Scotland Yard’s ‘protest tax’ is bonkers

The recent evidence that Scotland Yard is effectively charging organisers of protests for the ‘nuisance’ they are creating is bonkers, to put it mildly, says Bart Cammaerts. Their rationale is that the government is squeezing their budget and what better way to recuperate some of those substantial losses than to institute a protest tax.

The prevailing logic today seems to go as follows; if football clubs have to pay for the policing costs of a football match then why should organisers of protest not contribute to the costs of diverting traffic and making sure protesters remain civil, legitimate and do not diverge from the pre-agreed path? Hence, the police will charge £10,000 or more for a protest, which incidentally the police now apparently denotes as ‘a private event’.

Where do we start with debunking this exquisite example of 21st Century Orwellian newspeak? To be honest, it is so wrong on so many fronts that it is quite astonishing that I need to write this. Let me start with the most obvious of objections. For me, protest is not a bit of ‘private fun’, but rather a deeply pubic and above all collective event aiming to contest and challenge injustices through disruption and contestation, through bearing witness to those injustices and making dissent highly visible, which indeed might include diverting a bit of traffic at the very least.

On a more fundamental level, in a democracy the ability to dissent and contest should not be dependent on whether you can afford it or not. Political participation of citizens should not merely be reduced to the right to vote every 5 years, but should also include the right to protest and to insurrection. It is of course not new that all sorts of legal restrictions are used to limit and canalize the right to protest. At the same time, all governments will try to increase the cost of disruptive participation as much as possible, through repression, and arrests, anti-strike discourses and now apparently also through ‘devolving’ policing costs.

This measure – in a way a protest tax – should, however, not be seen in isolation. It is part of a broader strategy of the neoliberal state to ‘neutralize’ its dissenters and what better way than staying within the neoliberal logic through the monetization of protest. The neoliberal state does not tolerate resistance very much, except of course if it takes place in a far-away deemed to be authoritarian state. In the mean time, however, the neoliberal state itself has become a sophisticated police state, driven by an obsessive security apparatus, 1984-style surveillance practices and a visceral anti-democratic reflex, of which this recent attempt to silence protest is a good illustration.

‘The people’ or ‘the plebs’ – as some proponents of the neoliberal state would put it – should just continue to merrily consume and work even harder for an ever more meager salary and be content with what they have got, not ask too many questions, not be a nuisance to those that run things in an orderly fashion, protecting above all the interests of the few, not the many. And if you really insist on exercising your right to be a nuisance and contest ‘the order of things’, they’ll foot you the bill.

In this regard it is, however, rather ironic, hilarious, sad but actually also really really funny that Scotland Yard is charging the Campaign Against Climate Change a hefty fee to stop the traffic. It is akin to the kind of humour Charlie Chaplin spoke of. Ridicule, he said “is an attitude of defiance: We must laugh in the face of our helplessness against the forces of nature – or go insane”, except that the forces of nature are not of nature at all, they are inherently human and intricately implicated in deep-seated issues of power and resistance.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of Democratic Audit UK, nor of the London School of Economics. It originally appeared on the LSE Politics and Policy blog. Please read our comments policy before posting. 

Bart CammaertsBart Cammaerts is Associate Professor and Director of PhD Programme in the Media and Communications Department at the London School of Economics.

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