openDemocracyUK: Opinion

In the UK, a long, hot summer of post-lockdown protests has begun

If laws banning protest are passed by parliament, NGOs and trade unions must follow grassroots activists in breaking them

Michael Chessum
22 March 2021, 12.23pm
A summer of protest kicked off with the 'Kill the Bill' protest in Bristol on 21 March 2021
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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Rarely does such a perfect storm of events so clearly expose the dark realities of state power and the real intentions of a government. Boris Johnson is, of course, a civil libertarian whose anti-authoritarian instincts were so strong that he could not bear to introduce proper lockdown measures at crucial moments in the pandemic; and the police are, of course, there to keep us safe. Over the past week, reality has burned through both of these lies in a connected way, bringing into being a moment of genuine difficulty for the defenders of law, order and ever-increasing police powers.

The passing of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill at second reading last week – its first step on the road to becoming law – took place against the backdrop of four consecutive days of protest triggered by the handling of a vigil to commemorate Sarah Everard.

As night fell on Clapham Common last Saturday, hundreds of police broke up the vigil citing COVID restrictions, arresting mourners clutching flowers. Public anger at the incident quickly latched onto the new policing bill, which seeks to dramatically curtail the right to protest and under which it will be possible to receive a higher sentence for defacing a statue than for raping a woman. This weekend, protests took place across the country, and in Bristol protesters fought back physically, attacking a police station and torching police vans. The long, hot summer of post-lockdown protest has already begun.

Police vans ablaze in Bristol
In Bristol protesters opposing the policing bill torched police vans on Sunday 21 March 2021 | PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

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The new legislation has now been delayed and will not become law until at least the autumn. It is vital that we use that time to build a mass movement against it and save our right to dissent.

Under Section 59 of the bill, it will be an imprisonable offence to organise demonstrations that cause “serious annoyance, serious inconvenience or serious loss of amenity” to the wider public. Being disruptive and annoying is an essential part of any effective social movement, and as someone who organises protests for a living – I was the named organiser on protests against Trump’s state visit and the illegal prorogation of parliament in 2019, among many others – I must confess that I find the new law genuinely scary. In future, I and other activists may have to pay for our endeavours with hefty fines and time behind bars. So be it, I suppose.

In largely criminalising effective protest, the bill will shine a light on the great open secrets of public-order policing. Far from being neutral arbiters of a legal order, the day-to-day role of the police is very political indeed. We already have a system in which most protests are legal only for so long as the police choose not to enforce the law, and even where police act illegally, the mechanisms for holding them to account are so narrow and long-winded as to be non-existent.

No doubt the government will use the Bristol riot to justify the policing bill

They can already disperse unplanned marches with relative ease, and the new legislation extends this power to static gatherings. The charge of violent disorder, created by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, already allows protesters to be sent to jail for up to five years if they are in a crowd of three or more and “threaten unlawful violence”. Any experienced organiser of protests will tell you that the best safeguard against being shut down or victimised by the authorities is not complying with the law, but mobilising large enough numbers that you cannot be moved and widespread enough sympathy that prosecuting you is more trouble than it’s worth.

No doubt the government will try to use the Bristol riot to justify the policing bill and set up a narrative separating ‘good’ and ‘bad’ protesters – and no doubt both the media and much of the liberal commentariat will play along – but the irony is that the new legislation is a recipe for more chaos, not less. For protesters, the decision about whether or not to negotiate with the police has always been a matter of weighing up options: doing so means that you might get permission for a rally or a march, but it also means giving the police information they might not otherwise have had, including names of organisers who can be prosecuted. If the pendulum swings too far against the right to protest in a legal way, the organisers of protests will have no incentive to identify themselves at all. This will probably make protests smaller and less easy to coordinate, but it will also make them more confrontational and immediately disruptive.

Those opposed to the new legislation can afford to breathe a sigh of relief, and to congratulate themselves. Without the efforts of feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut – which stepped in to organise the vigils and protests, and is now attracting upwards of 2,000 people to its online meetings – the bill might well not have been delayed. But we should also not be complacent. The government is hoping that a pause will drain the movement of its energy. There is, to be sure, still time to win concessions on the legislation, and the Lords can and should dig their heels in. Now is the time to build a movement of resistance on a grand scale – one that is broad, but which is also capable of articulating a politics around state violence, class, and systemic racism and misogyny that goes well beyond a purely defensive campaign. The fact that the street movement is being led by grassroots groups such as Sisters Uncut, rather than mainstream NGOs and liberal politicians, puts it in a good position to do this.

If the bill does go through, the whole of English civil society will face a stark choice. Complying with a law that bans any form of disruptive protest activity will mean policing ourselves. Doing so would drastically curtail the effectiveness of campaigns and damage the democratic rights of every person in England and Wales. For grassroots campaigns and social movements, the answer will be obvious: we will break the law where we have to. The real test of strength, however, will be in the response of larger institutions – NGOs, charities and trade unions – and the extent to which they are willing to step over the threshold and refuse to normalise a ‘new normal’. In seeking to curtail our right to dissent, Priti Patel could well make breaking the law an ethical duty.

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