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The protest bill: has anything changed?

If you have been on campus recently you will probably have seen the Sarah Everard vigil and sit-in protest. Following her murder ‘Protect Warwick Women’ has organised covid-safe yet still meaningful protests. Demanding positive change from the university, these protests are only rendered more meaningful as the looming police, crime, sentencing, and courts bill is quickly progressing through the legislative process. 

This bill, supposedly a means to update legislation from 1986 (a heyday for protest and state violence), is being created for the expressed purpose of giving the police and the home secretary greater powers in the face of the modern Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter protest movements. Priti Patel seemingly has a personal vendetta against the BLM protests. She has previously criticised them as “dreadful” saying that there are “other ways in which people can express their opinions”. Perhaps the government would prefer we stick to social media activism. 

With the Tories hegemonic, the bill will undoubtedly become law. While a Labour U-turn promises to provide some opposition, it is too little too late. Keir Starmer originally intended to abstain and was only nudged into outright opposition by the Clapham Common atrocity. 

In real terms, this bill threatens all forms of in-person outdoor protest. It sees to further criminalise forms of protest that many would consider non-violent. It will extend rules already applicable to marches such as police-set start and finish times. Under the bill police can fundamentally decide when to shut down protests and intervene in them for reasons far less significant than under current regulations. 

This bill threatens the entire culture of protests

Another concerning provision of the bill is a proposal to give the police power to impose noise limits on a protest. If you’ve been to a protest you will know that they tend to be loud. Protests are supposed to make a statement, to grab attention. In order to precipitate change, people must notice them. Under the bill, if a protest is deemed to be interrupting the activity of a business or persons in the vicinity, the police can intervene. The subjectivity of these provisions is unsettling, leaving the legislation open to potential misappropriation. 

This bill threatens the entire culture of protests. Last year when the UCU strikes occurred and a picket was set up near the main bus stops on campus the protesting lecturers and students were disruptive, using megaphones, banners, and chants. This bill will not only seriously undermine protests (if they feel obliged to obey it) but it will threaten to turn a lot of non-violent people into criminals. In this sense, the bill is at least a very foolish move, if not a frightening one.  

Yes, in true Gen-Z meme fashion, this bill could seriously harm the government itself. Many famous protests or riots have earned their place in the history books because of the brutal police reaction which tends to catapult them into the headlines. At the same time this also makes moderates aware and even angry, which is possibly the real key to achieving change. If the police hadn’t behaved so brutally towards those holding the vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common would the vigil have made it into the headlines, and would the new bill be receiving so much attention? Probably not.

Clapham Common proved a bill wasn’t necessary for the police to enact brutality

As we emerge from lockdown and more people feel that it is safe to now go outdoors and protest, they will be met by this draconian bill. If people do truly and perhaps even riotously (as we have seen in Bristol) protest the bill, change could be possible. But perhaps we don’t need much anger or unrest against this bill. Things might just unravel themselves as anger at police actions and the bill could spark further police brutality and incompetence. Clapham Common proved a bill wasn’t necessary for the police to enact brutality. 

The actions of the police on Clapham Common opened many people’s eyes. Not only finally making them aware of police brutality but amplifying the voices warning us about the new bill. It is dispiriting that it was not the institutional racism of our police force or those in America, but the violent actions of police against white women on Clapham Common that has provoked the latest and now most significant national conversation about policing. It is of course positive that political discourse is being turned to debate the nature of policing and its true purpose, but the amount of death and discrimination required for us to reach this point must not be forgotten. 

Finally, how should we react to this bill? Collective action must be embraced, and we must also ask whether social media activism is really the panacea that the likes of Zuckerberg would have us believe. Perhaps the real lesson here is that good old fashioned physical protest, at a more human level, is really the way to go.

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