Activist... or Terrorist?

Well according to Tony Blair's Government if you're an activist then you're quite likely to be a terrorist and thus should be treated with scorn and contempt, even before any trial! Various local people have been organising meetings, and even a "Terrorist Tea Party", to discuss what the proposed Prevention of Terrorism legislation, which is now being presented to Parliament, will mean to our campaigning. (NB: this has now been passed into law)

The new legislation will mean a wide range of groups may find themselves targeted as "terrorist" organisations, and subject to the wider powers granted to the police and military services. The Bill widens the definition of "terrorism" to include the use or threat to use "serious violence against people or property". (Except, of course, the use of serious violence as it is done by the UK government against both people and property!) It is more likely that it will apply to Ploughshares groups and "Bread not Bombs" actions (see previous Networking Newsletter), along with crop trashing by genetix campaigners or damaging vivisection laboratories by animal rights campaigners, along with many many other examples - many of which have resulted in "not guilty" verdicts by the time they've come to court.

The Bill states that the new classification will include actions overseas and actions by groups based overseas, and will make it illegal to raise funds for groups drawn in by the new definition. Is anyone out there involved in support groups for the likes of the Zapatistas, resistance groups within East Timor or West Papua, the Ogoni in Nigeria or the Kurds in south west Turkey? If so, this legislation may apply to you, especially if you have been at all effective in raising the profile of the people you support and the struggle in which they are involved.

As usual, the police will be at liberty to interpret the legislation as they see fit. Protest sites, peace camps and street parties may find they fall foul of the clause defining "terrorism" as an "action which creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public".

The civil rights group Liberty have described the proposed measures as an unwarranted and unprecedented curtailment of civil liberties in times of peace. People may end up with three month sentences for unwittingly being in the wrong place (a "cordoned area") or five years for the offence of failing to report a suspicion of a colleague or partner. The Secretary of State will have powers to ban organisations, and arrested people will find they can be detained for up to 48 hours with no right to consult a solicitor or inform anyone of their detention. The armed forces will have (limited) powers to stop and search, whilst police constables will have powers to strip search, possibly including people of the opposite sex. Some offences transfer the burden of proof from guilt to innocence.

All this should not, perhaps, be too surprising, although it is still shocking. Lately the present dominant culture of state and private institutions has not shown much imagination in dealing with dissent. They are not interested in taking on board the perfectly legitimate concerns expressed on a whole range of issues by grassroots, campaign and activist organisations. Instead, any effective form of dissent is to become a political crime, to be dealt with by means of special powers. How far down the road does this take us to a terrorist state?

At a public meeting held at the end of January, a presentation was given and a number of possibilities for responding were brainstormed, to be developed at the next meeting. The general consensus was that the Bill should be opposed/resisted/made unworkable, and most were up for doing one thing or another. A proposal to visit Jack Straw in his capacity of Home Secretary, at his next surgery was made (Feb 12th, in Blackburn) and it looks like this is going ahead.

Info on meeting arrangements: Terrorist Tea Party c/o (0161 226 6814, mail@nematode.freeserve.co.uk)

Liberty, 21 Tabard Street, London, SE1 4LA. Tel;0171 403 1904. Recent action: Terrorising with Free Cake


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(c) Networking Newsletter (February 2000)