People Picketing at Parliament Provoke Pepper Spray Police Pickle

2 December 2016 has been described as a day to forget by Bermuda’s Government and the media. As the Royal Gazette reported, “a heated protest over [the Bermuda Government’s] controversial airport redevelopment project, which was due to be debated by MPs in Parliament, turned violent, with police dousing protesters with pepper-spray and officers allegedly being assaulted.

While protesters have alleged that the officers needlessly disrupted a peaceful protest, sending at least one senior [citizen] to hospital in an ambulance, police commissioner Michael DeSilva said protesters were unlawfully obstructing police and the public.

Hundreds gathered outside the House of Assembly early yesterday morning in protest of controversial airport redevelopment plans following a call by Opposition Leader David Burt for a demonstration. While the protesters successfully prevented MPs entering the House of Assembly, tensions came to a head in the early afternoon when police made efforts to move them. 

Protesters chanted and linked arms to remain in place and, during a heated altercation, police attempted to disperse them with spray. The move prompting a furious reaction from protesters, union leaders and Progressive Labour Party MPs“.

From a legal perspective, nobody can take issue with the right (indeed, the fundamental Constitutional right) to peaceful protest and assembly. It is a right to be cherished, encouraged and promoted in a modern Constitutional and Parliamentary democracy, along with the right to freedom of speech, opinion, and expression. But the right to peaceful assembly is not a right to be abused, and as section 10 of Chapter I of the First Schedule to the Bermuda Constitution Order 1968 makes clear, the right is a qualified one, in providing that:

(2) Nothing contained in or done under the authority of any law shall be held to be inconsistent with or in contravention of this section to the extent that the law in question makes provision—

(a) that is reasonably required—

  1. (i)  in the interests of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health;
  2. (ii)  for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedoms of other persons; or

(b) that imposes restrictions upon public officers,

except so far as that provision or, as the case may be, the thing done under the authority thereof is shown not to be reasonably justifiable in a democratic society“.

 

As both the Labour Relations Act 1975 and the Parliament Act 1957 indicate (and there may be other statutes that say so as well), it is unlawful (and extremely damaging to the democratic process, the rule of law, the public order, and the rights and freedoms of others) to organize or participate in a political protest that deliberately blocks access to Parliament, and thereby prevents MPs (whether Government or Opposition) from entering Parliament, and debating the Bills of the day.

The fact that the same protest did (or just might have) prevent lawyers, litigants, jurors and judges from entering the Supreme Court of Bermuda to conduct its business is equally offensive to the rule of law, to the public interest, and to the parties’ rights to a fair hearing.

Although it is regrettable that any violence should have been necessary, or that pepper spray should have needed to have been deployed by the police, it is even more intolerable that, for the second time in a year (and, it would seem, the second time in 400 years), Parliament has been deliberately shut down by unlawful, and unlawfully orchestrated, political pickets and protests.

I imagine that most Bermudians, Bermudian-residents, and Bermudian-businesses would prefer to live and work in a democracy that respects and upholds the rule of law, rather than in a state of utter anarchy.

 

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