After a fortnight of scenes of disorder and police brutality, the UK is set to witness further demonstrations against controversial new anti-protest legislation as right-to-protest campaigners warn: “use it or lose it”.
The series of protests are being held, despite coronavirus restrictions, against the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which passed its second reading in the House of Commons earlier this month. The bill would give police powers to ban protests that have an “impact” and make it an offence to cause “serious annoyance”, with a potential ten-year jail sentence.
As the legislation progressed through parliament in March, the right to protest was thrown into the spotlight as police made arrests at the vigil for Sarah Everard, a woman who disappeared while walking home in Clapham on the 3rd of March, whose body was found a week later in Kent. The scenes of officers arresting women at a vigil galvanised several days of protest in the capital.
The issue came to international attention after a protest in Bristol, southwest England, saw into scenes of disorder, with a police station daubed in graffiti and a riot van burned. After the first “Kill the Bill” protest in Bristol, police released a statement saying that 20 officers had been injured, including two with broken bones and one with a punctured lung. Protesters have been derided by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as a “mob” who had carried out “disgraceful attacks against police officers”. Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “I am disgusted by the disorder in Bristol and the violence being directed towards the police.”
However, police later revised their statement about injuries, saying that no officers had suffered broken bones or a punctured lung.
While Bristol – a city with a rich history of dissent – has become a focal point for resistance to the legislation, there have been protests across the country. Eighteen were arrested in Manchester, after protesters blocked the tram lines. Crowds also gathered in Brighton, Sheffield, Newcastle, Kingston upon Thames, Nottingham and Cardiff.
Another protest was held in Bristol on Tuesday night which attendees have said was explicitly peaceful but which was forcefully broken up by police. An NHS worker who was on duty while protests took place told the Observer that a hospital designated for injured protesters was inundated, while one designated for injured police officers did not see a single officer. Pictures have emerged on social media of the bruises of battered protesters.
And throughout the week, footage of police brutality has emerged. Some MPs are now calling for an independent investigation of Avon and Somerset police’s use of force in Bristol.
Police have also been accused of assaulting a journalist for the Daily Mirror, despite Matthew Dresch identifying himself as a member of the press.
Human rights group Liberty has launched a legal action on behalf of four legal observers, who were arrested at a demonstration against the bill on the 16th of March in London.
Protests look set to continue into a second week, as demonstrations are planned in cities across the country from London and Manchester to Plymouth and Bournemouth.
Protesters are already claiming a victory of sorts, believing that the government has delayed the progression of the legislation and may have to water it down because of the public backlash.
On 17th March, Peter Kyle, a Labour MP who was appointed to a committee to scrutinise the bill, wrote in a blog: “We were told over the weekend that committee would start next week… But what happened today? They pulled the bill committee! When they saw the revulsion from vast swathes of the country at this unfit bill, suddenly we get a message saying ‘the bill committee won’t start until later in the year’.”
An anonymous member from Sisters Uncut, which organised five days of protest in London, said, “The last week has shown that protest works. That’s why they want to ban it, and that’s why we’re fighting back.”
A national weekend of action this coming weekend has been organised by a group identified as “Kill the Bill UK” which described itself as “a United for Black Lives led coalition of activist groups which expresses the solidarity necessary to challenge this bill and build links for future actions.”
In a press release, Kill the Bill UK said: “On Tuesday the 16th of March the UK Government rushed through the newly introduced Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to committee stage. The bill, among other things, seeks to overhaul the Public Order Act 1986 and puts the right to peacefully protest and assemble in the UK under serious threat. In short, protest is hereby banned unless sanctioned by the state.”
“Use it or lose it,” it continued. “Already we have seen massive pushback to this bill up and down the country. Although this is a promising start the fight isn’t over yet. It is vital that we keep up the pressure on the government to make them understand that we will not allow our democratic rights to be taken from us.”
Protests are set to take place from 1PM on Saturday 3rd April, according to Kill the Bill UK.
A spokesperson from the Home Office said: “The right to protest is a cornerstone of our democracy and the Government is absolutely committed to maintaining freedom of expression.
“However, the recent disorder and violence directed towards police is utterly unacceptable. The criminal minority who cause trouble will not be tolerated and the police have the Government’s full support.
“Our proposed measures will not stop people from carrying out their civic right to protest. People will still be able to protest, but they cannot be permitted to trample on the rights of local businesses and communities.”