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Outcry over policing is overdue, say groups targeted by cops for decades

Public Order Bill and coronation arrests build on largely ignored legacy of racist overpolicing, say campaigners

Anita Mureithi
10 May 2023, 1.44pm

Police make an arrest close to the 'King's Procession' in central London on 6 May, 2023


LOIC VENANCE / Contributor

Communities that have been targeted by British police for decades say it is disappointing that it took arrests at the coronation to spark a national outcry – but that solidarity against state violence could topple anti-protest laws.

“One of the real frustrations is seeing people saying, ‘protesting is now illegal’, as though repeated crackdowns on protest have not happened for the last 50 years,” Kevin Blowe of police monitoring group Netpol told openDemocracy in the wake of Saturday’s arrests.

Graham Smith, chief exec of the anti-monarchist group Republic, was among 64 protesters who were arrested on Saturday while preparing for protests against the coronation. There was widespread condemnation of officers’ actions and cops have subsequently apologised.

But Zita Holbourne, a human rights campaigner at African, Caribbean and Asian Lawyers for Justice and national chair of BARAC (Black Activists Rising Against Cuts) UK, told openDemocracy the “heavy handed” and “disproportionate” policing over the weekend was something marginalised communities had warned about for years.

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“When Black people, for example, speak out about police brutality and how we’re treated, we’re not listened to,” she said. “But the voices of others are treated as if they’re more relevant and more important than ours.

“That’s part of systemic racism more widely, and institutional racism in the police. When we as Black or Brown people are at protests, even if the protest is a broad range of diverse people in terms of ethnicity, gender, et cetera, it’s more likely that Black and Brown people will be singled out by police at those protests.

“We can’t get up in the morning and go out of our doors without having to think about if we encounter the police, how we’re going to deal with them, because of how they treat us, because of racism and brutality towards Black communities.”

For Holbourne, now is the time for allyship from other groups who faced heavy handed policing over the weekend, as well as in recent months following the passing of the Policing Act and Public Order Act. “They can learn a lot from us, because we’ve had that lived experience,” she said. “We have to teach our children, for example, when they get to an age of independence, where they start going out by themselves, of what to do if they’re in danger because they encounter the police. That's an everyday thing we have to deal with, not just at protests.”

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Primary school teacher Louisa Hillwood was arrested on the day of the coronation alongside 13 other members of the activist group Animal Rising who were attending a non-violence training session in east London.

They were held for 14 hours after being arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance.

Hillwood told openDemocracy: “The police burst through the door shouting, ‘police, police’. And I just remember thinking, ‘oh my goodness, what is happening?’ There were about 20 to 25 officers. There were 14 of us. And the police officers were shouting – it was very difficult to hear what they were saying.”

The officers told them that a different group, Just Stop Oil, was planning to disrupt the coronation. “They thought that that was us,” said Hillwood. “We were explaining that it definitely wasn’t. We were miles and miles from the coronation. And I think the current procession had actually already started at that point.”

Despite this, all 14 were handcuffed and taken to a police station. Hillwood felt she was “treated like a criminal”.

“The police have been wrongfully arresting, imprisoning brutalising people from marginalised communities for a very long time,” she said. “And they continue to do so. I think that it’s a shame that the people who perhaps were affected this weekend might not have spoken out against that if it weren’t to happen to them.

“The police have been given a horrific and terrifying amount of power by the government to do essentially whatever they want to anyone they want. And this is not new because of the Public Order Bill – they have been using their power inappropriately for a very long time.

“It is important that all groups, whether directly affected by this or not, stand in solidarity with each other because it affects us all… It’s coming for all of us.”

The right to protest is under attack across the board

Blowe, Netpol’s campaigns coordinator, added: “The deep frustration is that, every time something like this happens, people assume that somehow this is the first time it’s ever happened.

“There’s an awful lot of people who have not cared about the day-to-day repressive policing that takes place around the country suddenly thinking: ‘This is a cause that I care about.’ And: ‘This is wrong that this policing is happening to these people.’”

Blowe added that “racist, aggressive and violent” policing has made people from marginalised communities feel much more cautious about taking to the streets and protesting, “because the risks are greater”.

“That barrier should not exist… if you believe that the right to be able to go out and demonstrate against corporate power, against the state, against government policies is a fundamental, important tool in making sure that people’s voices are heard.”

According to Blowe, Britain has “a short window of opportunity to push back” against the suppression of dissent.

“We have to grab that opportunity while it’s available. And that opportunity is there now. When things are at their absolute worst, but at the same time, the police are also under enormous pressure to justify the way that they use their powers – that’s the time when you organise.”

Labour has refused to say whether it would abolish new anti-protest laws. But Blowe said: “If the next Labour government comes in, it [may] have no choice but to abolish the Public Order Act, regardless of what David Lammy or anybody else is saying now. That won’t happen without pressure. That won’t happen without organising.”

This, organisers say, is why solidarity and allyship between different movements is key.

“It doesn’t matter what tactics other people adopt, or whether you necessarily agree with them,” added Blowe.

“The issue is that the right to protest is under attack across the board and needs to be defended by all those people who think that it’s important… Whether you agree with Just Stop Oil, or indeed, with the anti-monarchy protests, if you don’t speak out on those issues, then are you just going to accept that the next time this happens, it’s less important because it’s a community or a cause that you don’t care as much about?”

Human rights group Liberty also spoke of the importance of solidarity.

Policy and campaigns manager Emmanuelle Andrews told openDemocracy: “That’s the whole point of protest – to bring communities together to all stand up for each other and defend everyone's rights.

“There's power in numbers, and there's power in having mass solidarity. We’ve seen that throughout history.”

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