One of the favourite protesting moments of my life happened whilst crammed in a tube carriage waiting to leave Westminster Station in March 2019, after one of the first global Youth Strikes for Climate. The spirit of the day had been exhilarating. We had marched for hours, before sitting, strewn across Westminster Bridge as the sun fell over the Thames, shouting our truths to power. On that journey home, I sat opposite two young girls chatting excitedly with their crumpled uniforms and their crisp banners. One proudly proclaimed that next time, she would bring with her the parental permission slip necessary to talk to the news cameras. She’d seen strength in the crowds around her and with it she wanted her voice to be heard. It had been their first protest and they were buoyed by the power they’d felt.
This transformative moment, this realisation of political strength through peaceful protest, is just one of the things we stand to lose if this government succeeds in passing its threatening Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Introduced to parliament at the start of last week, the bill would dramatically expand police powers, with vague but sweeping provisions which, among other things, would effectively criminalise peaceful protest. Police would be able to restrict marches deemed too loud or too long, whilst protesters could be jailed for up to 10 years for causing “serious annoyance or inconvenience”. But when has a protest ever been convenient for those in power? Alarming, the power to define what constitutes a “serious disruption” would fall in the hands of Home Secretary Priti Patel, in a worrying provision which would make the definition of prosecutable actions alterable without parliamentary approval. That this is the same Home Secretary who has repeatedly struck out against Black Lives Matter protests and the actions of Extinction Rebellion, serves as a clear indictment of the sort of peaceful protest she wants to criminalise. The young girls on the tube I listened to that day could have been arrested simply for wanting their voices heard.
Most horrifyingly, any attempt to expand police powers will disproportionately affect marginalised communities, who already bear the brunt of the systemic issues in our justice system. Expansion of police powers poses a genuine threat to black and ethnic minorities, who are already over-prosecuted and policed with brutality. Increasing state power will increase state violence, this is a given. Just one example of this danger is evidenced by the brutalised policing which broke out at the peaceful vigil organised in Clapham Commons to mourn the tragic death of Sarah Everard. The painful images of women violently manhandled by the Metropolitan Police is just one reminder of the entrenched violence which is the brutal reality of policing in this country. If those who have most cause to fear the police cannot protest, then how will institutional violence ever be challenged?
As of right now, the second stage of readings for the bill has been delayed until April. This is not what the government wanted, as they had hoped to ram the bill through with minimal changes. This change is, of course, the result of protest and the direct action organised with the support of groups such as Sisters Uncut. Thousands mobilised. Gathering outside of Parliament and New Scotland Yard they led chants of ‘Kill the Bill’ and rapidly gained significant public momentum. The delay means that the bill will now likely undergo some revisions before we see it again. It is important however, that we do not cease our dissent now the imminent threat has gone. Just days ago, the bill stood completely unopposed by the house and it is only because of protest that this faltered. It is clear that we must continue to fight this bill at every stage, and we should be wary of the actions of the government who proposed it.
The power of a protest is in its capacity to disrupt. To stand collectively in defiance of the state, empowered and in solidarity. It is also an absolute right in any democracy, and any attempts to curtail this right should make us, as citizens, furious. This week, disruption succeeded and for that we are all a little better off.
Image: a Black Lives Matter protest in London, June 2020, via The Guardian