Like any joke, politics is a matter of timing. And so the new Bill by the Tory Government restricting our fundamental right to protest suggests that widespread protest is needed now more than ever. It’s a well-timed joke, except no one’s laughing.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill contains a lot. The 296-page Bill, which passed its second reading in the House of Commons on Tuesday evening, would bring in new laws covering sentencing, the courts, and the entire criminal justice system. However, crammed into this legislative tome are new restrictions which would further shackle our right to assembly and increase the powers of the police to disrupt peaceful demonstrations. (Labour opposed the Bill, but only after considerable public pressure, which begs the question: why weren’t they against the legislation from the beginning?) If passed, police would be granted power to disturb any protest which may cause “serious unease, alarm or distress”, “serious annoyance” or “inconvenience”. Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, would have the power to define what constitutes such a label in the future. Parliamentary debate is not the time or place, it seems, to go over small details like these.
The vagueness of these terms is worrying, particularly when it relates to police powers to detain. As we’ve seen in just the past few days, with the violent breakup of the Sarah Everard vigil at Clapham Common, the propensity of the police is to respond to peaceful demonstrations with violence. In many ways, the language of the police is the language of violence. Any legislation that emboldens these violent predispositions should serve as a terrifying alarm bell. The disturbing images of the past week may grow more and more commonplace. That the Bill’s being rushed through Parliament this fast in the middle of a pandemic is alarming enough. For Labour MP Zarah Sultana, the Bill represents a “descent into authoritarianism”.
There are many other dangerous items in the legislation. The police would now have renewed powers to disrupt ‘static protests’, and it would be easier for police to convict protestors for ignoring conditions put on protests by the police themselves, such as noise or time limits. Demonstrations around Parliament would be restricted, as these new rules would apply to demonstrations held by just a single person. (Don’t believe anyone when they say individuals can’t make a difference. The Government certainly thinks they can.) The maximum sentence for damage to memorials would be increased to ten years, a sentence more severe than many get for sexual assault. In addition, as well as sweeping curbs to our right to protest, the Bill also contains measures to further criminalise Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, putting perhaps the most vulnerable in society in an even more precarious position.
It’s no surprise that the Government is prioritising cracking down on activists now. After a summer of Black Lives Matter protests (“dreadful,” according to Patel) and Extinction Rebellion demonstrations bringing London to a standstill in 2019 (“eco-crusaders turned criminals,” again according to the Home Secretary), more and more people are realising that civil disobedience is an option. These disruptions cost the state a hefty price, but one suspects that concerns over the police budget aren’t the primary motivations behind this Bill. People suddenly saw that dissent was possible, that seemingly immovable facets of society were in fact changeable, and that a better, more equitable, society could indeed be won if we took the streets and demanded it. No wonder the Government is so frightened.
A frightened Government is an active Government. Like with any frightened creature, be they an elephant cowering at a mouse or the Prime Minister of Great Britain trembling at the rumble of dissent, we shouldn’t be surprised at sweeping legislation to any sense of danger. Maybe that’s why the Bill proposes the criminalisation of protest deemed a “serious annoyance” or a “serious inconvenience”. (As opposed to those polite, ignorable protests that have so frequently changed the course of history?) Here lies the heart of the matter. Protest is disruptive. That is the point of protest. When XR shut down the streets of London, they were not just doing it to gain media attention. They were doing it to shut down the function of the state as much as possible to demand an end of deadly inaction on the climate crisis that puts all our lives at risk. Time and time again, non-violent civil disobedience has been cited as the most successful way to bring about great societal change. It is by far the most effective way to overthrow a despotic regime. And throughout history, every momentous piece of legislation came as a result of civil society demonstration in the streets demanding it. No doubt the Suffragettes were called annoying more than once. Indeed, without the “highly disruptive” protests of the Suffragette movement, we wouldn’t have the democracy we enjoy today.
Of course, the ruling class knows this already. Why else would they be so deeply afraid of mass peaceful disobedience? The same might not be true, however, of the millions of people who may very well believe in the principles of the urgent issues of our time - radical emissions reduction, climate justice, racial equality - but who may not realise that action on such issues requires protest and civil disobedience. If it didn’t, wouldn’t the Government have acted by now?
It’s a dangerous time to be an activist. For some, of course, it’s always been a dangerous time; for communities of colour particularly, who are already disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system, the threat of police surveillance and violence is nothing new. But this piece of legislation represents a significant, and sinister, milestone, and one we should all be worried about.
For all Johnson’s bumbling sermons about Britain being a “freedom-loving country”, the passage of this Bill represents a significant, but by no means first, step towards authoritarianism. (For many communities, Britain has never been the beacon of freedom Johnson boasts it is.) That may seem excessive, but the descent into tyranny rarely happens with the bang of a gavel. Rather, it’s a slow transition, like an evening sky drifting into night, through which most of us calmly sleep.
Nevertheless, as significant single moments go, this week is one to note. Now that the Bill has passed its second reading, it must go through committees, the House of Lords and a third reading before being passed into law. The passage of the Bill would represent a dangerous milestone in our walk towards tyranny. It must be resisted every step of the way.
The new legislation won’t only give new powers to the police. It will bring in a new era of suppression to our fundamental right of assembly, association and speech, with the shadow of violence and imprisonment lurking at every corner. The need for mass protest has never been greater.
What can we do to resist this Bill?
Sign these online petitions:
If you feel comfortable and safe to do so, get out on the streets
Sisters Uncut have been leading protests against the bill in London - they have forced the government to delay the committee phase of the bill and are planning to use the momentum they have built to keep fighting against it.
Share any actions you take on social media using #KillTheBill