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Labour MP Nadia Whittome: Public Order Act is threat to democracy

‘New law restricts one of the few tools working-class people have left at their disposal to push for change’

Nadia Whittome
Nadia Whittome
11 May 2023, 4.19pm

Police apprehend a member of climate protest group Just Stop Oil in the coronation crowd in London, 6 May


Justin Tallis – WPA Pool / Getty Images

Saturday was a historic day, and not just for the coronation of King Charles III

Six people from the anti-monarchy campaign group Republic were arrested as they arrived to set up their demonstration in Trafalgar Square – a protest they had been liaising with the Met Police about since January.

Also rounded up and thrown into cells were Animal Rising activists, who were attending a training course in east London, nowhere near the coronation procession.

Members of Just Stop Oil, who were simply holding banners and carrying no equipment that could cause serious disruption, were carried off in cuffs.

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And, perhaps most shockingly, three volunteers from Westminster Council’s ‘Night Stars’ team were arrested for handing out rape alarms the night before the coronation – an activity entirely consistent with their role of supporting vulnerable women in the West End.

The government has been keen to distance itself from these arrests, with ministers arguing that the Met acts independently and that no one is seeking to undermine the right to protest. But just a week before the coronation, the Conservatives’ new Public Order Act came into effect, giving police greater powers. This legislation is also to blame for these arrests – and it is functioning exactly as intended.

Protest is no longer a right but a privilege – one that can be revoked at a whim by the police

Alongside the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, these laws are designed to give huge discretion to the police, allowing them to shut down protests before any disruption has even taken place, prevent people marching too slowly, and criminalise protesters making too much noise, among many other measures.

Yet protest, by its very nature, can be disruptive. The effect of these laws is that protest is no longer a right but a privilege – one that can be revoked at a whim by the police, making it difficult for activists to understand whether their actions could land them in a cell or ruin their lives with a criminal record.

When debating this legislation in Parliament, we were repeatedly assured by ministers that the police could be trusted with these powers. But the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming: from recent reports finding the Met Police institutionally corrupt, racist, misogynistic and homophobic; to Wayne Couzens’ murder of Sarah Everard and officers across the country using their powers for sexual abuse; to the countless examples of police brutality, whether at protests or in custody. The government was still content to give police officers even more discretion to target and suppress people exercising their democratic right.

As with policing more generally, the impact of the Public Order Act is also unlikely to be felt equally. Take the new stop-and-search powers it creates. These allow the police to stop and search anyone in an area without grounds for suspicion if they believe a protest-related offence might take place, or people might be carrying certain equipment.

Black people are already six times more likely to be stopped under existing powers than white people, and the disparity for suspicionless stop-and-search is even higher. Even the Home Office itself acknowledges that these extended powers “may disproportionally impact” people of colour. While Republic activists arrested for carrying luggage straps are now taking legal action against the Met, will a Black teenager nicked for having a bike lock in his possession do the same? I highly doubt it.

The right to protest is integral to democracy. Without money to buy influence in politics and with trade unions’ power weakened, protest is one of the few tools working-class people have left at their disposal to push for change.

But these new laws are designed to restrict the effectiveness of protest, and the uncertainty they create will no doubt make people think twice about joining in – especially if you’re from a community that is already overpoliced.

While Conservative MPs are quick to decry attacks on “free speech” when it suits them – and they were repeatedly challenged on this hypocrisy in Parliament – this weekend proved that they are happy to see protesters arrested simply for exercising theirs. The Public Order Act is yet another authoritarian power-grab by a desperate government hellbent on silencing dissent. Like the Tory Party itself, it deserves to be consigned to the history books.

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