Sunak wants to make the Public Order Bill even worse – it’s time to fight back

Riot police
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Yesterday, prime minister Rishi Sunak announced that he intended to add new amendments to the Public Order Bill, one of the government’s latest legislative affronts against the people.

The Bill is already a vicious attack on everyone’s freedom to take to the streets in protest. It targets several of the direct-action tactics used by UK social movements. These include laws against campaigners locking-on or going equipped to lock-on.

The new legislation also aims to criminalise tunelling, a tactic which has often been used effectively by ecological movements, and seeks to increase police stop and search powers. It also proposes new Serious Disruption Prevention Orders. These orders would include forcing people to wear electronic tags to stop them from protesting. Police can impose these orders even when the person concerned has not been convicted of a crime.

New amendments

Sunak proposed the following new additions to the Bill. His statement says:

police will not need to wait for disruption to take place and can shut protests down before chaos erupts

This amendment would further empower the police to preemptively shut down protests and arrest participants. In fact, the police already have plenty of powers to do this. For example, Section 14 of the existing Public Order Act allows cops to impose conditions and make arrests if they believe a protest “may result in serious public disorder”. But Sunak is hoping to give the police even more preemptive powers by broadening “the legal definition of ‘serious disruption’”.

Sunak also said that his amendments would mean that:

Read on...

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  • police will not need to treat a series of protests by the same group as standalone incidents but will be able to consider their total impact
  • police will be able to consider long-running campaigns designed to cause repeat disruption over a period of days or weeks

As someone who was part of a ten-year-long struggle – which involved weekly protests – to shut down my local weapons factory, I can tell you for a fact that the police already treat ongoing protest campaigns very differently to standalone protests. The police are there to back up the powerful. They will try to stamp out any sustained, effective resistance from below. During those ten years my comrades and I were beaten up repeatedly, arrested, imprisoned, dubbed ‘domestic extremists’. We were followed by uniformed officers when going about our daily business, slapped with civil injunctions, spied on by undercover cops, and repeatedly stopped under the Terrorism Act.

These police powers already exist, but Sunak wants to strengthen them. It’s up to us to resist.


Emily Apple of the Network for Police Monitoring remarked that the government’s press release was vague, and didn’t contain the actual proposed legal amendments to the Bill:

Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said that the Public Order Bill was more extreme than many counter-terror powers:

Kevin Smith, head of media for the New Economy Organisers Network (NEON), noted that the Public Order Bill is being pushed through at the same time as the Tories are proposing anti-strike legislation:

Tired, predictable bullshit

Despite all this, Sunak said in a statement on 16 January:

The right to protest is a fundamental principle of our democracy

The commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service echoed his bullshit:

It is clearly understood that everybody has the right to protest

On top of this, chief constable Harrington said:

“Policing is not anti-protest, but there is a difference between protest and criminal activism

These kind of statements from the government and police are written from a familiar template. They affirm their supposed commitment to the ‘right to protest’ while bringing in more and more legislation to take away people’s freedoms.

In 2013, in an article for Corporate Watch analysing the legislative attacks on our freedoms by successive Labour and Tory governments, I wrote:

The British government, like all liberal ‘democracies’, frequently proclaims itself a defender of freedom of expression and assembly. However, this is usually accompanied by the words ‘rule of law’… this provides a get-out clause, enabling governments to justify the repression of the same political freedoms they claim to defend. Since this ‘rule of law’ is created and developed by governments and the judicial system, it ensures governments can devise new ways with which to repress those who threaten state and corporate interests in response to changing circumstances and changing patterns of dissent. In this way the ‘rule of law’ serves to protect capitalist interests, in the name of public order, security and democracy.

We need to remind them that the streets are ours

Sunak claims that the new amendments are aimed at preventing disruption to “the lives of the ordinary public”, but this is part of a tired old trope that we have been hearing all our lives. Don’t buy his bullshit. The Public Order Bill and its amendments are part of a state-orchestrated attack on people’s ability to act for change. They’re part of the same authoritarian strategy as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, and the recent legislative attacks on striking workers.

We need to reaffirm that it’s our communities who control the streets, not the government or the cops. Generations of struggling people before us have had to do the same, from the rebels of the Brixton uprising of 1981 who rose up against the police’s racist stop and search powers, to the striking miners, whose struggle unfolded against the backdrop of increasing anti-union legislation. To the coalition of radicals who reclaimed the streets in the 90s, in the face of an earlier Criminal Justice Bill.

Fast forward to 2011, and people rose up in many cities across the UK after police murdered Mark Duggan – yet another Black man killed by the state. And to 2021, when protesters battled the cops outside Bristol’s Bridewell Police Station, just weeks after the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer – and as the government was pushing through yet another law designed to take away our freedoms.

Its 2023, and the state is busy mounting fresh attack on us. It’s up to us to remind them of our strength and our power, and that the streets are ours.

Featured image via Eliza Egret

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