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The violent crackdown at the Sarah Everard vigil shows us why we can’t let the government ban protest

A brand new government Bill seeks to restrict protest and encourage violent police responses to demonstrations.

15 Mar

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On 13 March, the police turned a peaceful vigil into a violent crackdown. By now, most of the UK has seen the pictures and videos of officers body-slamming young women to the muddy grass on Clapham Common. We had flocked there to honour the memory of Sarah Everard, and other victims of violence against women. The protest – because any act in defiance of the state is a protest – was calm until darkness fell. Then the police moved in and all hell broke loose. 

Widespread horror of tactics used by police on the mourners gathered is such that Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick is under pressure to resign and even Priti Patel was forced to condemn the brutality used. But it doesn’t matter if Dick goes, and Patel’s words are empty. The problem is far, far bigger than these two women. 

On Tuesday, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, sponsored by Priti Patel’s Home Office, will have its second reading in the House of Commons. It threatens a permanent end to many of our freedoms of dissent as we know them. 

From the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK government has used it as an excuse to blast through our civil liberties. In March 2020 they set out their store with the Coronavirus Act and emergency legislation that brought into law some of the biggest restrictions of public freedoms seen in over a decade. 

The act equips the state with enormous authoritarian power using extremely vague language that can be twisted for any purpose. Alongside new coronavirus regulations – brought in under the Public Health Act 1984 and changed every few months – these rules are what allowed home secretary Priti Patel to deem 2020 Black Lives Matter protests as “unlawful” and why officers were deployed to Clapham on Saturday.

The regulations have also handed police a huge expansion of powers which they appear to be misusing; hundreds of prosecutions under the act have been dropped since it was passed because of “wrongful enforcement” of the legislation by officers. People have been fined for going for walks and people of colour, already disproportionately targeted by police, have found themselves further criminalised by increased racial profiling

Now, while we are distracted and fatigued, the government is trying to make worrying aspects of the Coronavirus Act permanent, including what amounts to a near-ban on protesting.

If allowed to become law, the PCSC Bill will hand the police sweeping new powers to crack down on non-violent protest, including imposing time limits on duration and maximum noise levels that will be allowed. Would-be protesters will have to be given permission in advance and police can ban gatherings if they don’t “sufficiently” meet conditions to prevent “serious public disorder”.

“While we are distracted and fatigued, the government is trying to make worrying aspects of the Coronavirus Act permanent, including a near-ban on protesting”

We’ve already seen what criminalising protest leads to. Horses ridden through crowds of peaceful demonstrators and haunting photos of young women being pinned down by police officers, masked faces stark in the glare of the camera flash. Just one day after the events at Clapham Common, police were captured on camera using batons and force to break up a nonviolent and socially distanced protest by the Tamil community in Harrow. Policing is institutionally violent. 

If the PCSC Bill becomes law, scenes of the sort on show at Clapham Common and at London’s Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020, will become ever more commonplace. Protest is a protected human right – handing police more powers will not see an end to protest, but an increase in the violence they feel able to enact upon demonstrators.  

The Bill doesn’t only seek to limit lawful ways of expressing dissent though. It will also threaten the way of life for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities through greater powers to enforce against “unauthorised encampments”, a realising of a threat promised in the 2019 Tory manifesto. Campaigners are also warning of the Bill’s introduction of new measures, supposedly to reduce knife crime, that would effectively act as quasi versions of the Gangs Matrix for those convicted of offences involving weapons. This is likely to further criminalise young Black men who are overrepresented in the policing of knife crime.

“The Ministry of Justice recently boasted that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill would ‘reform the justice system’. If ‘reform’ means “further deform” then: yes”

It doesn’t end there. In a nod to the culture war being waged by the Tories, other measures in the Bill see people who vandalise statues and war memorials liable for up to 10 years in prison – the same sentence given to people convicted of manslaughter. Not quite the same crime. It will mean more people in prison for longer and, given the racial disparity at every level of the criminal punishment system, we know that communities of colour will disproportionately bear the brunt.  

In a tweet, the Ministry of Justice recently boasted that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill would “reform the justice system”. If “reform” means “further deform” then: yes. Priti Patel’s ideal Britain may be one devoid of peaceful protest, where already penalised communities find themselves hounded out of public life, but that is not the future we are fighting for. 

This Bill shows the Tories are terrified of the collective power people can wield on behalf of the marginalised – it’s no coincidence it comes after we showed up and out for the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer. Labour have already pledged to oppose the Bill, in the wake of the violence on 13 March; now we must persuade Tory representatives to do the same.  This government wants us to give up the fight via dense legislation. We’re not going to let them grind us down. Make your voice heard today or risk having it removed altogether tomorrow.

Two actions to prevent the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill from becoming law: 

1. Write to your MP using this email template (Welsh language version here) by Sara Motaghian (@saramotaghian) and Anuradha Damale (@anulikesstars

2. Sign and share Netpol’s petition demanding the government drop the Bill and that the National Police Chiefs’ Council adopts a charter on the Freedom to Protest