EXPLAINER: what are the government’s latest proposals for punishing protesters?

5 October 2021 — NetPol

PHOTO: Insulate Britain

On Sunday at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced the latest punitive proposals for new police powers in her ongoing vendetta against political and social movements the government refuses to engage with.

Obstructing the highway

The new measure that has attracted the most media coverage is tougher punishments for obstructing the highway, in response to motorway protests by the group Insulate Britain. If enacted, Patel’s plans would mean a conviction for obstructing a highway will change from a maximum of a £1000 fine to an unlimited fine, six months imprisonment, or both.

This is unlikely to deter campaigners who are committed to using direct action tactics to highlight the lack of government action on the climate crisis: civil injunctions taken out by the National Highways agency have so far failed to stop protests, despite protesters being threatened with contempt of court charges.

However, the poorly-conceived intention here is apparently to make it easier to hold particular detainees on remand until they are brought for trial, which the police cannot do right now because blocking a road is not considered a serious enough offence.

In practice, the law says an offence is committed only if an individual blocks a road “without lawful authority or excuse”. Protests often block roads and can represent a “lawful excuse” for temporarily holding up traffic, so the police and the courts (if someone is charged with an offence) are supposed to consider Article 10 rights to freedom of expression and Article 11 rights to freedom of assembly.

Our worry is that by suddenly treating any inconvenience to traffic as a serious crime, the government is encouraging the police to make more arrests, more quickly, in circumstances that are unfair and arbitrary – the same outcome the new provisions in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill on shutting down “noisy protests” seem intended to achieve.

Stop and search for “lock-on” equipment

However, of equal concern is the less publicised intention to expand stop and search powers currently intended for tackling alleged serious violence (under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994) in order to grant police officers the ability to search protesters suspected of carrying so-called “lock-on” equipment.

Section 60 provides blanket search powers that allow the police to search anyone in a designated area for a set length of time. These powers are supposed to be used to search for weapons and are already hugely controversial, as they excuse the police from needing to show “reasonable grounds for suspicion” when stopping someone and have largely been used for racist harassment. Black people are 40 times more likely to be stopped under Section 60 powers than their white counterparts, and less than 2% of searches result in any further police action. In May 2021, the Criminal Justice Alliance made a super-complaint calling for the repeal of Section 60.

What expanding the scope of Section 60 will mean in practice is that anyone linked to a protest group that has used civil disobedience tactics will be liable to be stopped and searched on their way to or during a demonstration, facing targeting and harassment by the police simply for wearing a badge or carrying a protest banner that identifies them as a campaigner – regardless of whether they are engaged in direct action or not.

“Illegitimate protest?

It is not as though the police need an excuse to treat entire movements as “illegitimate”. Our report on the policing of the Extinction Rebellion protests in October 2019 in London highlighted how:

“The zero-tolerance of any disruptive protest adopted by the police led to the perception of all XR supporters as “criminals”, who were judged not by their individual actions, but by their association with an “illegal” movement. This delegitimisation included the abuse of stop and search powers and confiscation and destruction of protesters’ property”.

An ill-thought-through expansion of stop and search powers such as this is likely to face legal challenges – as Kent Police found after their operation based on harassment, intimidation and violence at the Kingsnorth Climate Camp in 2008. However, some of the damage will already have been done. Both new proposals from the government are focused on removing legitimacy from protest groups the Home Secretary and her media allies have condemned as “extremists”. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has explicitly referred to “illegitimate protestors”.

This kind of criminalisation rarely succeeds in shutting down protest movements – but if new legal powers are granted, then the police will prove eager to use them.

There is a real risk that more people facing searches will increase racist police targeting of Black and Brown campaigners, as well as having a ‘chilling effect’ in discouraging some from participation in protests, in breach of their human rights.

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