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What price do we put on peaceful protest?

Who should pay for the policing of demonstrations?

That question arose in Edinburgh yesterday after a day of mass action by climate change protesters led to 12 arrests. For a time, traffic on two major routes into the city was blocked after what turned out to be vegetable oil was poured on to the carriageway.

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By any standards, this was a daft thing to do. The police were right to describe it as “an extremely reckless and dangerous act which could put many members of the public at risk”. By any standards this was stupid.

Yesterday marked the climax of the protest by the Camp for Climate Action that began five days ago. Small groups of protesters spread out across the city, targeting banks and other companies. Policing such action is clearly a challenge, especially at the height of the festival. Lothian and Borders Police were obliged to draft in officers from other Scottish forces and the total cost of the operation may run to six figures.

It is easy to understand the anger and frustration of the police at a time of large deficits and looming budget cuts. The response of Iain Whyte, chairman of Lothian and Borders Police Board, has been to call for the cost of policing such demonstrations to be recouped from protesters convicted of damage offences. Peaceful protests are used around the world to make a stand on issues people consider important to them. In a modern democracy, governments have a duty to maintain structures that allow legitimate political protests to be voiced. In Britain, that right is enshrined in the European Human Rights Act and, in particular, articles 10 and 11 which guarantee the right to freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly.

Yesterday’s protests involved vandalism and inconvenience for those trying to move around the capital. There is already legislation in place to impose financial penalties on those responsible for damage. But it is important to recognise most of the participants in the action were exercising their right to protest peacefully. This protest did not represent anarchy versus authority, as some have depicted it. As human rights lawyer, John Scott said: “We can’t price people out of peaceful protest.” Suggesting otherwise would set a very worrying precedent.

It would be a profoundly retrograde step if officers began to view protesters as the enemy and protest as illegitimate. Opposing the RBS investment in tar sands, or Cairn Energy drilling for oil off Greenland or Forth Energy’s biomass projects does not make these protesters the enemies of society. In fact, many Scots agree with the slogans on their banners. By and large, this protest has been imaginative, well-organised and orderly. The small minority who represent a threat to public order or endanger their fellow citizens are rightly arrested and charged. Their actions only serve to alienate the wider public.

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