What good is a right to toothless protest?

  • April 9, 2021

People & Protest

The UK’s new police and crime bill is a clear attack on the basic right to protest and a next step in the democratic backsliding of the country.

“Kill the Bill” protesters in London, UK. April 3, 2020. Photo: Ziaur Khan / Shutterstock.com

London — 1936. In what we know today as the “Battle of Cable Street,” the Metropolitan Police protected Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists against almost 20,000 anti-fascist protesters, including socialist groups, Irish dockworkers, British Jewry and anarchist and trade unionist groups. That day, 3,000 paramilitary “Blackshirts” marched through a Jewish neighborhood. Mounted police charged at a crowd of peaceful counterprotesters, and many of the arrested reported violent treatment at the hands of the police.

Following the events on Cable Street, the Public Order Act of 1936 forced organizers of large protests to obtain prior police permission and gave the police broad powers to arrest people for “insulting or abusive” speech. The ambiguity of the word “insulting” meant that the Public Order Act could be applied in a range of cases.

London — 2021. Social movements protesting for racial and environmental justice disrupt public transport, deface the statues of slave traders, spread banners over Westminster Bridge and block the entrance to parliament. In response, the Johnson administration proposes the “Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill,” popularly know as the “Crackdown Bill” or “Protest Bill.” It fits the draconian script of recent years — the concentration of power, the limiting of government accountability and multi-pronged attacks on human rights.

The Crackdown Bill

The bill introduces new grounds on which the police may infringe, intervene against and effectively shut down protests at whim. The Crackdown Bill aims to frame political threats to the legitimacy of the government as security threats to public peace, stability and social cohesion. For instance, the bill justifies the forced shutdown of assemblies which cause “annoyances,” such as when the “noise level may result in the serious disruption to the activities of an organization which are carried on in the vicinity.”

Furthermore, there will be restrictions on where and how protests can be staged; organized protests may be banned from using critical national infrastructure, such as public transport; stop-and-search powers will be extended; and anyone damaging public property “of memorial-status” will soon face up to 10 years in prison. This final clause is about protecting the statues of slave traders and war criminals, obviously, but who determines what counts as a “memorial-status”? The bill’s vague wording suggests that any public property can possibly be classed a “memorial.”

The Crackdown Bill will also impact in a myriad of unfamiliar ways the life and livelihood of racialized communities, traveler communities, traveling and street artists, people with criminal records and young offenders, especially.

A glimpse of the future of policing

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill does not just clout protesters. It is aimed at any form of “public assembly” — defined in the bill as two or more people gathered together in a public place, including street fairs, pride, parades, street performers and more. All these events could fall into this category and ultimately be deemed illegal. In that case, only the go-ahead of a senior police officer would be needed to allow police to break them up and threaten the “rioters” with arrest or prison.

We have all seen the police’s tactics for crowd control. If the bill goes ahead, the threat of police violence will loom over any public gathering or event. Combined with the Spy Cops Bill, the Crackdown Bill grants draconian powers to the British police; powers that do not require any checks or safeguarding whatsoever. The police may forcefully crackdown on public gatherings anywhere, anytime, without reasonable suspicion.

The shameful and disgusting crackdown on the peaceful, candle-lit vigil for Sarah Everard at Clapham Common in March 2021 was a prefiguration of the poignancy of the Crackdown Bill and the startling new powers granted to the Metropolitan Police. This time the lockdown-restrictions served as justification, next time it will be the bill.

Sarah Everard was kidnapped and murdered by a police officer on March 3 in South London. Peaceful and socially distanced “vigilantes,” a majority of them women, commemorating Sarah and all the other unheard and brutalized victims of patriarchy, misogyny and femicide, were dispersed heavy-handedly by the Metropolitan Police. Officers were seen pushing and shoving the people and trampling flowers left to honor Sarah. Facts the police denies, unsurprisingly.

The image of a grieving woman forced to the ground and arrested went viral on social media. The discerning parallels between unconcealed police violence against women and the discussions about consent and rape that flickered through vernal London those days made clear to many what the Crackdown Bill obliterates: the perhaps most fundamental right of them all, the right to say “no!” and the freedom to enact it. In a sense, having one’s right to protest taken away is like making self-defense illegal.

Surprise, surprise, the police tell lies

Following the bill’s first hearing on March 9, thousands of people in Bristol took part in a defiant protest. Chants of “Whose streets? Our streets!” rang out, along with the now familiar “Kill, kill, kill the bill!” Since March we have seen several protests across the country, the largest so far being the one in London on April 3, were environmentalist, anti-racist, feminist and other activist groups joined forces to oppose the bill. Further protests and campaigns are scheduled for the weeks ahead.

In the days after the Bristol protests, demonstrators — many of them victims of police violence themselves — were subjected to vilification in the media. The police used truncheons, long shield and dogs to clear the streets. Afterwards it played the media by falsely claiming that officers were injured, meanwhile causing serious injuries to dozens of protesters. A couple of days later, however, Avon and Somerset Police had to retract the statements when their false claims were revealed. Surprise, surprise, the police tell lies. This is a taste of the police powers already there; the Crackdown Bill will arguably make things even worse.

Police and the Home Secretary have been lobbying for the Crackdown Bill for quite some time now, reports from the Network of Police Monitoring (Netpol) reveal. In early 2020, the Home Secretary Priti Patel asked the police inspectorate to investigate the possibility of increased policing of protests. The police report published last month calls for a massive increase in police surveillance; an expansion of the use of facial recognition technology; changes in the law to increase criminal penalties for protest as a “deterrent to activists”; and new powers for the police to impose restrictions on any protest they see as causing “annoyances.” Netpol described the police report as “alarming and illiberal.” In disgraceful celebration of Netpol’s criticism, police officers organized a “virtual pint.”

Liberals on the right to protest

According to Patel, the Crackdown Bill constitutes a “compromise”: instead of classing the likes of Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion “organized crime groups,” the proposed bill focuses on tactics of direct action. Not just any tactics, though; only those tactics that really work, such as obstructing roads, disrupting public transport and defacing public memorials. Liberals want civil rights but not the means necessary to secure and maintain them…and so they turn into authoritarians. Protest is fine, but only as long as it is tame and largely ineffective.

Protest often lacks a reasonable chance of success unless it causes some disruption; either by blocking roads, disrupting public transport, or by violating the property rights of business owners or the state. The IWW, for instance, employed a variety of — illegal — forms of direct action in order to eventually win the freedom of speech in the US. The Kantian principle of liberal political morality, on which liberals’ skepticism of the right to protests is anchored — that one’s own basic rights extend to everyone else and that these rights are enshrined in law — forbids negative interference with other’s liberties. Blocking a road, for instance, violates other’s right to free movement, a basic liberty. But this is more often than not precisely what gives direct action its vital “oomph” protests disrupt; that is the very point.

This creates a dilemma for liberal democracies that recognize both a right to protest and the importance of securing basic liberties: either the right to protest is toothless because it cannot lawfully be disruptive and potentially violate other’s basic liberties, or those basic liberties do not have priority i.e. may lawfully be violated and so are no longer “basic.”

The former case, where the right to protest is rendered toothless, holds the threat of democratic backsliding, and turning liberal democracies into police-backed authoritarian regimes. Hong Kong, Belarus and Hungary are recent examples of democratic backsliding facilitated in part by a ban on protest. The latter case constitutes a departure from the strongholds of liberal democracy, from liberal rights, and is thus unacceptable from a liberal’s perspective.

Liberal democracies are thus constantly faced with the question of what is more important: a potentially disruptive but democracy-securing right to protest, or the safeguarding a catalog of basic liberties at the cost of democratic backsliding? The Crackdown Bill sets the UK on a path toward the latter.

Radicals on the right to protest

Many radical thinkers and groups, from Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg to Mohandas Gandhi, Emma Goldman and the IWW, consider the basic liberties in actually existing capitalist arrangements unstable arrangements — a mere veneer; a liberal piety — to be overcome in some alternative social order. This is why many radical thinkers typically justify a right to protest that is irreconcilable with liberal rights.

Some claim that the right to protest has its foundation in the interest in freedom. Freedom, however, is notoriously hard to define. Marx arguably had a multifaceted concept of freedom in mind, where freedom refers to the absence of domination together with the chance to positively enact one’s own will. But that alone is not sufficient for a society to manifest “freedom.” There is a communal element to freedom, say Marx and Engels in The German Ideology. Freedom is the right and capacity of people to determine their own actions and be free from domination, and that’s possible only in a community which is able to provide for the full development of human potentiality.

Whether liberal rights can secure this complex notion of freedom is up for debate. From a radical perspective, the very idea of “basic rights and liberties” obscures relations of domination and oppression. Whenever certain basic liberties, such as the right to private property, for instance, no longer serve freedom but become instrumental to oppression, the right to protest kicks in. This right, then, serves the struggle for freedom by exposing and challenging those relations of domination and oppression.

The problem with grounding the right to protest in an interest in freedom is that most basic liberties can — and often are — both detrimental and conducive to a free society, in different respects, but potentially at the same time. The freedom of movement, for instance, is, on a first look, conducive to the freedom of the individual who enjoys that right. Think, for example, of Eastern European harvest workers traveling to the UK. From a Marxist perspective, however, it are the capitalists who profit most from the free and easy movement of cheap labor. While liberals would argue that this is simply labor on the basis of a contractual agreement, it is clear that the harvest workers’ freedom of movement is at the same time exploited for oppressive purposes.

Can we clearly distinguish between basic liberties that always secure and maintain oppression and others that always serve freedom? The answer is “no.” There would seem to be some more obvious candidates for oppressive basic liberties, such as property rights, or the freedom of contract. But to say that they always maintain relations of oppression is far-fetched. And what about the freedom of press, or the right to free speech and conviction? Grounding the right to protest — protest which is potentially disruptive — in an interest in freedom is not as straightforward as it might appear. Freedom is a slippery notion.

The crackdown bill: an attack on democratic deliberation

There is a more robust way of grounding the right to protest, namely in an interest in maximally transparent political deliberation. Anarchists, socialists and communists have anticipated social arrangements in which the conflict between the right to protest and other basic liberties does not exist. This is the case when political deliberation processes are maximally democratic and inclusive.

The Crackdown Bill is there to prevent us from prefiguring those alternatives by preventing us from effectively voicing our concerns. Protest is a direct intervention into the polis, the realm of public political deliberation — the public political discourse — by those who are ordinarily denied access through pre-established channels. Protest is a way of voicing one’s concerns and forcing one’s voice onto those in power. The proposed “noise-cut” and the ban on “annoyances” is thus more than only a symbolic gesture. The force of the law is there to avert us from participating in democratic deliberation.

The Crackdown Bill reduces the acceptable scope of participation in political discussion to “tame” debates in the chambers of Parliament. Everything outside those pre-established channels of political deliberation is conceived of as apolitical, intolerable violence. Protest is, at its heart, a genuinely political act. Obstructing streets and destroying statues is one of the most effective ways of accessing the realm of public political deliberation.

In a society where the law is crooked, protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy. On the contrary, protest beyond the law, the practice of contestation, of actively and forcefully taking part in political discussion; that is what democracy looks like.

Adrian Kreutz

Adrian Kreutz is a PhD candidate in Political Theory at New College, University of Oxford working on Political Realism, Marx, and Social Epistemology.

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Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/uk-crime-police-protest-bill/

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