"LESBIANS ARE GAY TOO", so reads the placard that Mark Thomas is holding, standing suited and booted, protesting in front of The Houses of Parliament, and in defiance at a Labour's latest legislation against civil liberties. With him is Tracey Moberley, owner of Old Street's Foundry, striking a suitably solemn pose. Clipping the notice to the placard Mark adds: "You can't argue with that, they really got their facts straight on that one." But why protest with such a strange placard in front of Big Ben? Back in 2005 the Labour government rushed through the Serious Organised Crime Police Act. Its basic premise is that all those wishing to demonstrate in central London, within a rough 1.5 km radius of Downing Street, must ask permission. The irony of having to ask permission to demonstrate in a democratic country is bleak. The legislation, the then home secretary, David Blunkett has admitted had one purpose; to get rid of Brian Haw, the lone anti-war demonstrator camped for over six years now in Parliament Square. "A hammer to crack a nut," Blunkett chillingly called it. "The labour government are very good at smashing things through the committee structure without proper consultation," Mark says as he treks over to 10 Downing Street for another demo. This lack of consultation when rushing the legislation through has left several loopholes, not least one that allows Brian Haw to challenge the police's right to move him on. Of the other loopholes, the second most glaring must be the one that means the Met have to grant permission, except in special circumstances, to any protests. One person can constitute a demonstration under the Act, it need not be any fixed length of time and this gives infinite scope for mischief: "Some laws need to be pushed, some need to be broken to show how unjust they are, but some, some laws you can really fuck with." Mark adds gleefully.
Two broadcast students from Bournemouth Uni start filming and a PCSO tells them to stop. Mark politely challenges him and asks which law prevents filming, chastened the man moves off and watches from a distance. "It angers me when people tell me you can't film. If they say 'no', they need to tell you the law." As we move off towards Old Queen Street, Mark is scathing about the lack of professionalism of some policemen: "I mean your job is to enforce the law, not to make it up."
Which is how a little more than a year ago, Mark, Tracey and Tony Pletts started working on McDemos; for a fiver any member of the public can get the issue of their choice, on a placard, in front of Houses of Parliament, 10 Downing Street or anywhere inside the restricted area. It's perfect for anyone who has the need, but not the time to protest against such a silly law. Asked what his favourite placard has been he pauses and says "it's gotta be I FUCKING LOVE HOG ROAST", while Tracey says hers is "PINEAPPLE + HAM + PIZZA = EVIL".
In a crowded restaurant close to Downing Street, Mark cracks a few one liners about Tracey's Hepatitis C awareness campaign, and on the subject of it being passed on through sharing banknotes to snort coke, reckons "vacuousness is catching". The comradeship between the two is clear, and the conversation warm and friendly. He claims he met Tracey because "I needed someone to do my ironing", though he admits "that she is the best protest partner I've had". By now it should be clear that Mark is more than a cobble-stone's throw away from the crusties, anarchists and ramblers that make up the loose coalition of left wing opposition to the Labour government. In a scene often riven with in-fighting and bickering, and populated with more than few holier than thou individuals Mark's humour is a welcome relief. "John Pilger with laughs" one Guardian reviewer called him. It's accurate.
Mark's previous campaigns are numerous; from highlighting Coca Cola's support of the Nazis in the 30s, to its continuing brutality in Latin America against workers who try to organise. The Stop the Ilisu Dam Campaign deserves a mention, through tireless work by a whole raft of organisations the construction of a dam which would have flooded a 2,000 year old ancient village and made 75,000 Kurds homeless. The construction involves multi-national corporation such as Balfour Beatty, and is backed by the Turkish government, against such powerful opposition Mark and others proved that popular demonstration can really work.
As the conversation turns to previous escapades, the subject of his balloon flight over Menwith Hill, the American spy-base in West Yorkshire, on Independence from America Day, comes up: "We found out there were no flight restrictions [to avoid identifying it on maps]." He pauses and adds "And we nearly crash landed in it which was just." At this point Mark's eyes go really wide as flashback kicks in: "You start to panic when the people in charge of the balloon start pulling these things [mimes the burners kicking in] so we don't hit the water tower."
"That was quite scary, my record collection flashed before my eyes." If each protest needs a permission form, and one person constitutes a protest for no matter how long, it means the Met are in for a lot of paperwork. Mark still has good relations with the Met, and PC Paul Macannally who has to deal with most of the paperwork, is well represented in Mark's new show at the Venue in Leicester Square, . There is a feeling in the force however, that this law is making the Met look silly, that they have better things to do than fill out forms for the McDemos, which have seen issues like to 'Gemma Dawes is not a Goth or a lesbian so leave her alone' protested in Parliament Square. I ask an armed PC at the gates of 10 Downing St. about the loopholes in SOCPA, he admits: "No doubt Mark will exploit them, though I can't really talk to the journos."
Mark is proudest of finding the loophole in SOCPA that allows him to put Gordon Brown in the dock, and he takes a mid lunch phone call to receive the news that the Director of Public Prosecutions, are being served with a letter "asking them to investigate Gordon Brown breaking the law [SOCPA] at the Nelson Mandela unveiling [of the statue], we've got QCs, lawyers from Matrix Chambers, which is Cherie Booth's, hah I'm sure she'll approve it."
Under SOCPA demonstrations are badly defined, and case law, common sense and the definition of demonstration in the OED have to be used. Essentially it's an expression of opinion, which covers a terrifyingly large range, from wearing a badge, to a MP giving an interview on College Green; all could be classed as illegal demos. Mark's comedy and irreverence highlight not some 1984 conspiracy theory, but a genuine and grievous assault on our civil liberties.
(Mark felt that attempting proceedings against Mandela was unwise.)