openDemocracyUK: Opinion

The government must not give police more power over protesters

And we need real change to how London is policed

Sian Berry
15 March 2021, 11.09am
Met Police officers approach mourners at a vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common
Ollie Cole/Alamy Live News

If you had told me that a quiet, candlelit vigil for the death of a woman from south London would end with the police hauling women away in handcuffs, I would have stared at you in amazement. And yet on Saturday night that is exactly what happened.

I am still reacting with horror whenever photos of the heavy-handed police response cross my timelines.

How could this have been about safety, when other vigils for Sarah Everard, in Nottingham and elsewhere, happened without incident and with COVID-19 in mind? And when the consequences of police action to break up the vigil on Clapham Common, near where Sarah went missing, was always going to be to force attendees closer together?

At every stage, the Metropolitan Police had the opportunity to make sure that this gathering was as safe as possible for everyone involved, in close communication with those organisers from Reclaim These Streets who just wanted space to grieve their lost sister.

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Instead the police chose to obstruct and frustrate the right to peaceful assembly and caused these distressing and disgusting scenes. It is difficult to imagine after this spectacle how the Met commissioner, Cressida Dick, and the mayor and home secretary who jointly govern that post, could not be considering her position, and those of others in the leadership of the Met.

Met Police officers surround the bandstand on Clapham Common, after officially cancelling the Reclaim These Streets vigil
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The events of this weekend have made it clear why the right to gather together peacefully, for a vigil or for a protest, needs to be protected. Sadly, it seems like the police, and our government, doesn’t always feel this way.

For five years I have been challenging the policing of protests in the London Assembly. Yet the government is trying to extend the controls on dissent. The policing bill, which goes to parliament this week, was conceived when the Met attempted to use public order laws to issue a blanket ban on climate protesters in 2019, reaching well beyond their legal powers.

When I questioned the Met’s leadership in the Assembly, the response wasn’t to consider whether cracking down on protest is the best use of stretched resources. Instead, the Met said that it would push for a change in the law to permit it to ban such things in future.

It is clear that police tend to learn the wrong lessons from their mistakes, and the Met’s statements following the Clapham Common incident betray the same attitudes again.

We also know that the home secretary, Priti Patel, doesn’t like it when citizens gather together to oppose her actions. When she described the protests of last year, standing up for the dignity of Black lives and against police brutality, as “dreadful”, it was shocking, but not surprising.

Met Police officers clash with women at a vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common
Ollie Cole / Alamy Stock Photo

So now we have the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill: this government’s latest attempt to draw more power into the unaccountable hands of the police, a Bill that contains some terrifyingly anti-democratic provisions on protesting.

In particular, the Bill would allow the police to stop protests that would cause ‘serious unease’ or even create criminal penalties for those who cause (or who might cause) ‘serious annoyance’. It’s difficult to think of anything more vaguely worded, or more dangerous to our democratic rights.

The whole point of a protest is that it will have an impact. It may well cause unease or annoyance to those who don’t agree with its aims, but that cannot outweigh the value of our freedom to assemble peacefully and to express our views.

Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, enshrined in our domestic law by the Human Rights Act 1998, guarantee both of these rights as a basic condition of living in any decent, democratic society. They have been hard fought for, over many years, by people who paid with their safety and sometimes their lives for the freedoms we now enjoy.

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A crowd gathers in Parliament Square, the day after Met Police officers clashed with women at a vigil in south London
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The danger with our fundamental freedoms is always that we only realise how precious they are once they are gone.

It is a key principle of policing in this country that police officers derive their authority and legitimacy from the willing cooperation of the community they serve, and that the use of force or compulsion will erode that consensus.

Which is why we need to step up now and ensure these draconian measures do not become law, and that the Met is made to make urgent changes.

This is not a problem that we can solve by firing one person. And it’s not a problem that can just be solved with laws: in the case of the Met, there is a deep cultural crisis. This will take long-term and far-reaching work, and can’t just be left to another action plan from the police themselves. The principles of policing by consent are hanging by a thread. Londoners themselves should be leading deep and lasting reform, with no options off the table, and that’s what I’ll be proposing in my plans as London mayor.

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