As Protests Grow, So Do Attempts To Stop Them
On a Saturday afternoon when much of the country was basking in the summer sunshine, the streets of more than 30 cities across the UK were filled with protestors.
From Black Lives Matter and Women’s Rights activists to Trade Union organisers, Extinction Rebellion supporters and representatives from Gypsy Roman Traveller communities, last week a broad coalition rallied together against a government bill many of them consider an existential threat.
The #KillTheBill movement has grown out of opposition to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSC) – a major new piece of British legislation introduced in March.
The government says the legislation is intended to give police more tools to tackle violent crime and safeguard local communities. Among the wide-ranging measures, which cover offences from knife crime to vehicle trespassing, are significant new powers to restrict protests.
Many activists believe the proposed legislation marks a deliberate attempt to stifle dissent and diminish free speech from what some have described as an ‘increasingly authoritarian’ Conservative government.
‘The government has been slowly closing down avenues to protest through increasingly aggressive legislation,’ Emmanuelle Andrews, policy and campaign officer at human rights group Liberty, told UNILAD. ‘I think that’s why people have really tried to stand up against it.’
Under the proposed legislation, police will no longer have to prove the threat of serious public disorder to ban a protest, and will be able to impose a range of new conditions on demonstrations, regardless of size or nature.
Campaigners have pointed out that under the bill, a solitary protestor could face arrest for simply being considered a ‘nuisance’. Convictions under some parts of the new laws could come with up to a 10-year prison sentence.
Much of the PCSC bill has been in the pipeline for a while, but it’s hard not to see the measures laid out concerning protests as a direct response to the rapid growth of grassroots activism over recent years, most notably through the Extinction Rebellion movement, which Home Secretary Priti Patel called ‘a shameful attack on our way of life, our economy and the livelihoods of the hard-working majority,’ and the explosion of Black Lives Matter protests – characterised by Patel as the work of ‘hooligans and thugs’– following the murder of George Floyd a year ago.
‘In the UK the government response to a year of protest is to actually legislate, essentially, to tell us to shut up,’ said Chantelle Lunt, co-founder of MerseysideBLM and United We Stand, a coalition of local activist and community organisations. ‘We played by the rules and we protested within the law because we knew how important it was, and rather than listening to our message and listening to what we need as a community, the government changed the goal posts,’ she added.
Backlash against a growing protest movement isn’t limited to the UK. Over the past year, 35 US states have passed or considered anti-protest legislation, with Republican lawmakers introducing everything from broad new definitions of ‘riots’ to immunity for drivers who hit demonstrators.
One such state is Oklahoma, where since November alone lawmakers have introduced 13 individual bills directly targeting protestors with increased restrictions, steep penalties and new felony offenses carrying the threat of serious prison time.
‘Policy is a tactic just as protest is a tactic,’ Nicole McAfee, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the ACLU of Oklahoma, said. ‘So much of this legislation moves because people with power feel the status quo being threatened.’
In Oklahoma, existing legislation has already been used to punish protestors. Charges have been brought for painting slogans on a street, while some have even been charged with domestic terrorism – a federal crime which carries particularly significant weight in the state that remains the site of two of the deadliest domestic terrorist incidents in United States history.
‘We already see the laws in place disproportionately used to target protestors – especially those who are protesting against police violence,’ McAfee said. ‘Now, the legislature has given the same body of power that people are trying to hold accountable even more power to discriminate against them.’
One of the highlights of the past year has been the involvement of so many first-time protestors, but it’s a positive that comes with its own challenges. Much of the legislation being introduced in places like Oklahoma is highly nuanced, and there are fears that confusion around protestors’ rights could put people off joining demonstrations in the future.
‘The biggest concern and the one that is hardest to measure is the fear of this legislation chilling speech.’ McAfee said. ‘Any time people doing accountability work or protesting, or even someone who just happens to witness police violence, thinks twice about filming it… or thinks twice about going to a protest in the first place, we really start to see the breakdown of our democracy.’
‘No one’s going to want to take that risk if they know that they could potentially go to a protest in the morning and come home with a 10-year prison sentence,’ echoed Andrews. ‘That’s clearly a tactic from the government: to make the powers confusing so that people don’t know what their rights are.’
To counter this, several organisations are working to provide Know Your Rights training for protestors, with dedicated legal observers also on the ground at protests monitoring police tactics.
But what happens if police officers themselves misinterpret the law, or go beyond it? Protestors have been arrested for simply standing in the street, with journalists and legal observers also detained by police seeking to shut down legal activity.
In June last year, Asia Parks was working as a volunteer legal observer for the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) in Atlanta, Georgia, when she was arrested for allegedly breaking a curfew by one minute.
Parks told UNILAD that officers ‘specifically went after me and another legal observer, avoiding many of the protestors around us’ in one of several incidents across the country that led the NLG to issue a statement claiming police were ‘intentionally targeting’ their members.
In an op-ed for Color Lines, Parks claimed the police had not informed the crowd of the curfew, and instead began ‘indiscriminately arresting and brutalizing those who are exercising their First Amendment rights.’
She said her experience of legal observing during the Black Lives Matter protests until that point had been mostly calm, and said escalation resulted from officers ‘agitating the crowd via tear gas, corralling, or other forms of aggressive ‘crowd control’.’
Georgia’s state legislature has since introduced new legislation bringing tougher penalties for blocking traffic and creating new offences for protest organisers. Parks believes this legislation represents an attempt ‘to suppress not just free speech, because we know these laws will not be applied to all protestors, but radical left speech,’ adding that the proposed laws represent ‘acts of state sanctioned violence.’
‘This state is fighting hard to maintain its power and it’s going to fight tooth and nail to keep it,’ she added.
Like Parks, the majority of those arrested don’t go on to be convicted of an offense, but Lunt – herself a former police officer – points out that a lot of damage can be done by the arrest itself.
‘It’s been proven time and time again that violence is used strategically by police to deter activists and to delegitimise and derail protests,’ she said, adding that women in particular are often targeted, she believes, ‘basically to scare us into staying at home.’
With lawmakers seeking to give police even greater powers to arrest protestors, it’s a pattern she worries is only going to get worse.
It’s impossible to separate these bills from the racialised way existing laws are enforced by police. Recent data shows that in London, Black people are four times more likely to be stopped and searched by police, while in the US, a 2020 study found Black drivers were 63% more likely to be pulled over by cops, despite being less likely to be found to have committed an offence.
‘Marginalised communities are already over policed and over surveilled’ Andrews says. ‘What we’re seeing with this bill is that is being further legitimised.’
For Black activists, the fear is not only that they will continue to be targeted disproportionately under the proposed laws, but that they will be uniquely impacted by the reduced capacity to protest.
‘We don’t have much of a voice in politics, we don’t have much of a voice anywhere where there’s power,’ said Lunt. ‘But that collective power of protest gives us a voice, and to take that away from us will have catastrophic effects.’
As well as introducing new measures for protests, the PCSC bill targets minorities in a number of other ways. New powers extending stop and search – already used overwhelmingly disproportionately on Black people – are covered in the legislation, while a section on trespassing that criminalises ‘residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle,’ has been described by Liberty as ‘a direct attack on the way of life’ of Gypsy Roman Traveller communities.
Lawmakers and members of law enforcement stress that these bills are designed to protect local communities and private property, and that they are not targeting specific movements.
Matthew Parr, one of five Inspectors of the Constabulary working to oversee the police, says of the PCSC bill:
Protests are an important part of our vibrant and tolerant democracy. Under human rights law, we all have the right to gather and express our views. But these rights are not absolute rights.
That fact raises important questions for the police and wider society to consider about how much disruption is tolerable, and how to deal with protesters who break the law. A fair balance should be struck between individual rights and the general interests of the community.
Meanwhile, advocates for the legislation have also pointed out that ‘#KillTheBill’ could be interpreted as a call for violence against police officers (‘Old Bill’ is often used as slang for police,) something protest organisers deny.
But despite growing attempts to curb the ability of protestors to challenge those in power, organisers and activists are more determined than ever to keep going.
‘There’s a lot of concern about what it means to organise a protest when it feels like the stakes are higher,’ McAfee says. ‘But I think otherwise there’s just an urgency to understand what these laws mean, because the urgency to do the work hasn’t changed.’
Groups such as Liberty and the ACLU are challenging the new laws in court, and activist networks are putting in the work to make sure protestors know their rights, and are able to continue to protest effectively.
‘I think even if the bill does go through… there will be so much resistance on the ground, people are still going to protest, people are still going to make their voices heard,’ says Andrews.
With the rights won by protestors over the course of history, and in this past year alone, they can’t afford to stop.
Featured Image Credit: PA Images
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