Reports came in at the beginning of this week that a peaceful protest held in Guildford High Street on Saturday 4th May in support of Palestine was disrupted by a group of counter-protesters. The pro-Palestine protest was organised by the West Surrey Palestine Solidarity Campaign (WSPSC), who stated that the counter-protesters were “Zionist agitators” and aimed “to abuse and intimidate the peaceful protestors and made false accusations against them”.

During the afternoon, the familiar cry of “From the river to the sea” was heard. Someone complained that the chanting was “threatening” and called the police. West Surrey police officers then arrested a young Muslim woman from Woking, who was leading the chanting, and bystanders claim that the officers acted aggressively. She was arrested “on suspicion of a racially aggravated public order offence under Section 4A of the Public Order Act”. Section 4A deals with cases of “disorderly behaviour with intent to cause harassment, alarm or distress” and can lead to a six-month prison sentence. The arrest was filmed and was posted on X by @5Pillarsuk  and shows the support she received from the group around her and her brave defiance in continuing to chant “Free Free Palestine” as she was marched to a police car. 

Her supporters congregated outside the local police station and held a vigil for her. She was released later, having been granted bail, and was greeted with a round of applause. The WSPSC released a statement which included the comment: “This was a girl who cared for the suffering of others and who was protesting to try and stop the horrific genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians from their own country by the illegal Israeli occupation.”

The Surrey Police justified their arrest: “Our priorities when it comes to policing protests are the safety of protestors, the public and police officers involved, preventing criminal behaviour or disorder and de-escalating tensions. We will always take action when it is necessary and proportionate to maintain public order.” 

In Guildford there was of course no threat to the public in the young woman’s behaviour. Should male police officers manhandle a woman in this way? Was this proportionate action? Of course the Metropolitan Police would have a hard job singling out anyone to arrest in the massive London protests when thousands are chanting the same words of support for Palestine, although of course there have been instances when they have arrested individuals on one pretext or another. 

But was this vocal young woman singled out by the police because she was a Muslim woman and taking a lead role in the chanting? The County Local News made the comment: “The woman’s arrest has raised concerns about the treatment of Muslim individuals expressing their beliefs in public spaces.” Unfortunately the publication goes on to comment inappropriately about “provocative slogans and chants”, reminds us that “words have power” and stresses “the importance of thoughtful and respectful dialogue”. It is Tory politicians who should take heed of these words when their disgraceful rhetoric condemns the “hate marches” and they try to make out that Jewish people are unsafe in London. 

There are of course many signs that our freedom of expression and freedom to protest are being increasingly eroded. The left in particular seems to be targeted, as we challenge the status quo and the structures and institutions that ensure the entrenched position of capitalism on the planet. 

One recent measure has been aimed in particular at environmental activists and refers specifically to Just Stop Oil, Extinction Rebellion and Insulate. The Public Order Act increases police powers to impose restrictions on protests and criminalise some of the protesters’ tactics. New powers include the expansion of stop and search, the banning of people from protests, controlling the activities they are involved in and creating new offences which can criminalise certain types of protest. Palestine Action, whose activists have shown such outstanding courage and who have achieved remarkable success, is also threatened by these new powers. 

The Government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act and the Public Order Act, 2023 has a whole range of implications for protesters, and some of the restrictions on marches are imprecise and open to interpretation. Among them are new definitions of disruption, limitations on noise, introducing offences in relation to static demonstrations, one-person protests, causing a public nuisance, obstructing access to Parliament and “wilful” obstruction of the highway.

But those who campaign for justice for the Palestinians and all others who are oppressed by capitalism are undeterred, and protests are spreading in the US universities and many other parts of the world, including Guildford, where there is a campus local to Saturday’s unnecessary and provocative arrest. An increasing level of direct action is taking place, and these activists deserve our full support, whether they are fighting for freedom in Palestine or for the future of the environment, as they risk their livelihoods and futures to fight for what is right.

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