Can anything surprise us anymore? As we all hunker down and attempt to deal with the realities of the omicron surge, another threat to national society is not far from the horizon. Specifically, as I write, the Lords are debating the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – often dubbed simply the ‘Policing’ Bill. Last minute amendments by Priti Patel have made the Bill all the more controversial with critics likening it to a power grab worthy of Putin’s Russia or Egypt.
Salient among the justifications are the touted necessity of robust response to the activities of the likes of Insulate Britain and XR, famed for their acts of disruption. Protestor tactics have changed in recent years, the thinking goes, and the police need the powers to respond effectively. While there is no doubt that obstructing stretches of motorway, blocking trains into the capital and shutting down various printing presses are far from popular, the case made for the kind of legislation we’re currently looking at tends to gloss over issues as to what constitutes ‘legitimate’ protest, how much power is to be handed over to the Home Secretary and the police and what she and they might – or are perhaps even likely – to do with it.
As Monbiot has pointed out, proposed police powers would include being able to ban anyone from protesting who has previously committed “protest-related offences” or who has even “contributed” to a protest “likely to cause serious disruption”. If you thought “serious disruption” counted only as sitting on a tube train roof or gluing your face to the M25, consider the breadth of the remit. If a protest is simply noisy enough to cause “serious unease” it could be banned. But it is entirely up to officers’ discretion as to how many decibels this might entail and ignores the fact that creating some noise is often half the modus operandi of many given demonstrations.
Other, just as worrying, and imbedded ambiguities remain. Associating with particular individuals or using the internet to encourage a “protest-related offence” for instance. And police could effectively impose any restrictions they like on a protest and ban static demonstrations altogether. Other sweeping statements include mandates against causing “serious disruption to the life of a community” and “serious disruption to the activities of an organisation”. Stop and search powers could be used without given reason and the legislation as a whole would put many more protestors at risk of arrest.
The problems with this go beyond simply an attack on our rights, as disturbing as this may be. The Bill would undermine the relationship between police and the public and frequently place impossible choices in the hands of those officers trying to do the right thing. Relaxing of conditions for stop and search would undoubtably impact even more heavily on ethnic groups and curtailment of protests would hinder the ‘pressure valve’ they have always historically afforded. Pushing dissent underground and radicalising its expression even further serves no one except, perhaps, those charged with drafting even more stringent legislation in response.
Protest, not unlike the British ‘constitution’ itself has long been subject to certain, generally unclarified, understandings. Like those of the constitution, these understandings have always been vague, have relied to a large extent on a degree of goodwill or at least the acknowledgement of their likely popularity at large. But equally, protests have traditionally very often entailed policing costs and a degree of disruption. To argue otherwise is to endorse their restriction to a saccharine enfeeblement that many charged with managing them would undoubtedly welcome. There’s always been an element of metaphorical push and shove.
Given that protestors are often driven by the scale and immediacy of planetary crisis, it’s understandable some of them resort to disruption in the face of apparent media indifference. But while it is true that (as Digital Rebellion have stated), activism can fill gaps in public awareness left by the press, strategies as to how to bring that public awareness on board are ignored at collective peril. Though the need for greater traction and swifter change at large is sorely needed, no one should underestimate the extent to which people in general grasp the scale and import of the climate crisis. The question is not whether we should act but how we should go forward. And we stand to achieve far more with greater unity.
Activism can only ever be at its most instrumental when coupled with – in service to – wider civic society. That our ecological situation is urgent, desperate is not in doubt. It is right that people should find and utilise channels to continue to highlight this, to push for faster and greater change. We can all lay a hand to that and there is as great a need as ever for those in a position to do so to dedicate themselves. And mass demonstrations to urge on and hold politicians to account are needed today like never before.
Attempts by our government to clamp down on protest would negate all this. The PCSC Bill is drafted in a way that would at best cause confusion in its implementation and in all likelihood represents a power grab that must be considered along with other proposed legislation including the Nationality and Borders Bill and ‘amendments’ to the Human Rights Act. When concern about these laws includes even that of a former prime minister, and in quite forceful terms, the alarm bells for us all should now be ringing.
Acclaimed film producer and long-standing peer, Lord Puttman, has studied the German descent into fascism in the ‘thirties in some detail and his leaving speech from last October, where he says that we’re in a “very bad place” and need to “wake up” is well worth the read. With government placemen increasingly embedded in the hearts of our institutions, with broadcasters cautious and cowed and dissent barely more than a whisper, if it were judged alone by bulletins and headlines, it’s more important than ever we stand firm. For all the fear of diatribes, understandable caution over an undue alarm, the biggest threat we face remains that insulant complacency that clings to the assumption it could never happen here.