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.
“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.