Roar writer Amaaya Nath on the UK governments 2021 Police and Protest Bill.
Call me entitled but something about being forced to learn the UK’s struggle to achieve democracy, through A-level history, made me expect certain standards within the UK to uphold these treasured institutions. Coming from India, where women’s rights are non-negotiable, freedom of expression is constrained and the right to peacefully assemble is often anything but peaceful, I looked up to the UK for its progressive attitude and the freedoms it offered me. These were further cemented with Britain’s apparent support for protests all across the globe. While at first, being able to walk the streets on my own was liberating, the reality of being a BAME girl became all too real for me.
The reality stands in a 10 pm curfew as it’s too unsafe to walk on my own afterwards, constant location tracking and fear of others, and a police force filled with institutionalised racism. The latest Police and Protest Bill is just another nail in the coffin that proves that the UK still values the establishment and old elite over its women and anyone who challenges them. To most, this hypocrisy is far too real and surprisingly, unsurprising.
The new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, 2021, which passed its second reading by 359 votes to 263, is designed to give more power to the police and government to crack down on protests. In particular, the bill allows the government to impose start and finish times and maximum noise limits on protests, and grants the police powers to give harsher penalties and convictions for those who ignore conditions. This bill extends this to “one person protests” where the police would be enabled to end a demonstration if the “noise generated by the person carrying on the protest may result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation”. It further allows Home Secretary, Priti Patel, powers to decide when police should step in to stop a protest she deems to be disruptive. While these measures are supposed to allow protests to be safer, in effect they will ensure the opposite and have come under criticism from human right groups such as Amnesty International and other MPs. Gavin Robinson, an MP with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party says “The loose and lazy way this legislation is drafted would make a dictator blush”.
One of the reasons the bill doesn’t work is because of the vague language surrounding it. It states that demonstrations and protests should not “intentionally” or “recklessly” cause “public nuisance”. The ambiguity of the bill allows the police to make a normative judgement on the nature of a protest and stop it. This would in essence allow almost any protest to be stopped as because of its very nature protests are intended to be loud for the authorities to hear the concerns of their citizens. Protests are meant to cause disruption. By limiting the very intention of protest this bill threatens to curb any voice challenging the incumbent, which is against the institution of democracy. Protests hold the government accountable. They ensure a system of checks and balances that this bill takes away. While we all can sit and talk about issues such as women rights, LGBTQ issues and other social problems, protests show action, they show a de facto mindset change which this bill halts. This casts doubt on the type of democracy that the UK has turned into.
The modern foundations of British identity have been forged in a history of protest and anti-establishment feelings. Following the post-war period, UK citizens have been able to use the freedom of expression and right to assembly to pressure the governments into action and the traditional mindsets to forge a new identity. This is seen with the birth of the teenager in the 50s followed by the swinging 60s, the stonewall protests, the green activists and the hippies, the anti-nuclear protests and other more liberalising movements that have advanced the Uk into the country that it is today. Citizens have always been allowed to voice their concerns and progress the democracy of the UK which has helped it veer away from its reputation of being old and elite and allowed it to be a modern soft powerhouse. Even democracy itself was fought through many demonstrations from both men like the temperance movement and women like the suffragettes, highlighting the important role protests have played in UK history. So why now is this government using this bill to quash this and lean into the democratic backsliding seen elsewhere.
This is especially pertinent since this bill gives power to the police, a body that the people time and time again, have expressed distrust in- an institution embodying institutionalised racism and misused power. The bill comes after Sarah Everand’s vigil where the police were shown to use unnecessary force after they tried to disperse the crowds after dark. The vigil which was initially cancelled by the police ended with 4 people arrested and many more men handled. This was a vigil for a girl allegedly murdered by a MET police officer, and these are the people the government is rewarding power with. It is hard to imagine if pre-bill is the response by law enforcement what the post bill scenario would look like.
Women have it doubly as hard, where they are not only constrained in their liberty of where and when they can step out, what they can wear and constant fear and anxiety but also trusting police enforcement. In the latest changes in introducing measures for women’s safety, introducing more plainclothes officers have been suggested as a measure. This is known to be problematic as undercover officers often abuse their positions to such an extent they have long-term sexual relationships with women under false identities. It is saying something that the bill did not once mention crimes against women once. Do we really live in a democracy when women cannot step out of their own houses without fear?
Another section in the bill covering damage to land or property makes specific mention of damages to “monuments” in a clear reference to statues of colonialists being damaged during last summer’s BLM protests. This is clearly in opposition to the government’s support for BLM last summer. This shows that while on the face of it the government wants to appear progressive, policies like this undermine it. The double standard is also apparent when we see the government condemning China for the Hong Kong protests yet carrying out similar policies. It shows that the government is still supporting the old establishment made up of white men over women and people who hold them accountable.
The purpose of protest is to take action. Yet this government has made it clear that they are reluctant to do so. They will only carry out actions such as tweeting from the comfort of their beds and forget about social justice when it affects them. They will continue to prioritise dead men over alive women because the progress we have made is far from what is needed, and the establishment still thrives. This bill threatens the very fabric of democracy that the UK has fought for. It stifles the progress we have made so far and limits what we can make in the future. The question stands- can we still fight for this country?