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One year on from the policing bill, and it’s time to become ungovernable

A Kill the Bill demo in Bristol

On 9 March 2021, the government published its draconian policing bill. In the twelve months that followed, we’ve seen protests and uprisings across the country.

Now as the bill sneaks its way through the parliamentary system, it’s time to ramp up our opposition. It’s time to become ungovernable.

What’s happening in parliament?

The Canary has provided extensive coverage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – from its first inception, to the protests that swept the country, to the bill’s journey through the parliamentary system. Following a series of defeats in the Lords, the bill was back in the House of Commons on 28 February for consideration of the Lords’ amendments. The bill next goes through what is known as the ‘ping pong’ stage whereby it flips from one house to another.

Many people celebrated after some truly awful protest amendments were defeated in the House of Lords. These amendments included widening police powers for stopping and searching protesters and new offences for locking on. Because these amendments were made in the Lords, they were defeated for good. Parliament doesn’t have the power to reinstate them.

But other changes made in the Lords are back in the legislation; that’s because they were in the original bill. These include the provision allowing the police to impose conditions on protests that are too noisy, and one-person protests. And on 28 Feburary, MPs voted to reinstate these sections.

Other provisions in the bill, such as the new laws to criminalise Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities, are still in the bill and weren’t rejected by the Lords.

In other words, despite many people celebrating victory when the amendments were defeated, the legislation back in the Commons is pretty much untouched from what we took to the streets over in March 2021.

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As Netpol coordinator Kevin Blowe highlighted to The Canary:

This outcome was entirely predictable: there was always little chance that our far-right government was willing to listen to common sense.

It seems increasingly likely that the Policing Bill will introduce a number of new ill-defined, inconsistent and probably unworkable police powers.

The potential impact on protesters

Despite tinkering around the edges, the harsh reality is that with Boris Johnson’s majority, the original bill is likely to eventually become law. When it does, the powers for the police to impose conditions will increase. The bill also lowers the threshold for arrest and prosecution for breaching these conditions. New wording means that a person “ought to know” what the conditions were. Currently, the prosecution has to prove that a person knew the conditions.

This small change in wording is critical. For example, in 2013, the Metropolitan Police arrested 286 mostly anti-fascist protesters. Demonstrators were opposing a march by the far-right English Defence League. People were arrested for breaching the conditions imposed on the protest, but the Met was forced to pay over £700,000 in compensation to 156 of those arrested. Crucially, while the Met didn’t admit liability, the protesters argued that they didn’t know about the conditions imposed on the protest. Had the police bill been law, those arrested might now have criminal records for taking to the streets to oppose fascism.

Legal challenges

However, the bill becoming law doesn’t mean we can’t legally challenge any conditions the police impose. Conditions on protests still have to be compatible with human rights legislation. In October 2019, the police arrested hundreds of Extinction Rebellion protesters after imposing a condition that effectively banned all related protests in the capital. Following a legal challenge, the High Court quashed the order.

As solicitor Jules Carey from Bindmans argued:

The ban on the XR protest was hastily imposed, erratically applied and has now been unequivocally declared unlawful by the High Court. The police have powers to impose conditions to manage protests but not to ban them. This judgment is a timely reminder to those in authority facing a climate of dissent; the right to protest is a long standing fundamental right in a democratic society that should be guarded and not prohibited by overzealous policing.

So it’s inevitable that when this bill becomes law, there will be important and necessary legal challenges to its enforcement.

The limits of relying on institutions

It’s also vital that we continue to challenge this bill throughout its progression through parliament. After all, the work of campaigners ensured that the even more draconian provisions didn’t become law. And it’s equally vital that we challenge police abuses of power in the courts. Every victory is important. Every victory has an impact. And, crucially, we must celebrate every victory.

But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t recognise and critique the limits of these institutions. We cannot rely on them to act in our best interests, and we certainly can’t rely on an unelected elite in the House of Lords to uphold our rights. The Lords’ refusal to take action and remove the watering down of conditions on protest or the criminalisation of GRT communities explicitly shows this.

It’s also important to remember that a court victory for an unlawful arrest doesn’t mitigate the trauma people face from dealing with excessive policing. In the case of the anti-fascist protesters, the Guardian reported that people:

were humiliated as they were prevented from using the toilet for hours and were not allowed to get food or water. Later they were taken to police stations around London and released, some of them in the middle of the night.

No amount of compensation can ever repair the mental and/or physical damage inflicted by the police abusing their powers. We need practical solidarity to stop them from abusing these powers in the first place.

Don’t believe the hype – we can still protest

As bad as this legislation is, it isn’t going to stop our ability to protest. And while Blowe states that:

All our experience points to senior police officers eagerly wanting to start using new powers as soon as possible, perhaps as soon as Extinction Rebellion’s forthcoming action in April.

He also emphasises that:

It is important, however, that we move away from the idea that this will ban protests completely.

This is essential. We can and must still protest. And we must avoid rhetoric that scares people from protesting.

Practical solidarity

Instead of just relying on institutions, we need to find ways to make this bill unworkable. We need to be ungovernable.

Sisters Uncut has already started this work. It launched CopWatch patrols in response to the police bill, making:

all marginalised communities – Gypsy, Roma and Travellers, sex workers, Black and brown people, women and anyone protesting – less safe. …

We must resist together. The police are the perpetrators and we must keep each other safe. 

This solidarity work is particularly important for GRT communities who could see their homes seized under the new legislation. We need to work with, and take the lead from, these communities to develop the best ways to offer practical solidarity and resistance to these powers.

Blowe also highlighted the need for resistance:

Everyone alarmed by this attack on our rights must offer [genuine] solidarity to the campaigners this government wants to criminalise the most – groups adopting direct action and civil disobedience tactics and those noisily challenging state and corporate power.

As long as police maintain the pretence they act “with public consent” and claim to respect our rights, senior officers are vulnerable to political, practical and legal resistance on human rights grounds. At what point does a protest become too noisy? How will officers demonstrate that protesters “ought to have known” about imposed conditions?

Together we have the ability to make the leadership of British policing think twice about using the new powers they lobbied so hard for.

The bill will probably become law. But every single one of us can act in solidarity with affected communities. Our combined efforts can and will make this bill unworkable. We will become ungovernable.

Featured image via – Urban Pictures – Screengrab

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