Protest and the Police Bill
The government’s newly proposed Police and Crime Bill has caused shockwaves of outrage online, Anna Shaw discusses the bill’s potential repercussions.
The newly proposed Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill will assign more power to the police, particularly in regards to protests; allowing them to set noise limits, impose finish times, and apply these measures to a protest of just one individual. As a result, one person with a megaphone- such as Steve Bray protesting at Westminster– can be charged £2,500. The Police Bill also makes it an offence to cause “public nuisance”, and introduces 10-year prison sentences for damage to memorials.
The severity of these measures has made the Police Bill extremely contentious, and it has widely been interpreted as a threat to democracy. Shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy has accused the government of attempting to rush through substantial measures that “impose disproportionate controls on free expression and the right to protest”.
The speed with which the government attempted to get the Police Bill through Parliament suggests they were hopeful of minimal scrutiny. However, public interest has been drawn to the Bill as a result of the police’s heavy-handed response to the Clapham Common vigil for Sarah Everard. Such public attention was evident at the socially-distanced vigil for Sarah Everard and Lorraine Cox in Exeter last Saturday, to which several attendees brought ‘Kill the Bill’ placards.
Seemingly as a response to the widespread outcry, it was announced on 18 March that the Bill will be delayed until April, an outcome celebrated by the direct action group Sisters Uncut (leaders of the unofficial Clapham Common vigil). Given that the Bill has been halted, the recent transition of the Bristol protest into a riot – albeit by a small minority of protestors- appears all the more counter-productive.
The Bill is an interminable change, as opposed to a pandemic-specific emergency measure
For whilst it became a riot and not a protest – and thus not the sort of gathering that the Police Bill addresses, the events in Bristol have undeniably played into the government’s hands. Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated that the attendees should have protested “peacefully and legally”, although one Bristol protestor maintained that the violence stemmed from the fact that the proper organisation of peaceful protests has been disallowed during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Indeed, the original organisers of the Clapham Common vigil had sought to hold it legally and in compliance with Covid-19 regulations, but were not allowed to do so officially. Meanwhile, the ubiquitous mask-wearing and social distancing at the Exeter vigil, and at vigils elsewhere, has served to demonstrate that mass gatherings can be safely held, raising questions about the necessity of the lockdown-related limits on protests. Indeed, over 60 MPs have called for the Home Office to include protesting as a ‘reasonable excuse’ for leaving home.
This relates to the question of why the government wants to pass the Bill in the first place. Some argue that increasing police powers is necessary on the grounds of public safety, in terms of preventing Covid-19 transmission. However, this is easily refuted by the fact that the Bill is an interminable change, as opposed to a pandemic-specific emergency measure.
Others have maintained that the purpose of the Bill is to quash the potential for future protests like those seen last year: Ian Birrell characterised it as “a populist stunt to appease the hard-right, reflecting their loathing of Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion”. The Bristol East MP Kerry McCarthy similarly described it as part of the “government’s trumped-up war on woke”. This position is substantiated by the Bill’s specific crackdown on damage to statues.
Mass gatherings can be safely held, raising questions about the necessity of the lockdown-related limits on protests
Furthermore, Birrell’s argument is supported by the tweet of far-right populist Nigel Farage on the night of the Bristol riots: “the BLM protests were anti-police… [the] events in Bristol are an extension of that. We have given into… the extreme left, and this is the result”. Herein is an attempt to tarnish the Black Lives Matter movement through linking it to the unrelated violence in Bristol, and in so doing ‘justify’ the need for increased police powers.
Perhaps the most illuminating explanation as to why the government has sought to bring in permanent limitations upon protests is found in their own leaked document of 2019. This report detailed how Brexit-related shortages could mean protests “break out across the UK, requiring significant police intervention”. Whilst this was written in relation to the possibility of a No-Deal Brexit, it nonetheless reveals governmental fears of Brexit-related protests and the importance of the police in such a scenario: governmental “fury” at the leak is telling.
Ultimately, then, it appears that the government could well be using the right-wing climate of animosity- towards Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter protests- as a trojan horse for the introduction of draconian measures that balk the options for future protesting when the economic impacts of Brexit, compounded by those of Covid-19, become starkly clear.