An explosion of protests across the country has forced the government to delay the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
The backlash against the provocative policing of the Sarah Everard vigil on Clapham Common acted as a lightning rod drawing attention to the bill which threatens to seriously limit the right to protest. However the delay is only a temporary victory – the Tories are biding their time and waiting for the movement to run out of steam as the end of furlough and lockdown changes the political situation.
Since the start of the pandemic there have been several flashpoints of public outrage, particularly around issues of racial and sexual inequality and violence. In this atmosphere of resistance to systemic oppression, the government’s proposal to grant more power to the police has captured the nation’s attention, for who is more guilty of institutionalised racism and sexism than the police?
The bill would give the police additional powers to disrupt peaceful protest. The new powers are intended to repress resistance to looming mass lay-offs, benefit cuts and austerity policies, as well as protests organised by groups like XR and BLM.
The inability of the trade unions to offer any serious resistance over more than a decade of Tory austerity and the feeble opposition from Keir Starmer’s Labour has encouraged the government to seize the opportunity to criminalise any protests they deem to be a “nuisance”. This extent to which the government wants to restrict the right to protest indicates they intend to shackle the new social protest movements and their innovative tactics in the same way a series of anti-union laws have made effective trade union action all but impossible within the law.
The proposed Bill includes a crackdown on static protests and also targets acts of one person protest, which would outlaw tactics often used by Extinction Rebellion. It would give the Home Secretary (currently hard right zealot Priti Patel) broad authority to define and give examples of “serious disruption to the life of the community” and “serious disruption to the activities of an organisation which are carried out in the vicinity of the procession/assembly/one-person protest”. Whilst these measures do not amount to an outright ban on the right to protest they do place serious limitations on activists ability to protest effectively and legally.
As many now look to distance themselves from the Bill in the face of the public backlash, one group whose support won’t waver is the group which requested these measures in the first place – the police. It is important to remember the class nature of the police as an institution. The police exist as the strong arm of the capitalist state and acts in the interests of the capitalists against the working class. Therefore the granting of more power to the police to restrict protest rights is a direct attack on the working class by the state. It must be resisted.
Under Keir Starmer’s leadership, the Labour Party originally promised to support much of this reactionary legislation – as they did on previous bills allowing war criminals to avoid justice and secret police to commit crimes. Keir Starmer seems content to comment disapprovingly from the sidelines that protests such as those seen in Bristol improve the government’s case for passing the legislation! But under massive pressure from members, protesters and trade unions, he was – reluctantly – forced to oppose the Bill at its second reading. We need to ensure that Labour not only votes against it in the Autumn, but uses all its resources to expose and campaign against this unprecedented attack on our democratic rights.
The government, too, was clearly caught unawares by the scale and determination of the resistance being mounted across the country. They are hoping that by autumn the protests will have died down, that the mass organisations of the working class will only lend passive support and that #KillTheBill will be unable to replicate the success of the Criminal Justice Bill or Poll Tax protest movements in building genuinely mass working class opposition to the bill.
So far, the protests have successfully brought together those targeted by the bill, including travelers’ rights groups, climate campaigners and some of the more political trade unions. And the protests have been overwhelmingly young – packed with people radicalised by climate, BLM and women’s liberation struggles.
The success of this movement hangs on whether the #KillTheBill protests can act as a lighting rod for resistance to the Tories’ wider agenda and whether it can develop a powerful united front of youth, workers’ movement and campaigning organisations – from trade unions to Sisters Uncut – to escalate and coordinate that resistance.
As a first step to maintaining the momentum and linking up all the fronts of struggle, from the unemployed after furlough ends to the Nurses fighting for 15%, activists should set up councils of action in each town, with delegates from every campaign and organisation to democratically coordinate the movement locally, and create a national federation to agree a strategy of protest, direct and industrial action to Kill the Bill – and kick out the Tories.