Update: Back protesting again today. I learn that 46 protestors who have been arrested have been released on the bail condition that they leave Leicestershire. Yes, the entire county.
People arrested for doing absolutely nothing but exercise the democratic right to protest, are thus prevented from exercising that right further, without a long period in jail on remand.
What is happening here is sickening.
Monday was day eight of the protest at the Elbit Israeli weapons factory in Leicester. After seven days and over 60 arrests, fewer than 20 protestors remained.
The protestors are confined to a designated area by an order under the Public Order Act 1986. One demonstrator, who left the protest on Monday to go home, was detained by police for leaving the designated area.
Three protestors approached the police to inquire – politely – why their friend was being detained. They then returned to the cordon. 30 police then surrounded the cordon from the front and, through the woods, from the rear. They then entered and, with force, arrested the three for having left the cordon.
They also arrested two others who had never left the cordon at all, including one nervous young lady who had done absolutely nothing but stand quietly inside the designated area and had been telling fellow demonstrators how scared she was.
All the arrested people that day were BAME. White people were left alone.
As is common with demonstrations, numerous motorists had been honking their horn in support in passing. The police (and I have never heard of this before) were stopping the vehicles that sounded their horn, demanding to see driving licenses and vehicle insurance, taking down the drivers’ details and warning them they were liable to be charged with an offence.
I heard the details from eyewitnesses when I arrived on Tuesday evening to show support, and try to understand just what was happening. By Tuesday evening, the demonstration consisted of just nine people – three of whom were small children and three of whom were female.
Nevertheless there were three minibuses full of police watching them, and two burly private security guards facing them from behind the razor wire of the Elbit weapons factory, each with a large Alsatian dog on a leash. The police drone that had been overhead for a week had left shortly before we arrived.
The Elbit weapons factory is a large, non-descript modern grey building in a sprawling industrial estate outside Leicester. It has high fences and razor wire, but no identification. There is no sign with a company name. It is just labelled “Unit 13”.
In a reminder that suppression of protest was not invented in 2022, the police are operating largely through a draconian order made under the Tory “Public Order Act 1986”.
This legislation was Thatcher’s reaction to the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, to trades union picketing and to travellers.
The order – drawn up under the act by the police without any judicial authority – limits the assembly to a small “designated area” on the footpath opposite the Elbit factory, and specifically excludes the woodland beyond the footpath. It further prohibits the erection of structures for accommodation on the footpath, highway or any public path.
So protestors are not permitted to be anywhere but on the footpath, and on the footpath they are not permitted to erect tents.
The police have used this provision quite deliberately to thwart the protestors from setting up any kind of camp. The police have systematically confiscated, smashed and torn any tents, camping equipment and sleeping bags. They have even stopped protestors sheltering under a tarpaulin during Tuesday’s heavy thunderstorms.
But the right of protestors to camp out has been a traditional and regularly observed feature of western democracy, and UK democracy in particular, for centuries. Brian Haw was even permitted by the courts to stay encamped in Parliament Square for years.
I myself took part in the protest camp on the Torness nuclear power site in 1978. I addressed the Occupy! camp in front of St Paul’s Cathedral in 2011. The Faslane Peace Camp is ongoing.
The level of suppression of protest here in Leicester is not consistent with British traditions of democracy. It is policing which is aggressive and hostile in a way I am simply not used to – I have had numerous friendly conversations with policemen on demonstrations in the past.
In short, this is overtly political policing which sees peaceful protestors as “the enemy”.
It happens that early on Tuesday morning, before I travelled down to Leicester, the Israeli military killed five children and three women in bombing attacks on the helpless people of Gaza. The odds are, of course, that on any given day I came, they would have killed innocents.
Elbit Systems is Israel’s largest weapons manufacturer.
The nine surviving protestors were friendly and cheerful. I was accompanied by my friend Haward Soper, who took these photographs. Haward and I left the designated area and wandered all over the place, but the police did not bother us, we being old, white and middle class.
I asked whether the protest would still be going on come Wednesday morning. I was told yes, but there are less people in the mornings.
That is less than nine. They were, however, hoping for a big turnout this weekend.
When I was young, Palestine and apartheid South Africa were the two international injustices we most campaigned over. South African apartheid ended, but Israeli apartheid has worsened. I am still campaigning for Palestinians after 50 years.
I am most concerned that our radical energies have been successfully diverted into the sterile ground of the identity politics of the Western middle classes.
Palestinian is one of the most abused identities in the world. Focus on that.
Most of those arrested have been charged with public order offences. The Leicester Mercury is reporting about half are charged under the 2022 Public Order Act. They are going to need support through the court system.
I do urge you to make time to get here to Leicester. See the Palestine Action website for details.
Not only will you be standing against apartheid, against the slow genocide of the Palestinian people, you will be affirming your own right to stand up for what you believe.
A right the police are making very plain they intend to negate.
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