Saturday 15 January saw thousands taking to the streets around the country to protest what was billed the ‘last legal protest’ before the PCSC Bill passes.
Firstly, protest itself isn’t going to be made illegal by the bill (but it remains to be seen how many of us will be facing prison for causing disruption on the streets), and secondly, today’s sitting in the House of Lords doesn’t mean that the bill will suddenly pass this week.
Yes, 17 January sees the Lords voting on crucial public order amendments to the bill. But the bill will then go back to the Lords for a third reading and a vote. After that, it’ll return to the Commons where any amendments will be debated. If the Commons doesn’t approve the Lord’s amendments, the bill will go back to the Lords and it can then “ping pong” back and forth until both houses agree on the bill. Finally, the queen has to grant royal assent (though this is just rubber stamping) where she will sign off the bill, and make it an Act of Parliament. This means there’s still time to take to the streets and make ourselves heard.
Labour peers have already announced that they will oppose the draconian amendments directed at protesters. These amendments include the new offence of ‘locking on’ and the possibility of going to prison for six months for obstructing a highway or blocking “major transport works”.
There’s also a miniscule chance the Lords will reject the bill completely when it goes through its third reading. But don’t get your hopes up: if this were to happen, it would just delay the process a bit more. And certainly don’t get hopeful that the queen will step up when it’s her turn to sign the bill off!
But this timeframe does mean we’ve still got opportunities to raise our voices and show our dissent before this draconian bill becomes law.
Protest won’t suddenly become illegal, but it will increase police violence
Even if the bill passes, it’s likely that demonstrations such as those across the country at the weekend will still be tolerated. The Canary’s Emily Apple points out:
The new laws on highway obstruction won’t change the Ziegler ruling that protest is a legitimate use of the highway, and one that has to be balanced in terms of human rights.
The Supreme Court’s Ziegler ruling recognised that obstructive protests are still protected under Article 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
So then, what will change for protesters? Well, what we are likely to see is an even harsher form of policing, where thugs in uniform will be further able to brutalise communities under the protection of the law. Apple says:
What the bill will do is change the policing of protests and what it empowers the police to do. And I think it’ll mean a return of a lot more harassment and disruption, especially if the stop and search provisions go through. It will shift the dynamic massively and make things more like they were in the early 2000s when people were saying that they couldn’t face going to protests in London because of the levels of police harassment.
But importantly, the bill won’t stop effective protest or direct action because direct action relies on people willing to risk breaking the law. Many things in the bill are already illegal. For example, highway obstruction is an offence; if you lock-on to something you’re either blocking the road, or if it’s private land, you’re potentially committing aggravated trespass. We’ll see more arrests, even if they don’t result in successful prosecutions, and the penalties people will face if they’re found guilty will increase. But if the government believes it will end disruptive protests, then it is very much mistaken.
Let’s remember that banner waving didn’t historically bring about social change
So let’s continue to get on the streets, to cause disruption, and to make ourselves heard. But while we do this, it’s important to remember that we cannot only rely on our politicians to bring about change.
And we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that banner waving is the answer. Our government relies on us believing that the facade we’re living in is actually a democracy, and that marching from a-to-b and chanting slogans is the limit of our power. We allow the state to divide us into good peaceful protesters and bad violent protesters. The state does this deliberately in order to divide and rule us, and by playing along with this narrative, we are made much weaker. We end up wasting our energy criticising each other, rather than the true culprit that brutalises us: the state.
As we take to the streets, let’s think about what else we can do to bring about real change to this monstrous capitalist system. Let’s think about how we can make our movements stronger, and how we can create better ties in our communities – especially with those who are going to be most affected by the bill. Let’s think about real alternatives to capitalism, and how we might seriously go about creating direct democracy once the bill is passed.
Featured image via Eliza Egret