCarthy, along with Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, addressed a group of about 20 people, with a presence of more than a dozen police officers watching on in close proximity. McCarthy then decided to dash around the square to illustrate how police were keeping him under close wraps, and, during an impromptu stop on the pavement adjacent to the Commons, he told the assembled crowd: “Mandela being imprisoned here by Boris Johnson demonstrates the power of the corporate society.”
Setting out the movement’s call for greater freedom for press without corporate interests “trashing” it, McCarthy added: “Johnson and [Rupert] Murdoch are close friends – Johnson’s power is based on Murdoch’s power, because Murdoch backs him through the press.
“Also, [the mayor’s power] is based on another billionaire – [Evgeny] Lebedev, who owns the Evening Standard. That’s why it is important to have this conversation about press.”
The veteran environmental campaigner, clearly perturbed by the large police presence on his tail, brought up the NHS and the privatisation agenda, which many claim is threatening the existence of the system of British healthcare founded after the Second World War.
“Let’s take the battle for our NHS to Rupert Murdoch... because that’s where the power lies in our society, not here [Houses of Parliament]. We should go to where the power is and peacefully occupy it,” McCarthy said.
“We could have a day for democracy outside Murdoch’s tower, where all the people who have been trashed by the political system can be there. We should have comedy, a celebration of arts; we should make it a festival so we can so we don’t have to be brutal like they have been brutal in suppressing free speech in Parliament Square.”
He added: “It’s a disgrace that at the moment 40 per cent of our press is owned by one man –Murdoch – and he is pushing a privatising agenda, even for the police here today.
“We the people in Occupy Democracy respect our police. We want them to protect us, we want them to protect democracy, we don’t want them to protect a ‘corporatocracy’, and the media is being used to corrupt our police. We want a publicly owned police service – we’re against privatisation of the police.”
The image of Mandela’s statue shut off behind the metal fencing was not lost on those assembled, with some demonstrators displaying placards and signs reading “Free Mandela”.
On Wednesday (Nov 19) a national student-led protest march took place across various sites in central London, and the fencing in Parliament Square was torn down as students and protesters, demanding free education and no cuts to public spending, gathered on the grass. However, in the evening the fencing was re-established by authorities in preparation for the weekend’s demonstration, which the Met said it was aware of but had been unable to liaise with organisers, who, they claimed, had not contacted police about the planned event.
Respected South African journalist and veteran anti-apartheid campaigner Lionel Morrison told The Voice that this latest clampdown in Parliament Square was a sign of how British society “is becoming more totalitarian”.
The 79-year-old, who is based in the UK and was the first black president of the National Union of Journalists, said: “In South Africa there have been a lot of struggles to ensure freedom of movement, freedom of speech. People have gone to jail for that.
“In Britain at least you have a situation where the rule of law is still important. When people are getting together to demonstrate, they have the full right to demonstrate peacefully, then the point is that it is uncalled for when the authorities stop it at a place where people usually get together.”
OLD FRIENDS: Mandela with Morrison
Morrison, a personal friend of Mandela who stood trial alongside him in South Africa in 1956, continued: “As someone who has always fought for democracy, openness and the right for everybody to voice their viewpoints… the point remains that one person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist.
“Your freedom is only as far as your nose goes. Because if you start putting your nose on somebody then you are interfering with somebody else. You must be able to say what you want to say, provided you are prepared to take the consequences, and that is what democracy is all about. You cannot just go out and do want you want to do – as a citizen you must take responsibility.
“People have the right to go and demonstrate peacefully. The government and police have no right to stop people from peacefully going around, [unless] people are rioting, but people are not, they’re saying, ‘Look, we want to have our voices heard.’”
The life-long activist for racial equality added: “What is happening in this country over a period, surely, is that our democracy is becoming more totalitarian.
“We’ve seen what happens with black people in this country, how police are shooting people, we’ve seen it in the criminal justice system which has not been good for black people. We know inequity is taking place, and there are no avenues for people to openly show their objections. When people march, demonstrate, get together, then obviously the authorities will clamp it down.
“I just feel that we should all hold up the democracy that we believe this country is.”
'WASTE OF PUBLIC MONEY'
Asked about the GLA’s allocation of resources to use such overwhelming police manpower to watch over Occupy Democracy’s peaceful and relatively small gathering, Morrison replied: “It is a waste of public money.
“It is important for people to have access to public spaces. What is wrong with people having access to revere Winston Churchill, to revere Mandela? Those statues have been put up in recognition of what people have been fighting for.
“People like Boris Johnson, on the one hand, are like weasels. People think he has a fantastic smile and how marvellous he is, and then there is the other situation; he is in authority. The well-heeled people in authority only whisper about democracy but do everything in their power to ensure that it is not upheld. Boris Johnson is one of them. He is the one who has a lot of power in London – we must be able to say no. He may be mayor, but he cannot continue what he wants to do without [the consent] of us.
“The problem here is that taking place up and down the country is total totalitarianism... To me it’s sad.”
Pressed on what his message would be to those challenging authorities over the right to protest, Morrison said: “People know what to do. We are sure that all of us know that things are becoming worse and worse in this country, and what we need to do is to be very vigilant and continue to ensure that we uphold the principles of democracy.
“We may have different views, but when we go out fighting for democracy, the point is that the future is ours – and it can only be if we fight for it.
“Democracy is the full participation of everybody of what is taking place, with openness, without problems and hypocrisy. There has to be an equal chance for everyone in this country.”
PROTEST: McCarthy makes his views known
He added: “Big businesses are taking over. The NHS is being sold off somewhere else, we have a situation where schools are being interfered with political doctrines and fears. We have not [gained] the spoils of democracy – this is the worst of the lot. And things are going to get worse.
“We have struggled to ensure the freedom of the media and that it does not become the lackey of big business. Unfortunately, the main media is owned by big business. A lot of pressure is put on journalists to conform, and this is one of the big problems. And because of this conformity, we’ve had the situation with News International where they access things in a completely undemocratic way.”
Community activist and campaigner Lee Jasper, who co-chairs Black Activists Rising Against Cuts, spoke of his opposition to the current protest restrictions in place beneath Big Ben. He told The Voice: “The restrictions placed by Boris Johnson on Parliament Square are an affront to democracy. For hundreds of years, people have peacefully demonstrated outside the Houses of Parliament in order to make their views known to their elected representatives – that is a fine and honourable tradition which is critical to the culture of democracy in the UK.
“In cordoning off Parliament Square, Johnson has in effect cut off public access to the statue of Nelson Mandela and that is another outrage. Mandela spent 27 years behind bars and it seems Johnson has determined to place him again behind bars.”
Jasper, an ex-advisor to Johnson’s predecessor Ken Livingstone, added: “Public access to Parliament Square should be allowed, of course you don’t want damage to property or people, but as long as demonstrations are peaceful and law-abiding, I see no reason why they shouldn’t be allowed to happen.
“In essence they are setting up a shadow democracy in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament – what would Boris prefer, that people launch a full-scale violent attack on the Houses of Parliament?”
Issuing a strong warning about the dangers of taking democracy for granted, Jasper said: “People who do not act in the defence of their freedoms under democracy, quickly find those freedoms taken away from them. I would urge everybody to defend the right to lawful, peaceful protest as an absolute priority, right up there with freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.”
He offered advice to demonstrators and said: “I would take the battle away from Parliament Square and take it to City Hall and make sure that if they don’t allow them to occupy Parliament Square, then maybe they should go occupy City Hall.”
The GLA did not provide a date for when the fencing surrounding Mandela would come down, but a spokesperson said: “The fencing has been put up as a result of an advertised, but unauthorised occupation of Parliament Square. The organisers have not sought permission. There is a need to protect the grass and surrounding area ahead of it being restored.”
They added: “In terms of what powers this involves, the Mayor supports the right to peaceful protest, but it must be done within the law. There are byelaws in place affecting the square and any activity whether a protest or other event requires the prior written permission of the GLA before it can proceed.
“This ensures that the activity is properly and safely managed, appropriate for the space and the impact of one event does not interfere with the rights and freedoms of others to use and enjoy the Square or the duty of the Authority to manage the space.”