No one could argue that the right to protest is a fundamental mainstay of modern democracy. If it passes successfully through Parliament, The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 will allow the police greater powers to manage protests causing disruption to the public. The contentious bill has been the subject of heated debate. Toby Louch, 22, and Dan Fauzi, 23, outline their own, opposing opinions. Both are writing in a personal capacity.
Toby Louch – ‘The bill clarifies police powers. It’s no threat to the right to protest’
The proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is enormous in scale. It covers areas like life sentences for child murders, increased monitoring of released terrorists and changes to sexual offence law regarding adults in positions of power. Without doubt, the most contentious element is increased police powers during protest. As such, this is where I will focus.
Any change to legislation regarding an individual’s right to protest justly raises concerns.
A fundamental element of the Human Rights Act, Article 10, states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression,” and crucially, “This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority.” Those opposed to the Bill will be quick to argue it infringes upon these rights.
Most likely absent from their argument will be section 2 of Article 10 which points out the exercise of these rights carries with it a duty and responsibility, namely the maintenance of “Public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals”
The new bill is partly a response to the Extinction Rebellion protests which occurred in London, October 2019.
While Extinction Rebellion’s environmentalist message is an important one, the clandestine approach they took, combined with disruptive tactics such as using people to block roads, is rarely without consequence.
The protests which blocked roads like Oxford Street and Millbank caused ambulances to turn around and reroute, lengthening vital response time. While it made headlines and shed light on serious issues, it’s not right that immediate and unrelated lives were risked due to the protest. The new bill would effectively clarify the current grey area regarding how the police are able to manage disruptive forms of protest.
In opposition to the bill several protests have occurred this week in Bristol. Although most remained peaceful, several violent outbreaks resulted in 25 arrests, seriously injured officers and police vans being set alight – hardly the message in favour of protest many wished to convey.
The right of an individual to protest must be protected. This proposed bill does not infringe upon that right, it simply clarifies police powers regarding disruptive protest. Those who take the correct steps when organising action will remain unaffected.
Looking to history, peaceful organised protest will always be the most effective. “The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it. Hence, rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Dan Fauzi – ‘This government has been guiding the country towards authoritarianism and nationalism‘
The government have been trying to push a new bill into legislation which intends to hand more powers to the police to curb the right to protest. This follows footage of heavy-handed policing of the Sarah Everard vigil in Clapham Common and violent interactions between protesters and police in Bristol. It highlights the government’s priorities in regards to discourse on human rights.
The right to protest is essential to a healthy democracy. For marginalised groups who feel misrepresented in Parliament, it offers the opportunity to voice concerns and campaign on important issues.
Where would we be without the protests of the Suffragettes? Or Extinction Rebellion in 2019 making the UK first to declare a climate emergency? Historically, civil rights protests have achieved societal progress through disruption.
The bill fails to address systemic issues that cause people to protest in the first place. It establishes the police as a responsible antidote to racism, sexism and inequality – regardless of the racist and sexist cultures within the police.
Perhaps police efforts would be more suited to tackling their own shortcomings. Instead, a calculated coordination of police lobbying and right-wing press coverage have awarded them more powers to tackle protests that have left them stretched thin in recent years.
The question remains whether the police need tougher powers. Following the Bristol protests, Avon and Somerset police reported that officers had suffered broken bones to legitimise their engagement with protesters. This turned out to be untrue. So, either the police lied about the events or information was reported without appropriate fact-checking. Both scenarios show a lack of scrutiny within the police.
The scenes in Bristol also demonstrate the consequences of restricting the right to protest. When activists don’t see an option to protest peacefully, they will inevitably turn to their own means of disruption. Legislation won’t stop protests from happening.
The proposed legislation speaks to a larger problem in Parliament. This Conservative government has been guiding the country towards authoritarianism and nationalism, with more focus on preserving traditional values than on accepting necessary progress. The bill proposes a maximum sentence of 10 years for damaging a memorial – the same as for sexual assault.
With the government able to define what ‘serious disruption’ means, protests will essentially have to receive government approval to proceed. Restricting protesting is an attack on fundamental human rights. Kill the bill.