The shocking pictures of the heavy handed and violent policing in London of the women’s peaceful vigil for Sarah Everard, allegedly abducted from the street and murdered by a serving police officer, have prompted public condemnation, further rallies opposing violence against women and a call to “Kill the Bill”. There are also demands for the Chief of the Metropolitan Police to resign.
The police have attempted to defend this violence as a necessary covid safety measure. This has intensified the concern and alarm of trade unions, civil liberties, social justice and women’s campaigning groups over the draconian new powers being proposed for police in the ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court’ Bill now going through Parliament.
This bill is a massive piece of legislation (296 pages) which, if it becomes law, will make significant changes across the Criminal Justice System once the public health restrictions on being on the streets are eased. Sections 3 and 4 of the Bill cover public order and strengthen police powers to restrict demonstrations, including by one person. It is designed to stop people occupying public spaces, hanging off bridges, gluing themselves to windows or other tactics to make themselves seen and heard.
It will “strengthen police powers to tackle non-violent protests that have a significant disruptive effect on the public or on access to Parliament.” It imposes a start and finish time, sets noise limits and introduce a new statutory offence of “intentionally or recklessly causing a public nuisance”.
It also becomes a crime to fail to follow restrictions, protesters “ought” to have known about even if they have not received a direct order to move on or stop.
It gives the Home Secretary the power without Parliamentary or other scrutiny to define ‘serious disruption’. It creates a new offence of “residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle” and gives police powers to police to remove unauthorized encampments. It also clarifies that damage to memorials, regardless of their value, could lead to up to ten years in prison.
A hundred grass roots organisations have made an open joint statement that the Bill is “an attack on some of the most fundamental rights of citizens” and demanded the proposed legislation is dropped. This followed a letter from a coalition of 150 groups to the Home Secretary Priti Patel and Justice Secretary Robert Buckland raising “profound concern and alarm over the draconian new powers” of police.
The social justice groups focused on the language of the bill, claiming it is deliberately vague so allowing police officers to “act unilaterally with near unlimited discretion.” It “appears to be a blatant attempt to create an authoritarian police state where the voices of ordinary people, particularly those most marginalised and disadvantaged are silenced by state sanction penalties.”
The Prison Reform Trust in a Briefing on the Bill says it is “a threat to crucial rights. And it strips away much of the threadbare democratic control over how the cops are allowed to operate”. It also says of the implications of the “inflationary sentencing proposals” in Section 7 of the Bill that “there is not a shred of evidence to show that this added runaway inflation in punishment reduces crime.
The latest prison population projections of prison numbers are an increase by 20,000 to 98,700 by 2026 and “we can guarantee that those deemed a danger to be the public won’t be released early”.
It points out too that the statement of equality measures in the Bill are unlikely to stop the discriminatory impacts of its proposal, and will perpetuate the economic, social and gender inequalities against which people demonstrate. The Trust also warns that the heavy handed policing that happened on Clapham Common at the vigil will be repeated but more often and with more brutality if the new bill goes through parliament.
The Trust strongly challenges the new trespass offence and police powers to remove or demolish an unauthorized encampment in the bill which is targeted at the Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Black Life Matters (BLM) movements. This it argues will not just give police more powers to harass, silence and jail objectors and remove their camps. It will also be available for use against gypsy, Roma and traveller communities allowing their assets to be taken and to jail people who refuse to leave the site.
In light of the shocking pictures from the vigil, the Labour Party has switched its position on the bill and has joined other parties, in opposing it rather than abstaining. The Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds has accused the government of “failing to address violence against women and girls” and now “even want to curtail their right to protest against it”.
Dawn Butler MP told the Commons Parliament should be careful about restricting the rights of people to express their views. “Saturday showed the mess of not allowing people to organize properly and what happens when the police are confused about their powers.”
The Victim’s Commissioner for England and Wales, Vera Baird, has told the BBC that the massive show of solidarity for the vigil and the experiences being shared by women show they “quite clearly regard the streets as lawless for women when it comes to male behaviour…Men it seems, they tell us, can do what they want and say what they want and nobody will take action.
“The police response to the vigil “unfortunately confirms the view of many young women that whatever they do, they will not be supported. It is now “critical” for the government to take “urgent and sustained action to redress the lost confidence in the police and criminal justice system – and really half the population.”
Conservative Ministers and police chiefs who have put the bill together, say they are not against public protest. They argue the new legislation is necessary because the existing Public Order Act 1986, passed after the great miners’ strike is “no longer fit for managing the types of protests we experience today.” The occupations of public spaces, roads and bridges in large scale demonstrations they say cost the police millions of pounds and stretch the police across the country to the limit.
Further, they claim the new measures to restrict public protest are needed to counter “highly disruptive tactics used by some protesters that are perceived as legitimate and so not justifying arrest”. In an accompanying fact sheet on police protest powers, Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, names Extinction Rebellion (XR) as an example of those who will be stopped. It has she said “an avowed intent to bring policing to its knees and the city to a halt”.
The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who is seen as the architect for the bill, has said she believes the right to protest to be “the cornerstone of our democracy” and has acknowledged the scenes at the vigil were “upsetting”. She has not, however, disguised her contempt for protest movements such as the BLM and (XR) that in 2019/2020 brought London and other cities to a standstill.
Last year she attacked XR as “so-called eco-crusaders turned criminals” and denounced their direct action and civil disobedience tactics as “a shameful attack on our way of life, our economy and the livelihoods of the hard-working majority”. She characterised the BLM protests as “dreadful” and demonised those taking part as “hooligans and thugs”.
Despite her urging people not to attend protests while Covid-19 restrictions remain in place and restating that the government “backs our police”, thousands defied police bans and rallied over the weekend to demand an end to violence against women. The scale of the public condemnation of the police violence against women protesters has also forced her to order an independent investigation into the policing of the vigil.
The bill has been dubbed “The Police Crackdown” bill and an all-out assault on the right to protest. Many critics see the banning of the vigil and the £10,000 fine for of a nurse who organised a protest against the cut in their wages to be a deliberate decision to criminalise protest and control free expression, dissent and the right to protest under cover of the lockdown regulations. The expectation is the government will then make the emergency measures on protest permanent through legislation.
Netpol (Network for Police Monitoring) which is opposed to the planned changes to the law that threaten our right to protest are calling on other organizations and individuals to join them in advocating for positive demands.
They are also launching a new Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights calling on greater transparency and accountability for the way protests are policed. They are demanding the government and police respect existing international human rights standards.
The law it is claimed will strip us all of the human right to freely associate. It cannot be allowed to happen and violence and oppression of women must end. The Sarah Everard murder struck a chord with millions of women and brought home all the anxiety and fear and sense of injustice women have.
The right to peaceful assembly and the freedom of association with others is enshrined in Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 11. It includes the right to gather for peaceful protests. With the other articles, it provides the political framework of our society. No restrictions should be placed on the exercise of this right.
Let us voice the hopes that all those and police chiefs and politicians such as the Prime Minister who was shocked by the scenes of violence and who have spoken publicly against the brutality will oppose this bill.