The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and the future of protesting

Ella Porteous 2 April 2021

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of InQuire Media

Image courtesy of Andy Thornley on Flickr

Protesting has always been fundamental for initiating change and raising awareness for social justice issues. Marches for George Floyd last year saw thousands of people from across the world taking to the streets to demand an end to police brutality and systematic racism. However, the recent government proposal of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is a substantial assault on the right to protest and is detrimental to the future of demonstrations in the UK.

So, what is the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill? A substantial piece of legislation, the bill introduces significant government changes to crime and justice in England and Wales, which will see tightening and reformation of justice laws. The bill doesn’t just include changes to police control over non-violent protests, but also a number for reform proposals of the crime and justice system in both England and Wales. Although the bill doesn’t remove the right to protest, it gives the police significant power to shut down non-violent protests, even if this involves just one participant. The right to protest aspect of the bill was largely catalysed by the marches held by Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter over the past year. Were they disruptive? Of course, that was the point – they were raising awareness to the imminent threat of climate change and institutionalised racism, and quite frankly demonstrations against social injustice is what one expects in large cities in a country that allows free speech.

What makes this legislation so concerning is the ambiguous language used, particularly regarding prison sentencing which has been left extremely vague and open for interpretation by the police. The bill will result in police having greater control in protests, allowing them to set designated start and finish times for rallies, as well as controlling noise level. Power will be held by the police and the home secretary Priti Patel, who called Extinction Rebellion “criminals” and the BLM demonstrations last summer “utterly disgraceful”. These attitudes towards human rights issues are extremely concerning. The government states it will provide police with “necessary powers to stop disruptive protests from disproportionately infringing on the rights and freedoms of others”, leaving it up to the police to decide what constitutes a noisy and disruptive demonstration. But what about the infringement on our democratic right to protest?

Black, brown and racialised protesters face an even higher risk of experiencing police violence at protests and it is fair to assume that minority groups will be disproportionately criminalised. This bill will deter many from participating in demonstrations for fear of violence against them. These proposals also damage marginalised groups such as the 'Gypsy and Traveller' communities, who will see their way of life prohibited, due to the strengthening of police powers regarding unapproved encampments. These communities now face confiscation of their vehicles, which often means losing their homes and possessions.

Although the bill does not ban the right to protest, it makes it exceptionally difficult for an individual to exercise their right to protest, regardless of the issue or lack of violence used. Demonstrations have since taken place across the country to oppose the legislation, the largest seen in Bristol on 21 March which saw a peaceful protest turn into a riot, and further fuelled the argument for the need for greater police power. Yet, it is exceptionally unfair to punish those who peacefully protest for a cause they are passionate about when it is a minority of individuals who take advantage of the situation to simply cause anarchy, and this is why the bill is so worrisome.

Another problematic aspect of the legislation is its timing. Its introduction comes only a few weeks after the murder of Sarah Everard, whose death sent shockwaves across the nation. The shock was compounded by the way the police handled the peaceful vigil dedicated to Sarah on 13 March. This rightful upset has triggered discussions surrounding justice issues, and most notably on women’s safety. The bill ultimately dismisses the violence women and minorities are facing, as the powers being given to the police make it possible for them to prevent peaceful vigils such as the one held for Sarah.

It is well known that protests have a significant impact; women wouldn’t have the right to vote without the protests held by the suffragettes, the March on Washington in 1963 can be credited for inciting the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Stonewall Riots birthed the gay rights movement. These world-renowned protests have all shown just how powerful protesting can be, and its important role in inciting change within society. It is our human right to have free speech and fight for what we believe in.

This bill just sees the government diverting attention away from serious issues such as climate change, institutionalised racism, and violence against women and minorities; criminalising the many for the fault of the few who turn peaceful protests that fight for justice into violent anarchism. The future of the planet and humanity depends on our right to protest, and for this reason, the bill is extremely harmful.

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