Unserious organised crime

A must-listen on the Radio 4 website: comedian Mark Thomas’ programme entitled “My Life in Serious Organised Crime”.

This programme looks at the effect of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, which banned “unauthorised demonstrations” within a kilometre of Parliament Square (see the Metropolitan Police’s map of the designated area). This was purportedly for “security” reasons (what else?), though it was widely believed to have been motivated by the long-term protest outside parliament by anti-war campaigner Brian Haw.

The first conviction under the act was of a woman who was (to quote Wikipedia):

…convicted for reading the names of British soldiers and Iraqi civilians killed in the Iraq War, under the Cenotaph in October, without police permission.

That’s right: this is a free country in which reading a list of names “without police permission” is a criminal offence. One that will get you a conviction under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, no less: so good luck with that next job application, you serious organised criminal, you.

Mark Thomas’ masterstroke was to realise that the proper response to this law was not civil disobedience, but civil obedience to expose the sheer lunacy of its provisions. So he set about applying for innumerable “protest licences”, including:

  • A demonstration against “the threat to surrealism”.
  • A “mass lone demonstration”, in which 150 people made applications for individual protests that all just happened to take place at the same time, each needing a separate licence.
  • 21 separate demonstrations in the same day by Mark Thomas, each lasting for ten minutes and taking place in a different part of the exclusion zone, again with each needing a separate licence from the police. This won Thomas a place in the Guinness Book of Records for the most political protests by an individual in a single day.

One of the most impressive aspects of the programme was the patience, forbearance and good humour shown by the police, not least the long-suffering constable who had to process most of Thomas’ applications (which in some cases involved negotiating with four separate police forces and consulting lawyers to ensure compliance with the Human Rights Act.

For Thomas’ final protest, taking place in the middle of a near-riot involving an unauthorised anarchist demonstration (and there’s a phrase to savour), the officer in charge of the police operation at Parliament Square even provided an escort of two Metropolitan police officers to protect Thomas from wrongful arrest by over-exuberant out-of-town coppers who wouldn’t understand how the law worked.

Great fun, and perhaps it will make some small contribution to getting this petty and depressing law – rushed through in the wake of the 7/7 bombings – off the statute book.

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One Response to Unserious organised crime

  1. Phil Walker says:

    I laughed all the way through that show: Thomas is a genius–not only for seeing a way to point out the absurdity of the law, but also a way of doing so with good humour. Not to mention an ability to perceive the absolute absurdity of some of what went on (like challenging^Wchannelling Churchill, and applying for permission from a police officer to campaign to have him sacked).

    That they still hold the mass lone protest regularly is *almost* enough to make me wish I lived in London.

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