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Kill the Bill: Fighting for the Right to Protest

A new piece of “draconian” legislation in England and Wales is threatening to silence the public voice



HAYLE, Cornwall. - As a convoy of rental mini buses packed with activists travel through the back-roads of rural Cornwall, they soon notice they are being tailed by a police car flashing its emergency lights. They pull over. Within minutes, dozens of police vehicles and officers are surrounding the minibuses. Some officers point live facial recognition cameras at the passengers as they rush to cover their faces with hats, sunglasses and face masks.


One minibus driver - a veteran protester who last night gave legal training at a protest camp ahead of today’s demonstration - has dealt with situations like this innumerable times before. In instances like this where no obvious crime is being committed, it is not required by law to give details on where they are going or why, she reminds the police. Eventually, the convoy is given permission to move on. Inside the buses, there’s a new feeling of annoyance and apprehension, as the activists complain to each other about what they feel was an example of police intimidation and harassment.


Roadblocks to protest like these are likely to become only more common. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) bill is a new piece of controversial legislation brought forward by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s governing Conservative government, that contains major government proposals for crime and justice in England and Wales, and has been moving through parliament at rapid speed.


Now in it’s second reading in the House of Lords and almost halfway through the process to become official law, the 300-page document contains proposals for new laws that include child murderers to be jailed for life and create more power to closely monitor terrorism offenders after they are released from prison. Amassing the strongest focus of dispute, is a section covering changes to protests and how the police can respond to them.


 

Currently, if the police want to place restrictions on a protest, they have to show it may result in "serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community".



The current law can also impose specific measures on the routes of marches.

With the new bill, police officers will be able to impose a start and finish time on protests, set noise limits, and boost police powers on ‘static’ protests, bringing them inline with protest marches in the eyes of the law.



The draft law includes an offence of "intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance". This is designed to stop people occupying public spaces, or employing other tactics to make themselves both seen and heard.



If an individual refuses to follow police directions over how they should conduct their protest, they could be fined up to £2,500.


 

Once the convoy of mini buses are back on the road, the activist’s attention returns to the objective of the day.


They are headed to a Mass Day of Action protest organised by Resist G7 - one of many demonstrations arranged across the weekend to gain the attention of the Group of Seven leaders like Joe Biden, Boris Johnson, Angela Merkel, and Emmanuel Macron, who are attending the 47th G7 Summit in Cornwall’s Carbis Bay.


The protest’s aim to cover vast ground over a multitude of international issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Indian army operations in Kashmir, and the campaign for nuclear disarmament.


Elsewhere in Cornwall, surfers, kayakers and paddle boarders take part in an environmental protest in the waters of Falmouth’s Gyllyngvase beach, Oxfam campaigners dress as caricatures of the G7 leaders relaxing on deck chairs at Swanpool beach, and the global environmental movement Extinction Rebellion lead a march through Falmouth’s city streets. Almost all of the weekend’s protests are covered by the media and projected back onto the eyes and ears of the rest of the world.


London-based Elijah McKenzie-Jackson, 17, has been going on school strike since he was 15 as part of the school strike movement #FridaysForFuture that began with Greta Thunberg skipping school days to stand outside the Swedish Parliament with a sign reading Skolstrejk för klimatet (School strike for climate).


On the Friday (June 11) of the weekend-long summit in Cornwall, McKenzie-Jackson marched at the front of the youth-led climate protest in Falmouth, calling for G7 leaders to make fair, transparent and inclusive decisions around the climate crisis.“The UK was one of the first to industrialize”, he says, “so it must be one of the first to radically decarbonise immediately.”


“Over the past two/three years young people have put climate change on the global agenda, however, we have only received crumbs of what needs to be done on a binding political level”, adds McKenzie-Jackson. “That is why showing up to these corporate meetings and negotiations is so important, young people being outside these spaces are visual reminders for what needs to be done and who’s going to be affected by the decisions being made. I will not stop until real action is taken.


There is something special and unique about young activists which makes us even more powerful: we have not been confined into the barriers of our collapsing system yet. We still have our imagination and hope, so we can envision a future where equity and the environment are at the heart of all governmental actions.”


Despite winning a majority in parliament and the support of Prime Minister Boris Johnson who described the PCSC bill as “a very sensible package of measures”, the introduction of home secretary Priti Patel’s proposals on protesting saw criticism from all angles.


Continuing to be met with fierce opposition from the Labour party, civil rights groups have also condemned the bill as an infringement on the public’s freedom to protest and freedom of expression. Gracie Bradley, Director of Liberty, said: “Parts of this Bill will facilitate discrimination and undermine protest, which is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy. We should all be able to stand up for what we believe in, yet these proposals would give the police yet more powers to clamp down on protest.”


Others have condemned the bill for being rushed through parliament as a 300-page bill that had just a two day reading in the House of Commons when it was first introduced, saying that the Black Lives Matter protests across the country and the Reclaim the Streets demonstration in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder during the pandemic were being used as ammunition to speed up the process.


Speaking in Parliament Square in central London during a Kill the Bill demonstration in April, British politician and previous Leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, urged the audience to “stand up for the right to protest, stand up for the right to have your voice heard”.


Nelson Mandela and the suffragettes - Corbyn cites prominent and revolutionary figures as part of the democratic and expressive future he staunchly defends in his speech. “I want a society where it is safe to walk the streets", he adds in an indirect reference of the recent murder of Sarah Everard. "Where you can speak out, you can demonstrate and you don’t have to seek the permission from the police or the home secretary to do so”.


Against the sentiments of the bill’s demands, protests have filled news feeds and streets all across the country, forming a movement in its own right under the idiom ‘Kill the Bill’. While most demonstrations have been peaceful events with thousands in attendance, an initially peaceful sit-down ‘Kill the Bill’ protest held in Bristol on 21 April turned violent and caught the attention of the press, the public and politicians alike. Images of police vans set alight and burning in streets and a police station under attack, alongside riot police, dogs and horses sent shockwaves through the country and further afield.


Bristol West MP Thangam Debbonaire criticised the escalation and argued that it would “distress most people, including anyone who believes in defending the right to peaceful democratic protest”, while the mayor of Bristol and Labour politician Marvin Rees told the public that events like this will be “used as evidence and promote the need for the bill”, rather than aiding progress to ‘kill’ it.


 

Cameron Joshi is a youth activism officer at a “more radical” non-governmental organisation, Global Justice Now, and an activist at Global Justice Bloc - a non-hierarchical climate justice group that was mainly formed by ex-members of Extinction Rebellion (XR) after it began to face strong criticism over its focus on stunt-like civil disobedience.


“We basically wanted to marry some of XR’s more forceful, powerful strategies with an actual understanding of left wing politics and get rid of a culture which totally marginalises everyone else”, says Joshi.


“Civil disobedience isn't direct action, disobedience is if you break a law in an almost symbolic way. Direct action is you're doing what needs to be done whether it's legal or not. You're going to stop someone being deported. You're going to go and halt a fossil fuel project. You're going to de-arrest someone, not because you're symbolically disobeying. You’re saving someone's life, or because you're stopping fossil fuels from happening, or because you're showing people we don't have to sit by and let things like this happen. A lot of us really like direct action, [it] isn't one of XR’s strategies.”


Living with chronic illness, Crohn's Disease, Joshi’s entry into activism was through his personal difficulty of navigating life without support from the government for his disability. From the ages of 19 to 24, Joshi spent most of his adult life so ill and debilitated by the illness that he couldn’t get a job, or disability benefits.


“The government decided to really cut that to the bone and outsource testing for it”, he says. “I was basically just housebound a lot of that time with my parents. If I didn't have my parents, I would have been homeless, and I was one of those people who fell through the safety net, which was quite scary.”


“I knew that the only way to change that is political change, and I'm quite aware of the millions of other people in that position for all sorts of reasons. I know that if we can't exert political power, if we can't go on the streets, if we can't call out a system that's not working for us in a way that will actually get media attention [...] then, we're screwed. The government can continue to cut benefits, to help the police and the armed forces to do things that they have no consent for, from the public.”


“Me, and a lot of people I work with and my friends, were quite wedded to the project to try to change society substantially. We know there's no other way to do that, except by exerting power on the streets. We know that this policing bill is gonna cut off a lot of those avenues for us.”


Dr John Davis, Associate Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford, who specialises in the impact of economic, social and cultural change in modern London in the 1960s and 1970s, explains that evaluating the impact protests can make is not always clean cut.


“The black riots in Brixton and elsewhere in 1981, and on a smaller scale in 1985, were widely denounced as ‘pure criminality’ at the time, and did indeed prompt some opportunistic copycat looting. But [they] were followed by various reverse discrimination initiatives, higher spending in mixed-race inner-city areas”, says Davis. “Against that, it’s hard to see any benefits gained by the urban riots of 2011”.


“In the first place I suppose the success of any protest depends on the intrinsic value of the cause, in as much as it’s hard to turn a bad case into a compelling one merely by making a noise about it. Very seldom has protest succeeded because the government fears that the country will become ungovernable if it does not yield. Such examples are most likely in wartime, when it’s more important to maintain morale and the authorities are more nervous and less willing to fight domestic enemies.”


“Always the political context has to be taken into account”, says Davis. “Another consideration is that direct action protest can be most effective in raising the profile of an issue. XR may have done that with climate change, and has probably now reached the point at which its further actions are at best unnecessary - severe weather events are changing minds now, not protests - or counter-productive. The XR crowd are fairly unappetising and it’s a nuisance to have the traffic blocked in central London to advertise an issue we know about already.”


In a time where information and having a platform to speak from is more accessible than ever thanks to the internet and growth of social media, the new bill is certainly being viewed as the opposite of what modern society would deem as ‘progressive’. Yet squashing a voice that has already learnt to speak - will not simply make it go away.


While it is still unclear how much of the bill’s proposals on protests will pass in the final stages of the process, a change in how the public protest and how it will be viewed in the eyes of the law, is to be expected. How the people will adapt to this, will pave the way for how we mobilise - and perhaps revolutionise - social and political change in the years to come.





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