Public Order Act dubbed ‘the worst attack’ on dissent ‘for decades’

Riot police
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The draconian Public Order Act was given royal assent on 2 May, dramatically increasing police powers to arrest protesters. The Home Office has already cited the new Act in threatening letters to anti-monarchists. The campaign group Republic received intimidating letters this week, listing the arrest powers under the new Act. Extinction Rebellion has also received similar threats.

In fact, the Guardian reported that one ‘senior’ insider, who knew about the discussions between the police and the government, confirmed that the Act had been brought into force early, ahead of the coronation on 6 May.

The new Public Order Act powers include penalties of a year in custody for blocking roads, railways and airports. In addition, protesters who use the tactic of locking-on could face up to six months in prison.

Protesters who carry out actions that are disruptive to the state and private interests are already increasingly heavily criminalised. For example, on 21 April, Morgan Trowland and Marcus Decker received sentences of three years in prison, and two years and seven months for hanging a banner from Dartford Bridge about the climate emergency, stopping traffic.

Serious disruption

Crucially, the Act seriously narrows the definition of ‘serious disruption’. Kevin Blowe of the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) said this may allow courts to prosecute people for protest, even when it only poses a minor inconvenience. He said:

The right to assemble and protest is under the worst attack for decades. The government has sought to restrict the right to so-called “disruptive” protest in three ways. Firstly, ministers want to severely narrow the idea of what is “acceptable” disruption that inevitably results from protests, to mean only the most minor inconveniences are considered legitimate.

Secondly, they are expanding police powers to offer senior officers what they might potentially find useful at some point, rather than on what is genuinely reasonable or proportionate (the standard for human rights compliance). Thirdly, they are introducing new laws to criminalise the methods by which serious disruption might potentially take place, rather than focusing on the actual degree of disruption a protest could lead to.

‘Sometimes repression allows true resistance to flourish’

Netpol published a statement from an anonymous campaign organiser about the need to keep on taking action despite the increased police powers. They argued:

Our government might like to think this is the end of disruptive protests, but this is a message of resistance. This is only the beginning.

We don’t protest because it’s fun. We protest because it’s necessary. We protest because we don’t have a choice. We protest because we’re living in a climate emergency and if we don’t take action our children won’t have a future. We protest because we’re in the middle of a class war where the rich are getting richer while ordinary people are choosing between putting food on the table and turning the heating on. We protest because we’re facing a racist, misogynistic, homophobic police force that needs dismantling. We protest because our country is built to serve the needs of capitalist corporate issues. We protest because our racist borders are brutalising refugees, whilst British companies profit from the weapons we sell to devastate their homelands.

And when I say protest, I mean disruptive protest. I mean direct action.  Because seriously – no one gives a shit if your protest isn’t disruptive.

They continued:

Repression does not stop resistance. Sometimes repression allows true resistance to flourish. Sometimes repression in itself causes uprisings. It causes unrest, it makes people set aside differences to fight side by side against authoritarian states for a better world.

The new Public Order Act makes it easier for the police to arrest those who speak out, and for the courts to impose harsher penalties. But that doesn’t mean that we should give up. We need to be ready to change our tactics if necessary. But we must keep fighting against authoritarian state power, against the destruction of our planet, and for human dignity. The stakes are higher than ever.

Featured image via Eliza Egret

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