Defend the right to protest in Glasgow!

Submitted by Matthew on 12 September, 2012 - 8:34

Officials of Glasgow’s Labour City Council are recommending that the Scottish TUC’s anti-austerity demonstration of 20 October should not be allowed to assemble in George Square in the city centre.

A “consultation exercise” currently being run by the Council also proposes that demonstrations should be replaced by “static protests” wherever possible, and that there should be a blanket ban on the use of George Square as a muster and dispersal point for demonstrations.

Such recommendations represent a drastic curtailment on the right to demonstrate:

By definition, the purpose of a demonstration is to demonstrate particular concerns to as many people as possible. Assembling in the city centre (i.e. in George Square) and marching around the city centre (i.e. from your central assembly point) is the best way to achieve that purpose.

True, the right to demonstrate is not an absolute political right. We are against SDL and BNP demonstrations, for example. But that is because of the political content of any such demonstration — not because of where they assemble and disperse!

Nor is the right to demonstrate an absolute legal right. In legal terms, the right to demonstrate has to be balanced against other rights (such as the right not to have one’s private life unduly disrupted by frequent demonstrations).

But no-one has ever claimed that their right to a private life has been disrupted by a trade union demonstration! And the paperwork issued by the Council as part of its “consultation” clearly indicates that complaints received by the council all relate to marches by Orange Lodges and other bands.

The proposals represent an attempt to depoliticise the city centre of Glasgow. In recent decades, “post-industrial” Glasgow has been subjected to a series of re-brandings, from “Glasgow’s Miles Better” through “Glasgow: City of Culture”, to the current version of Glasgow as the commercial capital of Scotland.

Real-life demonstrations about real-life issues such as racism, unemployment and social inequalities cut across attempts to transform Glasgow city centre into a mecca of consumerism.

And the logic of the arguments in the consultation exercise for banning the use of George Square as a muster or dispersal point for demonstrations (e.g. the volume of traffic round the square, and other health and safety issues) equally apply to “static protests”.

It is therefore not just demonstrations which are to be driven out of George Square but any form of political protest, including “static protests”. (And given that the City Council Chambers are located in George Square, this would be very convenient for budget-cutting councillors.)

Thirdly, they represent an attack on the historical significance of George Square as the scene of social protest in Glasgow.

As the scene of the January 1919 “riot”, George Square occupies an iconic place in Glasgow labour movement history (although much of that “history” is legend rather than fact).

The square has also been the assembly point for Glasgow May Day demonstrations since time immemorial.

Driving political protest out of the square constitutes a political statement: In the past, when class struggle was a reality, this square was the scene of social unrest. Today, the square no longer needs to be a scene of social protest because society is — supposedly — no longer scarred by class divisions.

Class struggle is thereby not completely written out of history. Instead, it is confined to history and relocated from the streets to museums, where a sanitised version of it can be safely re-marketed as a tourist attraction.

The Scottish TUC, Glasgow Trades Union Council, The Unite Scottish Regional Political Committee and a number of Glasgow trade union branches have already challenged the officials’ proposals — not just about 20 October but also the broader clampdown on the right to protest.

Trade union branches should be demanding of the councillors on the Public Processions Committee and the Public Petitions and General Purposes Committee — both of which have a Labour majority — that they reject their officials’ proposals.

And the Scottish TUC should issue a statement saying that whatever the position eventually adopted by the council, the assembly point for the 20 October demonstration will be George Square.

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