Argus title : Protests in jeopardy by a misuse of the law
The Protection from Harrassment Act 1997 (PHA) was framed to protect people terrorised by stalkers.
It came into being because existing law failed to deal effectively with abusers who subjected their victims to repeated threats and ‘minor’ acts of intimidation or violence. Other legislation did not adequately take into account a pattern of behaviour – a ‘course of conduct’ – designed to terrorise and exhaust a vulnerable victim.
At the time the new legislation was framed the media publicised high profile cases in which fans stalked celebrities. However, those working on the bill – including Maria Wallis the then Assistant Chief Constable of Sussex – recognised that most incidents of harassment involve ordinary people (usually women) who have refused or ended a relationship with a violent abuser.
Police forces regularly assert that they do not have the resources to properly protect victims of domestic or sexual assault. So the PHA is an essential tool in their armoury.
This makes it all the more disturbing that legislation which was designed for the purpose of safeguarding vulnerable individuals is increasingly being misused to protect powerful and wealthy corporations.
Influential firms of lawyers, acting on behalf of drugs companies, have begun to use the law to target animal rights activists. There is growing evidence that that a key purpose of the companies is not to protect vulnerable employees, but to fetter campaign groups – and innocent protesters associated with them.
A similar process is taking place in Brighton, but here – possibly for the first time in the country – peace campaigners are being targeted.
The EDO plant in Brighton is part of the US owned EDO Corporation which supplies weapons components to governments around the world. The Brighton plant makes bomb release and interface equipment which has reportedly been used in Iraq.
Over the past 15 months, a small group of peace campaigners (at least 2 of whom are pensioners) has been picketing the factory, usually on a Thursday afternoon. The protests have been non-violent though often noisy. The campaigners say their primary aim is to make Brighton people – and the firm’s employees – aware of the deadly use to which the components are put. Ideally, they would like the factory put to different use.
EDO alleges a hate campaign is being waged against it . The company recently applied for a High Court Injunction to restrict demonstrations to one afternoon a week in an agreed site, to limit numbers to 10 and to oblige demonstrators to be silent. It called for a 1/2 mile exclusion zone to prevent campaigners approaching the site. Campaigners argued that this would prevent them from going about their daily business.
Yesterday, Mr Justice Gross imposed an interim injunction, on the grounds that there was “risk that they would join in activities which would result in harassment of the claimants”. However, the conditions he imposed were far less onerous than had been requested and he asked that the matter come to trial very soon.
The campaigners may demonstrate at any time and in any numbers, at the agreed site. Campaigners may enter the exclusion zone, but not for the purposes of protest. Demonstrations need not be silent.
The campaigners appear hopeful that when evidence is tested at trial they will be vindicated. They remain confused about the action taken by the company and express shock at the support given to it by the police. They say they received no warning of possible action under the Act.
They claim that most protests have been legal and that the few illegal actions have been non-violent and undertaken by pacifists willing to accept the consequences. Police were present on almost all occasions.
Campaigners emphasise that none of them has been found guilty of any offence involving verbal abuse, threats, violence or criminal damage.
They are a mixed group. Some are committed pacifists, who would oppose any weapons manufacture. Others object to the use of EDO components in the Iraq War and elsewhere. There is no doubt that widespread revulsion at the War and the tens of thousands of civilian deaths caused by it, has heightened awareness of the company’s significance.
Few local people to whom I have spoken object to the manufacture of weapons for genuinely defensive purposes, provided that it takes place under the strict control of an elected government acting in accordance with the law.
The concern amongst many people in Brighton is that EDO manufactures systems – such as bomb release mechanisms – which can in no way be considered defensive and which occasion terror, mutilation and death to innocent civilian populations.
The company asserts that it has always acted in accordance with government regulations. The protesters argue that in a situation in which the government cannot be trusted to act in accordance with international law, corporations must take responsibility for the way in which their weapons may be used.
Brighton is a Peace Messenger City with a strong peace movement. It has a large and active Quaker community, a well established Peace Centre and many churches and faith communities with a strong tradition of social responsibility. Its 2 MPs opposed the Iraq War. It is therefore unsurprising that protests are taking place.
The traditions of ‘passive resistance’ have always involved illegal action such as obstruction. Such tactics were deployed by Gandhi in the campaign for Indian independence, by Dr Martin Luther King as part of the civil rights movement in the USA and by British suffragettes in the struggle for women’s right to vote.
Illegal ‘actions’ which have taken place at the EDO factory appear to be classic examples of non-violent direct action. In one instance, protesters, including a 65 year old pensioner, obstructed the roadway by chaining themselves to barriers. It was an offence, but hardly likely to induce terror.
Two sit-down protests on the factory rooftop – involving amongst others a meditating Buddhist – may have constituted illegal trespass, but could not be construed as a severe threat to security.
The banging of drums and pots and pans is reported by company directors to have caused nuisance to EDO’s employees, but this is a traditional form of non-violent protest. There are civil processes which could have been pursued to control this.
One wonders whether EDO’s Directors think about the terrifying noise a bomb makes as it falls or the sounds of screaming as people die.
The 14 individuals named in EDO’s injunction have all been arrested at one time or another over the past 14 months. Several were found to be not guilty in a court of law. Others vigorously denied allegations against them and charges were dropped. Nonetheless, the incidents which gave rise to their arrest are being used to support the action.
The police statement supporting EDO’s court action expresses concerns about the amount of police resources deployed to the protests – regularly 4 constables, a supervisor and community support staff at a cost of at least £31,200.
This is certainly an extraordinary injection of scarce resources – women experiencing stalking by violent partners would welcome a fraction of it – but it should have had no bearing on the police’s decision to support EDO’s court action.
The costs of policing should be a matter for the police not the courts. And in judging the level of resources to be provided the police should surely take into account the real level of risk to the company. It does not seem great.
The company claims to be subject to a “hate campaign” so intimidating that it has been forced to seek an exclusion order and draconian restraints. Yet there is no fence around the plant and appear to be no plans to construct one.
EDO only recently began building a gate, but it remains possible to simply walk around it. Incredibly, the company does not have 24 hour security. Therefore, it has no means of discovering who may have trespassed after hours to write anti-war graffiti on its building. Or indeed who daubed the words “Kill all peace protesters”.
When David Jones, the Managing Director of EDO was asked recently on a television news channel why the company did not have 24 hour security he indicated it wasn’t necessary, saying “…there’s a regular protest on Thursdays and the police attend that”.
If that is the case, why is his company suggesting that there is a substantial problem of intimidation? Why are the police supporting the use of the courts to limit collective protest, particularly when they have been able to gather so little real evidence of wrongdoing?
When the law starts to be misused it can spread like a cancer. Therefore, it is vital that we as local citizens challenge the manipulation of the law for political purposes. And that we defend our hard won civil liberties and right of protest.
As for the EDO Corporation, its first quarter recorded revenues – reported last Thursday – were $116.5 million. Perhaps they should consider spending some of it on a fence.