Defend the Right to Protest!

By Michael Calderbank

Last night’s outrageous scenes on Clapham Common are a vivid illustration of the dangers now posed to our basic democratic rights.   A vigil mourning the death of Sarah Everard allegedly at the hands of a murderous Met police officer resulted in many more women being subject to police violence and coercive treatment at the hands of the State.  Yes, the authorities must be mindful of the emergency measures designed to protect public health during the global pandemic, but the resort to force last night stands in stark contrast, for example, to the way police handled large crowds celebrating Glasgow Rangers winning the Scottish Premier League.   Protests might be inconvenient or embarrassing for those in power, but the right to peaceful expressions of dissent is integral to any democracy.

On Monday, MPs will begin considering the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which includes new powers for the police to clampdown on protests, which Ministers have claimed are a response to the impact of protests like those of Extinction Rebellion.  It is vital that these measures face meaningful opposition.   

The Bill itself is a “pick-and-mix” repository for a variety of only loosely connected measures, including some supportable proposals such as longer sentences for people who attack emergency service workers.   Perhaps for this reason, Labour was initially thought to be preparing to abstain on the Bill at 2nd reading, rather than be seen to oppose the worthwhile elements, while attempting to introduce amendments at Committee Stage.   

However, such is the extent of concern at Part 3 of the Bill (Clauses 54 to 60) that Sir Keir Starmer came under increasing pressure to send a message to Priti Patel by whipping his MPs to vote against the Bill as a whole. 

 Critics of the measures on social media include editor Ian Dunt, who has commented that the Bill “contains some of the most draconian crackdowns on the right of peaceful protest we’ve seen in our lifetime”, and Unite Assistant General Secretary Howard Beckett, who said the proposals were “best described as fascism”.

So what’s so alarming?  The restrictions would apply to any protest which “obstructs the public or a section of the public in the exercise or enjoyment of a right that may be exercised or enjoyed by the public at large” or in which any person “suffers serious distress, serious annoyance, serious inconvenience or serious loss of amenity”.     Even lone protestors can be prosecuted if they create “noise” having a significant “impact” in the vicinity.       

Further measures would limit the ability to hold protests in the vicinity of entrances to the Parliamentary estate, and also introduce extra penalties for “unauthorised encampments”, including where “distress” is caused by “the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or the display of any writing, sign, or other visible representation that is threatening, abusive or insulting.”  This power to clear such sites is both an attempt to crackdown on Occupy or Climate Camp style protests, and also gives authorities new powers likely to be used against Traveller sites, raising the threat of heightened discrimination against this minority ethnic community.

Are we really to believe that the police should be given the power to crackdown hard on peaceful protestors just because they are causing “serious annoyance” to someone?    Or that making enough noise to be heard (have an “impact”) should trigger criminal charges?   UK Uncut-style occupations of business premises could be seen to cause serious inconvenience to tax-avoiding multinationals, and might impede customers accessing the counter for a time.  Even holding a small demo outside a store might be deemed to cause serious distress or inconvenience if potential customers are reminded, for example, that the cosmetics sold inside are tested on animals.

While restrictions on picketing is set out in other legislation, trade unionists might reasonably fear that the new public nuisance offences could be used to curb attempts to dissuade people from crossing picket lines, causing “serious annoyance” to employers and “inconvenience” to scabs.  In any case, trade union members have the right to political as well as industrial protest, and so should be rightly concerned by the new crackdown.

The Bill covers a much wider range of issues, including measures which would be a welcome addition to the statute book.  But if Labour failed to vote against a Bill which contains such draconian curbs to basic democratic rights, we would have abdicated our responsibility as the official Opposition.  

Michael Calderbank is a contributing editor on Socialist Register.

Image: Riot police officers “kettle” protesters at the Bishopsgate Climate Camp, London, 1 April 2009. Source: G20 protest, London, UK. Author: Charlotte Gilhooly from London, England,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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