The Metropolitan Police is facing legal action after threatening to arrest attendees at a trans rights protest, leading to its cancellation.
Lawyers acting on behalf of human rights group Liberty have filed a pre-action letter to the force, alleging that Met Police officers had assured organisers the demonstration could go ahead, before contacting one coordinator the day before the protest to tell them it breached “coronavirus law”.
It is claimed that the officer said organisers and anyone assisting them could be arrested and fined if the protest went ahead, effectively forcing Trans Rights Collective UK (TRCUK) – a grassroots activist group that seeks to promote equal rights for transgender people – to cancel.
Met commissioner Cressida Dick has been sent a letter by Liberty’s legal team, saying the apparent threat of arrests and fines were unlawful because TRCUK is a political body and was allowed to organise protests under coronavirus laws, providing health and safety measures were taken.
It is further claimed that the directive breached the organisers’ and participants’ rights to protest under the freedom of expression and assembly clauses within the European Convention on Human Rights.
“Despite holding a safe and peaceful protest in July, and complying in full with all the police demands for this protest – which we strived to ensure was as COVID-safe as possible during a global pandemic – we were halted at the 11th hour,” said Rebeckah Turbett, police liaison and co-organiser at TRCUK.
“This was both unlawful and yet again silenced marginalised voices which needed to be heard ahead of the government’s announcement on Gender Recognition Act reform."
TRCUK held a trans rights protest at Parliament Square on the 4th of July, the same day fresh regulations came into force allowing gatherings to be held. It liaised with the Met and approximately 1,000 people attended, the vast majority of whom wore face masks and complied with social distancing guidance to the greatest extent possible in the space of Parliament Square, the letter said.
Two days later, a Met officer sent a text message to Turbett, in response to their message thanking him and his team for their assistance at the protest, saying: “Hi Beckah, you are welcome. It was a good day and everyone kept safe. See you again.”
While organising the subsequent protest, Turbett received an email from an officer effectively approving it, while noting that large gatherings breached COVID-19 legislation. “Breaches can result in fines and/or arrest,” it said.
Then, on the 4th of September, the day before the protest was due to take place, another officer allegedly telephoned Turbett asking them whether they knew that by organising the protest they were breaching “coronavirus law” and could be arrested and fined, as could anyone assisting them, including volunteers.
Reported hate crimes against transgender people are almost four times greater than they were five years ago – with 2,333 recorded in 2019 – and campaigners believe urgent action needs to be taken in the UK to combat transphobia.
Lana Adamou, a lawyer at Liberty, said: “We should all be able to stand up for what we believe in – but the Met’s misuse of coronavirus legislation stopped people who care about trans rights from doing that.
“Time and again it is the most marginalised who bear the brunt of overzealous policing – making it even more important that their voices are heard. Protest is a core pillar of any healthy democracy, which must be protected. At the time of this protest, coronavirus legislation made specific provision for this, whatever the political cause being protested.
“People must not be criminalised en masse for voicing opposition to government action – even in the context of a pandemic. Police must facilitate our right to protest, not stand in our way.”
Adam Wagner, a barrister at Doughty Street chambers, said the police should have told TRCUK that as long as they followed social distancing rules, nobody would, or could, be arrested.
The action comes after freedom to protest was further jeopardised under a new tranche of coronavirus restrictions, which last week removed a previous exemption allowing demonstrations to go forward under certain conditions, despite the ban on larger gatherings.
Wagner said he was concerned about the change, but took the view that since protest has not explicitly been banned, it was potentially still permitted under the “reasonable excuse” rule in the regulations.
“However, it is obvious that the removal of the specific protest exception – therefore making the rules at best ambiguous in relation to protest – will have led to many organisations and individuals not going ahead with protests,” he said.
Thousands of people across the UK have been protesting against coronavirus restrictions, with some demos being violently broken up by police.
Extinction Rebellion held a two-week set of protests and actions two months ago and were also told not to protest in groups larger than 30, around the same time as TRCUK. The Met admitted misleading XR over the ban, following a pre-action letter, and while more than 600 environmental protesters were arrested over the fortnight, many dozens had not intended to be.
Civil rights campaigners have both publicly and privately sounded alarm at the restrictions on the right to protest, especially after the removal of the protest exemption.
The Met Police did not comment when asked for a response by VICE News.