The Future of Protests: Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

by Beth Pritchett

Edward Colston, empty pedestal by Caitlin Hobbs (licensed under CC BY 3.0

To say this has been an eventful week for the police would be an understatement.  

Questions over police power have been circling prominently since the Black Lives Matter demonstrations last year. It must be acknowledged that within communities of colour, these conversations have been happening for years. However, these discussions must be continued as they move into mainstream discourses.   

Home Secretary Priti Patel’s new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is the latest in a series of moves that have drawn attention to the police and their behaviour. The charging of a Met Police Officer with the murder of the Sarah Everard, and the aggressive policing tactics used at the subsequent vigil have all contributed to the broader conversation on the role of the police. This is unlikely to diminish with the powers afforded to the police by the new bill.  

The fact that this new bill is being called ‘The anti-protest bill’ by critics is not insignificant. It is building on the 1986 Public Order Act that outlawed riots and controlled public assemblies.  At nearly 300 pages long, it contains proposals on whole life sentences for offenders who murder children and addresses more severe punishments for people carrying knives and for dangerous drivers. However, it is the provisions for limiting public protest that have caught the headlines of almost every major news outlet. Much of it appears to be a direct response to the Extinction Rebellion protests, which left authorities frustrated at the disruption and perhaps more importantly, their inability to stop it.  

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Under the new bill, a single person can be classed as a protest, and if the police deem them to be disruptive, they will be subject to a fine. Further, police can penalise protestors who ‘ought’ to know about an order, even if they have not been explicitly informed of restrictions by an officer. Police also have the ability to set restrictions on the start and finishing times of protests. These powers give the police unprecedented control over the right of the public to protest.  

People couching this bill as simply a measure of public safety are perhaps ignoring the wider implications of the bill, and the direct means it employs to avoid the disruption caused by protests of the past. Specifically, the inclusion of ‘intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance’ seems targeted at the acts of occupation of public space that have characterised protests in the last few years. Much of the language contained in the bill is vague and open to interpretation. This could allow it to be applied to numerous protest activities, such as occupying bridges and gluing yourself to windows. There has also been attention on the penalty for defacing statues, which could result in up to 10 years in prison. These details indicate a clear agenda behind the bill. Many aspects of it refer directly to events from protests that have occurred over the last 18 months.  

That is not to say that safety is not paramount. Of course, it is vital to ensure people’s safety. The problem argued by many critics is that giving more powers to police is not the way to achieve that. The heavy-handed response to the vigil on Saturday seems indicative of that point. The interventions of the police at that event arguably made it less safe. Scepticism over police power is not a new concern. It has been discussed in both academic and popular circles for years. And this is without even considering numerous reports of mistreatment by police faced by communities of colour.  

Moreover, the right to protest is protected under the Human Rights Act. However, it is one of the most complicated rights to legislate around because of nuances in the law. Article 11 of the 1998 Human Rights Act protects the right to form peaceful assembly and offers some protection against restrictions imposed on this right. The caveat for maintaining peace in a democratic society allows for legislation curbing the right to protest in the interest of public peace and order. Despite the legal basis for the bill, there has been strong criticism over the extent of the restrictions it is imposing. Placing the control of protests into the hands of the police is highly controversial, and for many people undermines the whole purpose of protesting.  
London's Finest

“London’s Finest” by ToastyKen (licensed under CC BY 2.0

Protests are supposed to be disruptive. It is in their nature to be noisy and visible. That is how they are utilised as a tool for change. The measures suggested in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill limit that aspect of protest. In that respect, they restrict the character of protest, and the expression that comes with it. Many protests over the last year, including Black Lives Matter, have been overshadowed by people questioning the legality of such an event during a pandemic. The point here is not to debate the legalities of protesting during a pandemic. It is to demonstrate that causes worthy of attention and engagement had attention diverted from them because of questions over their validity. With the proposals contained in this new bill, that is likely to be the case for many future protests. This is particularly the case for protests that are noisy and visible. In other words, protests that do not adhere to the new restrictions.  

For many, this bill reads as a prohibition of effective and meaningful protest through the provision of extra powers for the police. This could have dangerous implications for the right to protest, one of the oldest forms of public expression. The ability to hold the state accountable through protest is one of the tenets of democracy and incursions on that right should be taken seriously.   

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