Democracy Village was an embodiment of people power

The camp was more than a collection of tents -- it was an idea. Protest is a vital part of the democ

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, Democracy Village in Parliament Square -- the "shanty town", as David Cameron called it when he vowed to remove it before being elected -- was evicted.

Democracy Village had been derided by certain politicians and in the mainstream media as an eyesore afflicting an important public space, but make no mistake, the government and the Greater London Authority knew only too well the real threat posed by it -- and it had nothing to do with messy public spaces. They knew that the Village was far more than a ramshackle encampment. It was something that could not be tolerated -- an embodiment of genuine people power.

Here were citizens challenging the cover stories on illegal wars; here were people refusing to swallow the greenwash of the governments that failed us in Copenhagen; here were people free from the influence of the mainstream corporate media from which most people construct their world-view; here were those free from any form of propaganda government evangelists spew out.

Here, the discourse had no invisible boundaries. And when people can no longer be manipulated, when they have become immune to all artful attempts to quieten them, when they are not motivated by the attainment of money or power, when they are unafraid of arrest or imprisonment, then they have become truly free, and it is this state of profound "awakeness" that made the villagers so "dangerous".

Democracy Village was not an isolated group of political "extremists" as some would have you believe. If we were, then the majority of the British people are also extremists for wanting our troops brought home, as the latest polls show.

If we who want real action on climate change rather than compromises that allow continued devastation are extremist, then so are the millions of ordinary people who want a sustainable future for their children. If the ideas of fairness and justice we espouse are extremist, then we have finally entered an Orwellian nightmare.

What is "extreme" in this hall of mirrors we call civilised society is our willingess to "be the change [we] want to see in the world", as Mahatma Gandhi said, to proclaim the truth and have it called blasphemy by those who fear the end of their influence.

Boris Johnson was "worried" about the effect of Democracy Village on tourists. Was he worried by the effect on tourists of watching peaceful protesters being hauled into police vans for reading out the names of our soldiers killed in Iraq?

What tends to be forgotten is that protest is a vital part of the democratic process. As the acclaimed historian Howard Zinn astutely observed, we are apt to forget that advances in social justice have been brought about, not by politicians, but by ordinary people putting pressure on them until change could no longer be denied. This is when laws are changed and civilisation takes another step forward.

Laws cannot stand for all time; if they did, then we could have no moral progress, because laws only reflect the dominant values of the times in which they are created. Therefore, it was once legal to own slaves, to deny women the vote, to discriminate against a person because they were black . . . everything done in Nazi Germany was perfectly legal.

We have become strangers to our own history; we have become divorced from our own power and our true identity as sovereign citizens. Civil disobedience has a long and honourable tradition in this country, and Parliament Square has been at the very heart of it, from the suffragettes to the Chartists and the Tolpuddle Martyrs. We followed that proud tradition; it is those who removed us who betrayed it, as Tony Benn made clear to the high court during the legal case. Parliament Square was created to allow the British people to petition the House of Commons, and that is what we gathered to do.

We heeded the calls at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in December 2009 to set up people's assemblies worldwide in June 2010: we started early and set one up on 1 May. Since then we have received support from individuals across the political spectrum -- Conservative and Labour MPs, current and ex-servicemen, trade union members and students, as well as overwhelming backing from the people of London and tourists from many countries.

Our diverse groups share many common goals, including peace, justice and a sustainable future for the planet, and we are respectful of the differences between us. In spite of our differences, we had unity through the diversity of our opinions, and worked constantly for tolerance of all ideas expressed. We sought to embody the words of Voltaire: "I may not like what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Democracy Village as a camp is now gone. But, as we have tried to show, it was far more than a collection of tents -- it is an idea. And ideas cannot be moved on, nor can they be locked up or in any other way confined.

As Henry Thoreau noted from the prison cell where he had been sent for non-payment of poll tax:

I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which followed them out again without let or hindrance, and they were really all that was dangerous.

So it matters not that Boris and Cameron have had their way for now -- the idea is alive and well and, as Victor Hugo understood, "No army can withstand the strength of an idea whose time has come."

We will be meeting this Saturday, 24 July, for a People's Assembly (between 1pm and 6pm) at Victoria Tower Gardens, just next to parliament. Join us!

Getty
Show Hide image

The government has admitted it can curb drugs without criminalising users

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity