Government announces new restrictions to the right to protest

9 March, 2021 — Netpol

BLM-ProtestProtester at a Black Lives Matter protest in London in 2020. Photo: Shutterstock

Please sign the petition rejecting the government’s new crackdown on freedom to protest.

The coronavirus pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on our ability to take to the streets. Now the Home Office is busy preparing, in readiness for when public health restrictions start to ease, to make sweeping changes to public order legislation that will give the police extra powers to restrict future protests.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill announced today includes plans to “strengthen police powers to tackle non-violent protests that have a significant disruptive effect on the public or on access to Parliament”.

Home Secretary Priti Patel’s anger is aimed in particular at Extinction Rebellion and the rejuvenated Black Lives Matter movement. Last year she attacked Extinction Rebellion as “so-called eco-crusaders turned criminals” and denounced their direct action and civil disobedience tactics as “a shameful attack on our way of life, our economy and the livelihoods of the hard-working majority”.

Patel has also condemned Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020 – some of the biggest seen in recent years. Although protesters took to streets that were largely empty because of the pandemic to demand racial justice and most protests passed without incident, Patel characterised them as “dreadful” and demonised those who took part in them “hooligans and thugs”. The new Bill will increase the maximum penalty for criminal damage of a memorial – like the statue to Bristol slave trader Edward Colston toppled in June last year – from 3 months to 10 years.

Netpol’s report last year highlighted, however, how it was Black-led demonstrations that were more likely to experience aggressive, more confrontational policing.

In the aftermath of a summer of demonstrations in 2020, Patel requested a review by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire and Rescue (HMICFR) to look at the way protests are policed and whether police forces should have new public order laws to protect “the rights of others to go about their daily business”.

In the course of its consultation for the review, HMICFR indicated to Netpol that the government wants to challenge the perceived legitimacy of certain protest tactics by groups like Extinction Rebellion, as well as to give the police the power to more widely interpret whether protests like Black Lives Matter constitute “significant disruption” and are therefore likely to justify arrests.

Even before protests by Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter, the police seemed to believe that rights to freedom of assembly are “abused” by even minor breaches of the law, such as blocking roads. A much-delayed draft ‘Protest Operational Advice’ for local forces, produced by the National Police Chiefs Council in 2018 and based largely on the policing of five years of opposition to fracking, relied heavily on the notion that human rights protections for protests should not extend to activities that negate the rights of others, including companies.

As Netpol’s Lawyers Group said in a submission at the time, there is absolutely no legal basis for such a claim, which would “constitute a doctrinal leap of massive proportions on current case-law principles”. Nevertheless, there is ample evidence that the police have continued to lobby hard for tougher new laws.

The Home Secretary’s plans look, on the face of it, like a combination of defending business interests and petty vengeance against political and social movements she dislikes. However, they are unlikely to frighten off many campaign groups from returning to the streets once the current restrictions end. With institutional racism and climate change still acutely critical issues, more arrests and more criminalisation therefore seems inevitable.

Resisting attacks on the freedom to protest

We are opposing planned changes to the law that threaten our right to protest and are calling on other organisations and individuals to join us.

However, in responding to these latest challenges, Netpol argues that unless we advocate for positive demands, the government will simply keep chipping away at our rights.

This is why we are also launching a new “Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights”, which calls on the government and the police to accept greater transparency and accountability for the way protests are policed. We are demanding police respect existing international human rights standards – or explain why they refuse to do so.

Amongst its eleven points, the Charter calls for:

  • Proper protections – not more restrictions – for the right to protest. This includes an end to treating direct action and civil disobedience as an excuse to shut down protests completely.
  • An end to routine surveillance of protesters. This includes strict limitations on the use of police video recording, use of facial recognition, and surveillance of social media sites used by campaigners.
  • An end to discriminatory policing of Black-led protests, which in particular disproportionately face excessive and violent interventions.
  • An end to targeting the most vulnerable. The police have a particular duty to protect the rights of young people, vulnerable and disabled people wishing to exercise their rights to freedom of assembly

Please sign the petition rejecting the government’s new crackdown on freedom to protest.

Next week, we are formally launching the Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights. Please ask your organisation to add its name in support of the Charter.

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