Like cities across the UK Manchester has seen protests about the current crisis unfolding in Gaza. As a city and citizens, what we do is connected to the rest of the world, and of course that includes what happens in our city centre and how we shop. Manchester’s Labour council has chosen to react to this not by taking on Mancunians’ concerns, but by ramping up spin against protests.
The pressure was to abandon speaking out. Chief Constable Peter Fahy made ridiculous claims that the city centre was a no-go area. On King St we also saw the Dig the City festival carry on happily with an edible bus stop and growing veggies undisturbed. Richard Leese tweeted that he wanted protesters to stay away from “shop workers, shops and shoppers”. In other words stay away from everything.
The council have made it sound that protesting about a huge humanitarian catastrophe is at best inconvenient, at worst extremist. Actually, it would be more worrying if the people of Manchester did nothing. It is not an extreme position care about the deaths of children. It is not an extreme position to worry about the bombing of hospitals. It is not extreme to oppose the destruction of UN schools, or the flattening of scores of mosques.
Whatever view you take of the wider context of the conflict in Palestine, the right to express your view on it needs to be supported in our city, and at a time like this those views will be passionate. The right to protest is something fundamental to the Pirate Party. This includes the protests we have seen whether it is for Palestine, or for people who think that shop boycotts are dangerous, and for shop workers.
Following the pressure from the council lines of coppers penned people in on Market Street creating an ugly atmosphere. At one point, absurdly a chunk of observing Labour councillors were wedged in with protesters and members of the Green and Pirate parties between Dig the City stalls and one of the SpyPads. This is utterly different to the approach taken before. This is political policing, which the police commissioner had claimed to be opposed to.
Above all it did not achieve what Leese had called for, which is hardly surprising. The claim was to be concerned about shop workers. But full force containment policing is not the way to deal with isolated incidents of intimidation. The reality is that the vast majority of people who are out on the street genuinely are acting out of compassion.
The arguments of Manchester Labour about protests are exactly like the Tories about strikes. They grudgingly acknowledge they can happen. But, in practice, they want to make it impossible for them to happen. How can you usefully demonstrate not near shop workers, shops or shoppers in Manchester?
Maybe Leese wants Mancunians to shop not think. But that’s not what this city is about. It’s time for a different approach.