Citizens, democrats, believers in civil liberty – all are perfectly right to get worked up over the ruse of police to confiscate tarpaulin from the hands of protesters in Parliament Square. In my visit – sorry, I was not one of the hardcore on this occasion, big respect to them, you – I wanted to get some insight into why this particular item had galvanised opinion so.
Suppose that sleeping equipment is prohibited under the 2011 Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act. Does a tough piece of hardy material count as thus and so? No more so than a screwdriver counted as a weapon; though it could be used for one its function is different. Similarly, the function of the tarpaulin was to communicate political messages – nothing less than the slogans emblazoned thereupon. Placing them vertically or horizontally did not automatically convert their usage from signage to sleeping equipment, any more than the words inscribed would equate to so much arbitrarily arranged ink splashes. A slight cock of the head would put paid to any suggestion that words became illegible as a result.
Free speech is about our ability to express meanings in the head, conveyed through signage should we so choose. The removal or threat of removal of tarpaulin was therefore an assault on this most fundamental of liberties. And yet it was more than that, too. For the police to confect a pretext for disrupting the peaceful protest – well, following Tony Benn, I prefer to call it a demand – was bad enough; acting neither to the letter nor the spirit of the law. The double indignation, I contend, resulted from the notion that people were not going to be allowed to use the tarpaulin as groundsheets, even though they were fit for that secondary purpose. So what of this prohibition? It was essentially dehumanising.
We can find humanity in the most dehumanising, demoralising of situations. Take the solider who hesitates to pull the trigger when his target suddenly slips and loses their shoe. Their target becomes a human being for that moment. To prohibit the use of tarpaulin as groundsheets had the opposite effect – of dehumanising the protesters, as though they weren’t fit to provide for themselves a minimal comfort when the legs grew tired. What after all was the alternative? The square was damp from rain, the grass became sodden and soily in part. People therefore resorted to laying directly on the ground, and this would only contribute to more wear. The retort came back from the police that we were therefore damaging the Square. Perhaps this was the object all along, for the police to be able to raise another prohibition on the back end of a proscribed behaviour that would only result in more damage to the grass.
In truth, the grass would repair itself. But our democracy has been tested. Tarpaulin Revolution signifies defiance in the face of a state apparatus that has lost its temper with the citizens it was meant to serve.