The British police are using COVID-19 measures to criminalise protest. We need to be ready to fight back.

Palestine Action demonstrate outside the Elbit offices
Tom Anderson

This article was updated on 10 September 2020 at 10:40am following the government publishing its guidance on the new coronavirus laws. Previously the article stated that there was no exemption for protest. It has now been updated to include the limited exemption for protest.

Increasing evidence is emerging that the police are using coronavirus (Covid-19) legislation to criminalise and disrupt protests.

Back in June, after Black Lives Matter demonstrations swept across the UK calling for an end to police violence, the Police Federation called for an outright ban on protests in the UK. The Federation said that the ban was necessary in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. The ban wasn’t enacted, but it shows that top police officers have been pushing for authoritarian measures.

With the government announcing further restrictions on gatherings of more than six people, it is more important than ever that we collectively fight back and don’t allow the state to use this legislation as a protest ban. While we all need to take action in response to the pandemic and look out for each other, our freedom to demonstrate is non negotiable. We need to defend our freedom to act collectively and to defend ourselves and our communities.

Police threaten Palestine solidarity protesters

On 5 September, the Met police threatened to arrest Palestine solidarity protesters in London under Coronavirus legislation.

This video from Real Media shows officers threatening to arrest demonstrators at a protest outside the offices of the Israeli arms manufacturer Elbit:

No freedom to protest under new coronavirus measures

At the time of the Palestine Solidarity protest, coronavirus restrictions had eased allowing for the reopening of most businesses, but still restricting gatherings of over 30 people.

There are a number of exceptions to the 30 people maximum. For example, for gatherings organised by businesses or those related to work, training, or education.

There is only a limited exemption to the legislation to allow campaigners to organise protests. And on 8 September, new coronavirus regulations were announced by the government further limiting gatherings to six people. This legislation is due to rising coronavirus cases, but it does seemingly put strict limits on the size of demonstrations while allowing other activities like schools and weddings to continue. Under the new government guidance, protests will only be allowed when they are:

organised in compliance with COVID-19 secure guidance and subject to strict risk assessments

It is necessary for us to come together and demonstrate, particularly in a time where the government is awarding itself increasingly authoritarian powers off the back of this crisis. We need to determine when and how it is necessary to take collective action, and not leave it to the state to deem when protest is necessary.

Campaign group Big Brother Watch tweeted in August:

Coronavirus legislation used to intimidate and arrest protesters

The Met’s policing of last Saturday’s Palestine Action protest is only one of an increasing number of instances where the police have used coronavirus legislation to try to break up demonstrations.

Real Media has published another video showing the police using coronavirus regulations to threaten Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion (XR), and Stop HS2 demonstrators with arrest:

One protester was arrested for demonstrating, even though he was taking part in a socially distanced protest in Parliament Square.

Repressing Black community action

In the run-up to the August bank holiday weekend, Black community organiser Ken Hinds was threatened with arrest and prosecution for organising an anti-racism demonstration in Notting Hill, dubbed the Million People March.

The Guardian quoted an email Hinds had received from the Metropolitan Police warning him that he was not qualified to organise a demonstration as he was not:

a business, a charitable, benevolent or philanthropic institution, a public body, or a political body. What this means is that you are encouraging anyone attending to commit an offence contrary to [Health Protection] regulations 5 and 8

Hinds has since launched a legal challenge against the Met, and the march was eventually allowed to go ahead.

This is a protest ban and it needs to END”

On 2 September, 10 Downing Street’s Twitter account tweeted that ‘Gatherings of more than 30 people are illegal’, and warned of fines of £3,200 for those prosecuted. But Big Brother Watch responded by highlighting the fact that the measures amount to a protest ban:

Patel threatens new restrictions

Last weekend, home secretary Priti Patel responded to XR protests against Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper distribution sites with typical Tory nationalistic rhetoric, calling them a threat to Britain’s way of life and threatening to classify XR as an organised crime group.

The Network for Police Monitoring responded:

We need to be ready to fight back against state control

The coronavirus pandemic is only the latest justification that the state has used to try to prise our freedoms away from us and attack our power to act collectively.

Margaret Thatcher and John Major’s Conservative governments mobilised fears of the Left, and of workers’ collective power, to introduce successive pieces of legislation aimed at restricting the ability of trade unions to take effective collective action, while the Tory Criminal Justice and Public Order Acts of the 80s and 90s scapegoated travellers, squatters, and ravers as a way to mobilise support for further restrictions on the freedom to protest. To read about this history see Chapter 16 of Corporate Watch’s book: Managing Democracy, Managing Dissent [written by the author of this piece].

The Labour governments of the late 90s and early 00s consistently used the threat of ‘global terrorism’ to introduce repressive terrorism legislation that criminalises Kurdish people and other communities involved in liberation struggles. The term ‘domestic extremist’ was also coined under Labour, and has been used to mobilise state repression against the UK’s animal liberation and ecological movements.

The Tory governments of the last decade have continued Labour’s scapegoating of Muslim communities and continued expanding the scope of its Prevent legislation, which aims to create a climate of fear, particularly amongst Muslims and other marginalised communities.

Using coronavirus regulations to justify the repression of protest is just another step in the state’s attack on our ability to collectively organise to defend our communities, to resist corporate power, to stop ecological destruction, to strike for better pay, to stop the landlords from evicting us, or the Border Agency from deporting our comrades.

We need to take note of this new state attack on our freedoms and be ready to fight, as we have done before, to maintain our collective power.

Featured image via VPalestine/Palestine Action (with permission)

Get involved

  • Check out Big Brother Watch
  • Read Netpol’s response to Priti Patel’s new threats to the freedom to protest
  • Take a look at the Policing the Corona state blog

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  • Show Comments
    1. How can we protest and still be heard? When we were clapping for carers it was highly visible and the sound carried to increase the cumulative impact. If we can no longer join protests without being punished and dispersed by the police we can chose a much louder and more effective alternative that no one need leave home to join…

      It could be “Tin Pot Tuesday,” “Tin Pot Thursday” or both, when we go outside to bang pots. It could be “Sing Along Saturday” when we all go outside our front doors all over the UK and sing songs that represent how we are really feel about getting shafted by this Tory Government! Here are a couple of Songs to get started:

      Lost hope and past glory, never to be free,
      Powerful privilege eternal, breeds Tory cruelty.
      Poorer still and poorer, while on the treadmill set,
      Work until you – Drop – Dead – forever in their debt!
      Wealth made Tories mighty, it makes them mightier yet!

      Cruel Britannia! Vile Tories rule the Slaves…
      Only by ousting Boris Johnson will lives be saved!

      Small family groups of six people or less could record their rendition of “Lost hope and past glory” sending the PM into apoplectic dismay! How many can make it down to a protest in London under the current restrictive rules enforced to shut down protests? Those who can make token protests in key places in the Capital need to carry an inflatable cash register to highlight the sheer hypocrisy of current regulations. Tose less able to travel should create YouTube videos to post and share online.

      The Government are hoping that restrictions on protests threatening huge fines will shut down all protest, but No! If we bring the protest to peoples front doors, every single home in the UK, it will engage huge numbers throughout the country with no one feeling excluded because they cannot travel or just cannot get down to London.

      We can see the Tory Government restrictions as strangling our right to protest or just moving protest into a more inclusive participatory format where no one is excluded from taking part. Create a huge press release to announce this triumph and then thank the Government for offering a new way forward for those wishing to express their views!

      Extinction Rebellion could take Sunday with candles and death of the planet themes. There’s still “Morning Monday” for those who have lost family members; “Frugal Friday” for those who have lost jobs and been forced into destitution; leaving “Woeful Wednesday” for the homeless, Asylum Seekers Gypsies and the dispossessed! Either Tuesday or Thursday could megaphone the crash-out Brexit crisis.

      We cannot be deterred by the Tory Government rules to shut down protest. We must embrace this change as a triumph that makes protest louder, more effective and inclusive nationwide. The Tories will wish that they had driven us onto the streets to protest when the daily cacophony can no longer be ignored!

    2. Brill KIMSaFi, pity the rules do not apply to the right wings private army. Make no mistake these neo liberalist enforcers will crack a few sculls for thier masters as they did in the Thatcher era. See them for what they are. Top article Tom, by the way.

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