Our right to protest has been a fundamental part of our democracy here in the UK for a long time.
Chartism and protests for working rights were widespread in the nineteen-hundreds. The early twentieth century saw first-wave feminists campaigning for suffrage and, eventually, achieving it. The Rebecca Riots took place in the dawn of the Victorian era in South Wales, eventually leading to the South Wales Turnpikes Trust Act in 1844. In recent years, the Anti-Brexit March took place in London, in which thousands took to the streets to fight back against what can be perceived as an undemocratic referendum, owing to the spread of misleading propaganda circulated by certain politicians. Likewise, in their push against rapid climate change, Extinction Rebellion organised marches throughout the country – including in Exeter – causing disruption to public transport, as it would appear big businesses and government do not give the environment the attention and care it needs. Last summer, Black Lives Matters protests took a stand against the racism which remains rampant both here and overseas, and for some white people it was the first time they became aware of police brutality and white privilege, indicating protest not only brings about social change, but also creates awareness and educates people.
Yet our Home Secretary, Priti Patel, seeks to threaten our right to protest. Her introduction of the new Policing Bill, (which, alarmingly, has already passed its second reading at Parliament), would enforce dire restrictions on our freedom to protest and campaign. The new Bill gives increased power to the police force and means any protests deemed to be causing ‘serious annoyance’ or ‘inconvenience’ can be broken up and can be punishable by a fine, or, in certain cases, imprisonment of up to ten years. There are multiple issues to unpack here; for instance, the fact that ‘annoyances’ and ‘inconveniences’ are extremely subjective. Reading between the lines, one could hazard a guess that this could be anything from causing disruption to traffic or protesting the same Tory government that would introduce such a piece of legislation. A protest need not turn violent for police to get involved, if they see fit. It is incredibly alarming that the woman behind this Bill has labelled the Black Lives Matters protests as ‘dreadful’ and also voted against equal marriage in 2013. It begs the question: what will be the next abhorrent piece of legislation the Tories try to push through, that they should want to take away our right to protest? It would seem that turning a blind eye to social injustice is business as usual, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that Labour were going to abstain from voting on this Bill until the very last minute. As our elected representatives, our MPs should be speaking for us, and I think its deplorable that it took Labour so long to act. The root of the issue is the Tories coming down hard on democracy, but as a society we need to be speaking out, signing petitions and contacting our MPs.
What makes this Bill all the more abysmal is it comes in the wake of Sarah Everard’s death, who was murdered by two men – one of whom was a Met Police Officer. A peaceful vigil was held at Clapham Common to pay respect to Sarah Everard. Despite people wearing masks and not causing any disruption, the police, following orders from Cressida Dick, continued to make four arrests and to manhandle women. If this is how the police force conduct themselves at a peaceful vigil of mourning women, how will they act if their powers are increased? More recently, violence has broken out in Bristol, as people took to the streets to protest the Bill. While violence took place, we cannot dispute the violence from both sides, especially when video footage emerges of police officers hitting protestors with their shields who are already on the floor. The Daily Mirror journalist, Matthew Dresch, was pushed around by the police and hit with a baton, despite shouting he was a member of the press. It is sad that it should come to this: the police shouldn’t be hitting anybody with batons, whether they be a member of the press or the public. Can we really trust the police with more power? The Tories do.
At their core, protests are a crutch to society. They enable people with shared values to come together and take a stand against an issue. If it weren’t for protests, we would be much worse off. Protests seek to lift and provide a voice to those from marginalised or oppressed groups. And yes, sometimes, they do cause ‘annoyance’ and ‘inconvenience’, because the Suffragettes didn’t get anywhere by twiddling their thumbs now, did they? Governments such as the one we currently find ourselves dealing with will not hand us what we want on a plate. Therefore, it falls to the act of protesting and campaigning – collaborating between the two – for us to demand the change we want. To have that taken away is a violation of our historic right to the freedom of democratic expression.
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