A time to protest, a right to protest

Posted by: Sadie Fox

Tags: activism communications protest

The controversy around the newly formed anti-protest bill, has raised profound concern and alarm with various human rights groups. For the first time we’ve seen a host of different organisations with opposing views come together in protest of a bill, which has been described as a ‘draconian’ restriction on a right to protest.

Alongside the scenes at the Sarah Everard vigil in Clapham Common, the past year has been a turning point for collaborative protest the world over. Black Lives Matter in particular sparked national and international conversations about topics that needed discussing. A truly powerful movement, one which we reflected on in Race Equality Week, showcased the power of protest even when it has been most repressed.

Protests can be powerful in shining a light on issues that matter to the public. However, protest can be complex from the public safety point of view, because they also have the ability to become dangerous or violent. As the last year has shown us, mass gatherings can be tricky when public health is a concern, often leading to physical implications such as jumping on top of tubes or knocking down statues. That’s where the police come in. Their role within most democratic systems isn’t to stop the protests, but to ensure people are able to protest in the safest way possible. The present bill however, many fears, give the police and legal system too much power and that if the bill gets passed in its current state, it will become a threat to democracy.

We regularly work with organisations such as Anchor Hanover, the Montessori Group and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award to bring about social change, calling on government to amend policies and work in conjunction with on-ground organisations, to make the nation a better place. While working within the system, rather than against it, what we’re fundamentally doing is expressing our right to express an opinion. This right to express ourselves – whether in a letter to editor, across social media or on the streets, will remain a fundamental part of the democratic process.

My argument is that refusing people the right to protest, isn’t too far removed from policing the press. If at first we aren’t allowed to protest, could the next step be saturating the media and banning certain crucial topics of conversation? Or will we next be banning the public from talking about particular subject matters? The future of comms and the press will look very different in a society where speech is policed, we’d end up with dangerous echo chambers and filter bubbles where no one hears the views of the other side.

We often remind our clients that to bring about real change in society it’s no good talking to people who already agree with you, you need to talk to and hear from those who disagree. If everyone in your organisation is a Guardian reader, you probably should be aiming for coverage in The Sun to actually make a difference – otherwise all you’re doing is reinforcing people’s opinions, and therefore not changing them or persuading them to think differently.

Everyone from environmental activists and LGBTQIA rights groups, to pro-Brexit lobbyists and anti-vaxxers all have one thing in common – within a democratic system they all have the right to express themselves and the freedom to voice their opinion. It is this freedom we must hold on to.

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