Polite protest: fundamental rights, the British way

Image by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

By Maya Zealey

“Democracy is not something that you believe in, or something that you hang your hat on. It’s something that you do, you participate. Without participation, democracy crumbles and fails.”

This is a quote from Abbie Hoffman, a controversial activist who rose to prominence protesting America’s involvement in Vietnam. He articulates democracy as a verb, an action that requires participation, no matter where you live in the world. There tends to be an assumption that Britons are not at risk of being stripped of their most fundamental rights by their government because we live in a stable democratic country. This is a fallacy. Brits are facing an attack on their human right to peaceful assembly and their democratic right to protest, but what is scarier than this attack is the apathetic response from the public.

Peaceful protests by groups like Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain have evoked a genuine fury from the public; a mob-like mentality the likes of which tend to be the exclusive domain of Twitter-trolls. I watched as citizens that could be my grandparents had ink squirted on their faces, horrified by scenes of grown men violently dragging elderly women off roads that they were sitting on. Television interviews revealed an unparalleled hatred of these protesters, despite their methods being completely peaceful and genuinely political.

Undoubtedly spurred on by coverage of their own population scolding the actions of this inconvenient few, the Conservative government has been trying to push through their response to these pesky protesters – the ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts’ bill (PCSC). This bill would enshrine a particularly dangerous Catch-22 into English and Welsh policing law; our democratic right to protest would be reduced to the right to make our voices heard as long as we do not cause ‘serious annoyance.’ Whether a protest is allowed to go ahead is at the whim of the police and the Home Secretary. This seriously threatens our right to protest in opposition to the actions of our government.

This will not just impact rioters and nuisances, this will impact anybody who might want to use their voice to criticise or pressure the government. For a protest to go ahead legally, prior permission from the Home Secretary would have to be obtained. The government would dictate what protests, and therefore what causes, could legitimately take to the streets. Priti Patel’s approval would stand between you and your human right to peaceful assembly. 

The police are also being given greater powers to dictate the appropriateness of a protest. If this bill passes, police could legitimately shut down a demonstration if it was too loud or going on for too long. Currently, the police can only arrest you if you have been informed of a restriction and have ignored it but this would no longer be the case. It’s perfectly feasible that an attendee of a protest could be arrested and have absolutely no idea why. Protesters will be assumed to have knowledge that the police have never communicated to them. This has the obvious effect of discouraging protest by essentially criminalising it. You will not even have to attend to feel the power of the police, they would have the right to stop and search anybody in the vicinity of a demonstration without cause. This has potentially disastrous consequences for people at disproportionate risk of police violence such as BAME people. 

Furthermore, increased powers of the police will only exacerbate the erosion of the relationship that many in society already have with the police. Even those who disagree with the disruptive tactics of climate protesters were able to see the completely disproportionate violence that the police met Sarah Everard vigils with. Some were arrested for breaking Covid rules, a revelation even more disgusting in light of the Metropolitan Police’s disinterest in investigating the numerous illegal gatherings at Downing Street and Whitehall. The record of the British police gives me no faith that they will use these new powers proportionately.

For as much outrage as this bill has produced, it has produced equal indifference. The protests this bill has produced have been shockingly small, a far cry from making the front-page news. The disengagement the British public has with their democratic right to protest, and their human right to peaceful assembly is astounding. The reality is that the government would not have been able to seriously introduce this legislation without an awareness that large swathes of the British public would be delighted to see the ends of inconvenient protests that block traffic or make noise.

This is negligence from both the Tories and the wider public at large. Politicians, business leaders and bankers are some of the least trusted professionals in the UK, yet these are the individuals currently being trusted to manage the greatest threat to humanity in our history. Shell and BP have announced billions in profits and yet the UK government continues to provide them with tax breaks, all while the public faces a cost-of-living crisis over rising fuel prices. They have also just announced the approval of a new oil field, despite hosting COP only months ago. Without protest, what hope do we have to fight back against this dangerous attitude to the risks climate change poses? The effect of this threat to our rights is not academic, it could have very real consequences for the survival of us all.

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