Comedian Mark Thomas is campaigning against the Serious Organised. Crime and Police Act. Indira Das-Gupta examines the issues surrounding his cause and joins Thomas on spoof demonstrations in Parliament Square.
When the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act came into force in July last year, many voluntary organisations expressed outrage and called for a cross-sector response. More than a year later, it's all gone peculiarly quiet.
One of the few people willing to take a stand against Socpa is not a leading light within the sector, but comedian and activist Mark Thomas, who has planned a series of "mass lone demonstrations" to highlight what he sees as the absurdity of the legislation.
The part of the Act that Thomas particularly objects to is the requirement to apply for a licence at least six days before a demonstration in Parliament Square or near 10 Downing Street. Thomas wants as many people as possible to apply for individual licences on the second Wednesday of every month at Charing Cross police station in London (the nearest to Parliament) in order to overburden the police.
As he explains on his website: "Yes, I know they have more important things to do. That's the whole point. It's for the long-term good that we do this, so they can get on with catching baddies instead of wasting their time with this nonsense." Armed with their licences, protesters will then meet in Parliament Square at 5pm on the third Wednesday of the month.
Not surprisingly, Thomas's weapon of choice is humour, and he encourages participants to be creative in their choice of protest. Placards can range from the earnest 'Don't stop freedom of speech, stop climate change' to the whimsical 'Stop bits in cheese'.
The protests are light-hearted in spirit, but failure to comply with the law can lead to arrest. Betty Hunter, general secretary of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, discovered this last March when she organised, without notice, a protest against the treatment of prisoners by the Israeli army.
She is now awaiting a trial date.
"Jack Straw, then Foreign Secretary, was due to give an important speech on the issue that day," she says. "We felt it was so important we couldn't wait. I think it's outrageous that we have to give notice. The right to protest when and where we want is fundamental to our civil liberties."
Thomas appreciates that not everyone prepared to protest against Socpa is willing to risk arrest.
So his demonstrations stick to the letter of the law, creating a kind of legal civil disobedience.
The view from the sector
Chris Stalker, head of NCVO's campaigning effectiveness programme, denies that the voluntary sector isn't taking any action. "We have had meetings with the Home Office, so I wouldn't say it's just been left to celebrities to take up the cause. Thomas's tactics are helpful for opening up the opportunity for change, but it's unlikely that the Government is going to revoke the Act in the current climate.
"A combination of insider and outsider tactics tends to be most effective - that is, negotiating with Government officials while also raising the public profile. The right to protest outside Parliament is important, but we need to focus on what's achievable and be realistic."
Thomas counters: "A single protest rarely changes anything on its own - the exception might be the poll tax riots. The point is to build up a movement, influence public opinion and start a discussion that might then lead to change."
Indira Das-Gupta (on the right of the picture) chronicles the process of protesting
15 SEPTEMBER 2006
1. Applying for a licence
An eclectic mix of people queue for licences for Thomas's third demonstration at Charing Cross police station.
Some can most politely be described as eccentrics, such as the man whose beard seems to be a homage to the band ZZ Top. He is calling on the Italian government to apologise for its treatment of Druids nearly 2,000 years ago.
But there are also a surprising number of younger, trendy types who look like they should be relaxing at some cool bar rather than shivering outside a police station.
As she stands in line, Varsha Edeis says: "There are people here from all kinds of campaign groups - it's important for us all. It's not always practical to give notice. When Israel attacked Lebanon, people wanted to protest immediately - not apply for a licence and wait a week. It's eroding freedom of speech and most of the public is being too apathetic about it."
For Edeis, protesting is almost a way of life. She attended one of Thomas's previous demonstrations and planned to join the anti-war march in Manchester during the Labour Party conference.
A lot of people are greeting each other with kisses on the cheeks - all part of what is evidently a protesters' circuit.
Another self-confessed protest addict, Mary Macmillan, also here for the second time, says: "Socpa is putting us back 150 years. It's all very well protesting on Clapham Common, but you have to be where the power is."
Part of the appeal of a good old-fashioned protest for some appears to be the prospect of a bit of argy bargy with the police. One woman gets in a lather because she insists the police are failing to fulfil their duty to photocopy applications.
"But they have to - it's the law," she declares forcefully.
It turns out she's wrong.
Shortly afterwards, a younger man comes out of the police station announcing in outraged tones: "They've refused my application." "Why?" asks Thomas, genuinely surprised. A policewoman emerges and explains, not unreasonably: "He has written on his application that he will not be able to attend the protest, so I can't give him a licence."
This explanation does nothing to quell the young man's anger, until Thomas interjects to calm him.
Hard to pin down for a comment, Thomas is in a rush to see Gaddafi: A Living Myth, an opera, along with a few other protesters. He declares: "We are going to bring down capitalism, then we're all going to the opera."
When quizzed on his reasons for organising the demonstrations, he seems defensive. "I'm just doing what I do best - getting up people's f***ing noses," he says.
"The fact that the Government is trying to designate areas where we can protest is absurd," he explains. "The state and democracy exist only because people held protests. Now just one person with a badge standing outside Parliament is classed as a protest.
"The over-zealous interpretation of the law by some police officers doesn't help, either. My friend got arrested for having a picnic in Parliament Square just because she had a cake with the word 'peace' on it."
Then Thomas stops abruptly and says he has to leave: "Sorry if I was grumpy. I've had a bad day."
22 SEPTEMBER 2006
2. Taking part in the demo
It's a better day when about 70 protesters gather in Parliament Square in the fading sun. They make a colourful group and everyone seems to be enjoying the occasion.
There's an impressive array of assorted placards, including 'I protest against Mark Thomas (he isn't funny any more)'.
The man responsible for this effort admits to a fellow protester that he doesn't have a licence. "Careful mate, you could be taking your life in your hands," he's warned wryly. Judging by the bemused expressions of three police officers looking on from a distance, this seems unlikely.
They certainly don't seem in a hurry to check paperwork.
Some protesters have cunningly halved the allotted time and applied for two licences, just to add more to the police workload. Andy Bovell is among them. His first placard reads 'Ban clowns, they are sinister and quite scary'. At 6.30pm he turns it round to reveal the slogan 'Ban fur'.
"I'm normally quite guilty of apathy," he admits. "But instead of waiting for other people to do something about it, I decided to get involved."
He and his companion, Adrian Dunlop, look like an ordinary middle class couple - as far removed from the hippy stereotype as it's possible to be.
Dunlop's placard reads 'Harsher penalties for cyclists on pavements'.
On the reverse it reads 'Fight racism now'.
She explains: "I've been concerned about this legislation for a while.
It's compromising free speech.
"For now they're just stopping us protesting in Parliament Square, but how long before it spreads? It's the first step towards a police state."
One of the most creative placards - 'Murder to gelatine in wine gums' - is actually spelt out in wine gums. On the other side it reads 'Let me eat sweets'.
Saira O'Mallie, who designed it, explains: "I'm a vegetarian but I can't eat wine gums because they contain gelatine." But she concedes: "These protests are probably not the most effective way to change things, but they are fun."
The prize for best costume must go to a man in his early twenties dressed in top hat and tails like comic-book character Lord Snooty. He stands away from the rest in a prime position for passing cars to see him. He is smoking a pipe and carrying a placard that reads 'Send forth the gunboats'.
The man, who identifies himself simply as Sigmund, says: "I wanted to make my placard as offensive as possible. I might wear a different outfit next time- it's important to look respectable."
Maria Galastegui is a supporter of the anti-war protester Brian Haw, who ha*s been a permanent feature in the square since June 2001. Indeed, it's believed that Socpa was devised primarily to remove this irritant from the view of parliamentarians. It has failed to do so, although it has restricted the area allowed for his protest.
Galastegui, who visits Haw every day, says: "When they drafted the law, they obviously had Brian in mind. Although they have taken down a lot of his placards and confined him to three metres, he's still here. He is going to outlive Tony Blair."
Thomas seems happy with the way the protest has turned out. He says: "It's about creating a forum for people where they can protest safely.
They do not risk arrest, which is important for some. Everyone can be as imaginative as possible - it's very inclusive."
He adds: "It would be nice if some of the bigger NGOs had turned up to support us. Protesting is a fundamental part of campaigning for many NGOs, and it does seem slightly absurd that they're apparently not doing anything about Socpa."
SOME HE MADE EARLIER
Mark Thomas's previous campaigns
1998: Exposed how the wealthy avoid inheritance tax by making their art, furniture, homes and land available for public viewing but don't inform anyone. Gordon Brown changed the law in his next Budget and the Rothschilds ended up paying about a £1m in tax.
2001: Toured the UK with the Dambusters show about the Ilisu dam project in Turkey, which threatened to force up to 78,000 people from their homes and flood the ancient town of Hasankeyf. Towards the end of the tour, the dam project collapsed when UK and Italian firms pulled out of the deal.
2002: Mark is presented with the Kurdish National Congress Medal of Honour and a Human Rights Award from the Kurdish Human Rights Project.
2006: Devised the After-School Arms Club, a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary in which two schools formed arms companies to expose loopholes in arms control. The Irish government pledged to introduce arms brokerage laws by the end of the year.
9 October: Set a record of 21 demonstrations in five hours and 15 minutes in the Socpa zone around Parliament.