Paying to protest: the commodification of free speech

It was reported last week that a coalition of climate change protesters has been told to pay for a planned protest, or permission to hold it will not be granted.

When The Campaign Against Climate Change (CACC) approached the London Metropolitan Police (MPS) to arrange the event, the police force declined to help, telling the group to hire their own private marshals to close the roads on the march route.

This would be enormously expensive but without the marshals and a traffic plan, Westminster council (Conservative) were not going to grant permission.

The cost and the bureaucracy raise doubts about whether the march will go ahead.

What is behind this decision by the police? The MPS claims budget cuts — £600m in the last four years and another £800m to come — have forced a review and contraction of their ‘services’ (their word, not mine) and this is a convincing explanation. Refusing to go along with a peaceful, uncontroversial and potentially popular march such as this climate protest will highlight the extent and effect of cuts on their own budget and perhaps muster a bit of public support for the poor, hard-done-by force.

It is a conspicuously passive-aggressive tactic, effectively hijacking someone else’s protest to make their own, but it will get a message out.

However, the police do not operate in a vacuum (and no cruel jokes about the vacuum being under the bobby’s helmet, please) and the decision has more than a little of the neoliberal stench about it.

Successive UK governments, from Thatcher, through Blair to the current ConDems, have dismantled the public infrastructure of the country, transferring assets owned by everyone into the hands of the few: water, electricity, the trains, the phone system, the post office, data management; prisons, the NHS, education, welfare services and on and on.

This government and its forebears are turning health and wellbeing, security and our future into commodities to sell back to us.  This decision to charge marchers is a logical step in this process. And if you can’t afford to protest, well, tough. Like big homes, foreign holidays,  and nice cars, protest will belong only to those who can afford it.

Just as with all the other public services, the shortfall in police functions will be offered to the market, forcing yet more money from our pockets and into private coffers.

Whether a simple result of belt tightening by the MPS or a more insidious and deliberate policy of privatising law and order, charging people to protest is not only a restriction on rights, it is the commodification of free speech.