New laws put protesting campers out in the cold
DURING COLD weather Maria Gallastegui sits in a phone-kiosk, that looks like the Tardis in Doctor Who,on a pavement in Parliament Square across from the House of Commons.
She has been here, on and off, since 2002 and the early days of the campaign against Tony Blair’s determination to go to war against Iraq – which saw a million people protesting on The Mall.
Since then she has frequently stood here and for a long time she sat alongside Brian Haw, the longest-serving of all anti-war protesters.
For nearly a decade, he sat across the road from the Houses of Parliament until his death from cancer last year brought his fight to an end.
Since then Gallastegui, surrounded by a few supporters but mainly ignored by passing pedestrians, has kept up the fight against the UK’s involvement in Afghanistan – a war, she says, that has been continued because it makes billions.
Late on Monday night, the Metropolitan Police used powers that had just come into force to clear some of the tents that lined the pavement across from the Palace of Westminster.
Meanwhile, the fact that London is becoming a colder home for public protesters was reinforced by a High Court decision to order the removal of the Occupy London camp that has been outside St Paul’s Cathedral for months.
Under the new bye-law passed by Westminster Council, which has long sought to clear Parliament Square, police can remove protesters who base themselves in areas around Whitehall, Westminster Abbey and in front of the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre.
In line with the new powers, the police seized some of the tents; though Gallastegui’s own operation – complete with three tents and the “Tardis peace-box” – was left untouched because she has permission to go to court in March for a judicial review of the new powers.
Parliament Square has been at the centre of many public protests. In May 2010, the lawn was occupied by the Democracy Village, which comprised a range of people who had strong views on various issues from war in Iraq to Google’s global campaign.
Mayor of London Boris Johnson fumed and railed against the occupants, saying that they were even living there without toilets, though the protesters insisted that they had compost-friendly arrangements for their needs.
Last July, Johnson won the first part of his battle with a High Court order that led to the clearance and restoration of the lawn, but it has remained blocked off behind high fencing ever since, lest a re-occupation be attempted.
Delighted with the police move on Monday night, which involved dozens of officers, Johnson declared: “I think it was high time that a World Heritage site was properly protected from what was basically vandalism. It had become an eyesore.
“No matter how important the right to protest is, and everybody defends people’s ability to legitimately make their point, you can’t have the continual desecration of a World Heritage site,” said the mayor, who will go for re-election in May.
Gallastegui is confident that she can fend off Johnson’s efforts in court: “We have got nothing to lose now. If we go then we are going to war against Iran. Do we really want to see people killed in such a war?” she said to The Irish Times.
Last January, she spent two weeks in a tent, despite sub-zero temperatures, on Whitehall, across the road from 10 Downing Street: “It isn’t meant to be easy to do this sort of thing and it wasn’t,” she said.
Today, however, she does take the occasional break, though she rejects the charge made by some that a “permanent” protest which is not permanently occupied somehow lacks in legitimacy: “It isn’t a prison,” she said.
Although its message is one of peace, the camp is not always, however, filled with a spirit of brotherly and sisterly love, since Gallastegui was suspected of being a police informer by some of those who occupied the Democracy Village.
Standing just feet away from her, Aqil, who describes himself as a “British Palestinian”, looked on suspiciously: “How does she manage to stay when others have been moved on? Something is not right,” he complained.
Aqil, who would not give his full-name, is another of those motivated to come to Parliament Square by Mr Haw: “He could not have survived here without fellow campaigners. He couldn’t have stayed here every night.”
Aqil had marched in 2003 and joined Mr Haw’s camp two years later.
For several years he has walked carrying a placard on his front and back from the end of Whitehall to the Victoria Tower at the end of the Palace of Westminster.
Following changes made to the law in 2005, protesters seeking to gather near the Houses of Parliament have been required to seek police permission but Aqil is adamant that this is something that he will never do.
“On principle, I will never apply for permission to protest. I have a natural right to protest and so has everyone else,” said Aqil, who comes here to protest every day after work, as well as on his days off.
“Sometimes I am here for three hours, sometimes for 12,” he says.
Gallastegui rejects the accusation that she is an informer, but accepts some hold that opinion: she says that much of the speculation arose from her habit of trying to have civil relations with police, “I try to be nice to people,” she said.