The recent UK Police bill has been called “draconian” by activists, politicians and campaigners alike and described as a threat to fundamental rights to peaceful protest and an assault on democracy. So, what is going on?
Before we get into the bill itself, it’s important to describe the mood in the UK in the days leading up to the second reading of the bill being passed in parliament. It was a tumultuous couple of weeks for women and marginalised communities.
As the anniversary of the first national lockdown due to COVID-19 loomed, Monday marked International Women’s Day (IWD). Celebrations felt flat – with the usual generic “support women” energy across social media, mostly led by brands looking to cash in. That evening, the world tuned into “that interview” with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Among the bombshells dropped in an intimate conversation with Oprah Winfrey, Markle shared that when she was pregnant with their son, Archie, there had been concerns among the family about how dark his skin tone might be. Oprah’s shock echoed the sentiments of viewers around the globe.
By Tuesday, it was as though IWD had never happened and we watched as the tabloids, who have a history of raking Markle over the coals, were out in full force condemning a woman of colour for daring to criticise the Royal Family. Notorious UK presenter, Piers Morgan was once again trending on Twitter after spewing even more hatred for Markle on live TV and telling the nation he believed she was lying about her experiences with racism and suicidal ideation. Morgan was subsequently fired from his job at Good Morning Britain after over 40,000 complaints were filed following his outburst.
Emotions were running high and conversations post-interview ranged from mental health advocacy and suicide awareness, institutional racism and colourism and the press bullying women in the public eye and calls to abolish the monarchy.
All the while, photos of Sarah Everard had been circulating after she had been reported missing the following week. After leaving a friends house, she had disappeared while walking home. Her face was on posters, newspapers, bulletins and social media and as the search continued, it became increasingly likely that this was a murder case. That Wednesday, it was announced that Sarah had been found dead. A police officer, who was arrested on March 9th for kidnapping was now being held for her murder.
The story went global. The news rocked women everywhere, tired of being told to stay inside to keep safe and full of grief, anger and frustration. It prompted a resurgence of women sharing their experiences of sexual assault and harassment, not unlike the “Me Too” movement in 2017. Disappointingly, this was also was met with a reappearance of the hashtag “not all men”. The consensus among feminist activists was that men were using all their energy to distance themselves from a culture of violence against women rather than examining the ways in which they uphold the patriarchy in their owns lives – the parallels with anti-racist conversations the previous summer were numerous. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan stated his belief that the streets of London are not safe for women and girls and Home Secretary, Priti Patel, stated that “every woman should feel safe to walk on our streets.”
A vigil in Clapham, where Sarah was last seen, was proposed by Reclaim These Streets, an organisation that speaks out against violence against women. As well as honouring Sarah, the vigil was a space for grieving women to come together in collective sadness and solidarity. Due to COVID rules, police warned that the gathering would be against the law and advised against it going ahead. This was supported by the Home Secretary, who has expressed her contempt for protesters on numerous occasions.
As the week went on tensions continued to rise. On Saturday, despite the organisers cancelling the official event, many people gathered in Clapham Common regardless – desperate for an outlet after a heavy week. What started out as a sombre and subdued event, quickly turned violent as police used heavy force to remove and arrest women who were holding signs in the bandstand.
There were reports of officers shoving women face-first on the ground and the above image appeared in all the major papers the following day. Rightly, the violence was met with shock and outrage. The irony that the suspect in Sarah Everard’s murder was a police officer, seemed entirely lost on the police force. In fact, many have suggested that it was exactly the criticism of police to keep women safe from one of their own that motivated their aggression at the vigil. Of course, it was quickly noted that this kind of abuse of power by the police is familiar to many communities, including the black and travelling communities.
Saturday also marked the one year anniversary of the death of Breonna Taylor, a stark reminder of police brutality and of another movement built around protest – Black Lives Matter.
The government’s response was to push forward with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill in a bid to “keep women safe”.
Ok, so what exactly is the bill?
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill was not created this month, it has been circulating for a while and many campaigning organisations had already expressed major concerns about the ambiguity of language and proposals to increase police power. An open letter was shared by NGO, Friends of the Earth, that featured signatories representing organisations across sectors. There are now over 73,000 signatures since the letter was opened to support from the public.
It’s widely believed that this bill was actually a reaction to Extinction Rebellion, which successful shut down large parts of Central London during their October Rebellion in 2019 and pushed the UK government to declare a climate emergency. While the protests were incredibly successful at getting the attention of the public, the media and the government, and putting climate change on the agenda, they also received angry backlash from small groups who felt the disruptions were a nuisance. Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in June 2020 were met with similarly divided reactions and are said to have added further motivation to the creation of the bill.
The 307 page bill, is being positioned by the government as a move “to protect its citizens and communities, keep them safe and to ensure that they can get on with their daily lives peacefully and without unnecessary interference.” What the bill proposes is awarding police more power to crack down on protests. They will be able to decide where, when and how citizens gather to protest.
How bad is it?
Protesters will essentially need planning permission to protest. They will be required to provide an outline with start and finish times and commit to keeping noise at a certain level. The bill also proposes the creation of a no-protest zone around parliament. It increases fines, sentences and makes it much easier to prosecute. Perhaps one of the most concerning changes is that a person found guilty of knocking down a statue could face up to ten years in prison which, many have pointed out, is more than the current sentence for violent assaults.
Pressing issues like the climate, racism and violence against women have not lost momentum and people are galvanised to create change. But COVID 19 has complicated protests – the UK has been in a national lockdown for most of the past 12 months and mass gatherings are prohibited. Despite the prohibition, several marches have continued including those for BLM, NHS fair pay and some anti-lockdown protests.
The initial changing of regulations and empowering police officers during the pandemic was necessary to ensure UK citizen’s stayed home and prevented the spread of the virus. However, with restrictions easing and activists returning to the streets to challenge government decisions once again the bill proposes making some of those temporary regulations permanent.
An infringement on the freedom to peaceful protest represents and breakdown of trust between the government and its people. In addition to how the bill would affect the right to protest, it further violates the rights of already marginalised groups – the Gypsy and Traveller community and people experiencing homeless who could now be moved on from where they have set up despite having nowhere else to go and risk being arrested.
Protesting is vital for environmental and social justice
Freedom to protest has always been a crucial and effective way for communities to have voices heard and for citizens to create change. From Gandhi to Martin Luther King, social justice leaders have used protest to engage and inspire the masses. Votes for women and civil liberties for black Americans would not have been won without people power.
The environmental movement has won many battles through mass demonstrations and protests, including the ban on fracking. It is precisely due to the success of movements like Fire Drill Fridays, Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future – which started as a one-woman protest – that calls for climate action have become so loud around the world. It is necessary to cause disruption and attract press coverage for activists to have their collective voice heard and to lobby government and corporations to step up.
For many communities, who are not adequately represented in government or institutions of power, protesting is the only way for them to be heard. It is a legitimate tool for citizens to stand up to abuses of power, oppression and government decisions that do not reflect the will of the people.
#KilltheBill and Bristol Protest
As the news broke that the bill has been passed in its second reading, activists online came together and launched a digital campaign to Kill the Bill – calling on their followers to sign the open letter, write to their representatives and call for the House of Lords to delay the next stage and take the time to consider all the impacts of the new proposed legislation. This resulted in an extension.
On Sunday evening, just one week after the Clapham Common vigil, the news broke that tensions between the police and the public had once again flared. A ‘Kill the Bill” protest in Bristol had turned violent, several people were injured and vehicles had been torched in the clash. What started as a peaceful gathering on Bristol College Green, resulted in chaos outside New Bridewell police station within just a couple of hours.
Reports of what catalysed the change of atmosphere are divided with one side describing the arrival of police in riot gear taunting the crowd and threatening violence and the other illustrating a different scene altogether – one of “thugs” with little interest in the protest and a desire only to cause harm.
In a statement, Bristol mayor Marvin Rees said “The violence and damage that have emerged from today’s protests are unacceptable….I recognise the frustrations with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. I have major concerns about the Bill myself, which is poorly thought-out and could impose disproportionate controls on free expression and the right to peaceful protest. Smashing buildings in our city centre, vandalising vehicles, attacking our police will do nothing to lessen the likelihood of the Bill going through. On the contrary, the lawlessness on show will be used as evidence and promote the need for the Bill.”
UK climate action matters internationally
The right to protest peacefully is a cornerstone of democracy, one that cannot be taken for granted. If environmental activists no longer have the liberty to take to the streets to hold the government in the UK accountable for their role in climate change, it could have a devastating effect.
As a wealthy, industrialised country, Britain has historically been responsible for a huge portion of carbon emissions and while progress has been made with domestic emissions, the nation is still emitting high levels of CO2 through offshore production and per capita emissions are much higher than in the Global South.
The eagerly awaited COP 26 is to be held in Glasgow later this year and all eyes are on the UK to set out ambitious climate goals and lead the charge in the fight against climate disaster. The government has been frequently called out for hypocrisy and supporting developments, such as a new runway at London’s Heathrow airport, that do not align with their Net Zero commitment. Without the freedom to protest, holding them accountable will be remarkably more challenging.
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