Inequality Demands Oppression

Corporate lobbyists are demanding a ban on protest – and getting it.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 2nd February 2024

Why are peaceful protesters treated like terrorists, while actual terrorists (especially on the far right, and especially in the US) often remain unmolested by the law? Why, in the UK, can you now potentiallyreceive a longer sentence for “public nuisance” – non-violent civil disobedience – than for rape or manslaughter? Why are ordinary criminals being released early to make space in overcrowded prisons, only for the space to be refilled with political prisoners: people trying peacefully to defend the habitable planet?

There’s a simple explanation. It was clearly expressed by a former analyst at the US Department of Homeland Security. “You don’t have a bunch of companies coming forward saying: ‘I wish you’d do something about these rightwing extremists.’” The disproportionate policing of environmental protest, the new offences and extreme sentences, the campaigns of extrajudicial persecution by governments around the world are not, as politicians constantly assure us, designed to protect society. They’re a response to corporate lobbying.

Last week the UN’s special rapporteur on environmental defenders, Michel Forst, issued the kind of bulletin you might expect to see written about the Sisi regime in Egypt or Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But it concerned the UK. It noted that draconian anti-protest laws, massive sentences and court rulings forbidding protesters from explaining their motives to juries are crushing “fundamental freedoms” here. He pointed out that until recently it was very rare “for members of the public to be imprisoned for peaceful protest in the UK”. Now you can get six months merely for marching.

He also highlighted the outrageous treatment of people convicted of no crime. Peaceful environmental campaigners are being held on bail for up to two years, subjected to electronic tags, GPS tracking and curfews, and deprived of their social lives and political rights. This is one of many examples of process as punishment. Even before you have been tried, let alone found guilty, your life is shredded.

This bombshell report was ignored by almost all the media. You shouldn’t be surprised. With a few exceptions, the media belongs to the corporate-political complex that demanded these laws. All over the world, the billionaire press has been demonising peaceful campaigners and lobbying for ever more oppressive measures against those who challenge destructive industries.

However absurd the media’s hyperbole, governments rush to meet its demands. In Germany, the authorities launched an organised crime investigation into the environmental protest movement Letzte Generation. Italy is using anti-mafia laws against an allied group of environmental defenders, Ultima Generazione. In France and the US, peaceful green protesters are labelled and treated as terrorists. These governments must know they aren’t dealing with organised crime, the mafia or terrorists. But by using these labels they hope to isolate and ostracise peaceful protesters while justifying a madly disproportionate legal response.

In many cases, laws are proposed or drafted by corporate-funded lobby groups masquerading as thinktanks, such as Policy Exchange in the UK and the American Legislative Exchange Council in the US. Such groups create legal templates for crushing protest movements, then press for their adoption all over the world. This tactic has been chillingly effective.

In the UK, the government has truncated parliamentary scrutiny to force extreme measures on to the statute books. Judges have jailed environmental defenders for seeking to tell the jury why they took their actions. In 2023, two peaceful protesters who unveiled a banner on a bridge, Marcus Decker and Morgan Trowland, were handed sentences of two and a half and three years: the longest of their kind in modern history. Decker, a German citizen living with his partner in the UK, now faces deportation when he is released. There is nothing just or proportionate about any of this.

Even worse, both public authorities and corporations have been dropping injunctions on people who have protested, and, for that matter, those they believe might protest.As the UN rapporteur pointed out, many peaceful protesters are “being punished twice for the same action”: facing both criminal trials and civil injunctions. Simply being named on an injunction exposes you to potentially massive financial penalties, as the named people – the defendants – typically have to pay the legal costs of the claimants. If the defendants challenge the injunction, the costs can spiral into hundreds of thousands ofpounds. I’ve been contacted by several people who have never committed a crime, who have told me they are being ruined by inclusion on these lists. These costs are, in effect, fines that can be levied by either public or private bodies against anyone who disagrees with them. They amount to punishment of the poor by the rich. Corporations become, in effect, prosecuting authorities.

Worse still, the police can also slap an injunction on peaceful campaigners, even if they’ve done nothing to offend the law. Last year, Surrey police handed an “antisocial behaviour injunction” to Colin Shearn, a retired corporate executive, on the grounds that he had been asking “endless questions about air traffic” at Farnborough airport. His questions, letters and information requests were polite and considered, but this, apparently, counts for nothing. By pure coincidence, three weeks after its most effective critic was silenced by this injunction, Farnborough airport announced that it planned to double the number of weekend flights.

Why is all this happening? Because the UK, the US and many other nations have become closed shops run by the plutocrats’ trade union. This political capture also explains why, despite the alleged perversions of justice that ruined the lives of so many subpostmasters, none of thesenior figures at the Post Office or its contracting companies have been held accountable. It explains why, in the US, you can be imprisoned for possession of a few grams of narcotics, yet no pharmaceutical executive has been sent to jail for peddling opioids that have killed 800,000 people. It tells us why, in the UK, no company has yet been prosecuted for tax evasion under the 2017 Criminal Finances Act, and why Rishi Sunak’s government repeatedly sabotaged parliament’s attempts to clamp down on major white-collar crime. The powerful are protected while the powerless are exposed to ever more inventive laws.

Inequality demands oppression. The more concentrated wealth and power become, the more those who challenge the rich and powerful must be hounded and crushed. In other words, economic inequality is mirrored by inequality before the law. You can dispense with all the other indices of democracy. The best measure of the health of a political system is who gets prosecuted.