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NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF PROTEST

The government's controversial new policing bill is the worst kind of threat to democracy and social justice, says Chanté Joseph

16.03.2021

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Under Tory rule, the number of protests happening each year has significantly risen in the UK. Living in this country as a marginalised person means feeling the weighted pressure of our failing state: increased austerity, growing job insecurity and the powers of heavy-handed police emboldened by a surveillance state are just a few of the daily battles faced. The pandemic amplifies many of the issues that protestors have taken to the streets for to demand change. Poor quality housing, underpaid frontline healthcare workers, racism and fair pay have all made life under the pandemic unbearable. Despite the debates and inquiries, the cries of the worst off are consistently ignored. The tumbling quality of life, and even death, isn’t enough to spark this government into action. Protest and demonstration have always been a way to fight back - now even that is being taken away from us. The ability to protest is enshrined in our human rights, but the Coronavirus Act and the Public Order Act have made that virtually impossible to do. Nurses have been fined £10,000 for demonstrating against the 1% pay rise, and women have been abused at candlelit vigils. Things will only get worse if the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is introduced.

The new Bill is an extension of the Public Order Act 1986 that gives police powers to control a demonstration if they believe “it may result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community.” The Public Order Act’s extension increases police power and results in more disturbing brutalising of peaceful protesters. The move to propose such a bill came from earlier Extinction Rebellion protests, and the Black Lives Matter protests that in both cases shocked the world. The Bill will give police greater control over static demonstrations by controlling the volume, location and movement. It will make it much easier to convict protesters with elevated sentences of up to 10 years for damage to a memorial - up from three months. Police will be able to shut down protests and rallies outside of parliament and thoroughly dampen protest movements.

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Demonstrating is about giving a larger voice to the struggles of those who feel unheard. This bill should terrify everyone. Beyond the reach of protests, the bill introduces a new trespass offence; it will impact the homeless who need makeshift shelters and criminalise Gypsy, Roma and Traveller groups. Police will gain powers to freely stop and search anyone convicted of a knife crime offence without reason, creating a permanently hostile environment for many young men. When we think about those who have greater proximity to prisons and the carceral state, they are usually the most marginalised. Increasing police and state powers only serves to harass and intimate those suffering the most.

Fighting back against the state feels futile, but we cannot forget those who fought through protest and won. Anti-fracking activists successfully ousted the government’s shale gas commissioner due to increased legislation “heavily influenced by climate change campaigners" making her job impossible. In March 2017, activists known as the Stansted 15 chained themselves together, blocking the flight of a Boeing 767 jet that was scheduled to deport to Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone. Their protest magnified the issue of unjust deportation and made people increasingly aware of the conditional and flimsy nature of citizenship. Women boldly took the streets in Northern Ireland to demand an end to the abortion ban that saw success after tireless amounts of hard work from grassroots activists.

The right to protest is essential: it saves, and changes, lives. We have much to thank the activists that came before us for, and we owe it to them, and ourselves, to fight back against legislation that stops us from demanding more. To fight peacefully on behalf of those who no longer can.

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