14 December 2022 — Netpol
It has not been a good year for our right to dissent. The vehemently resisted Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Act came into force in the summer, while the government continues to push through its Public Order Bill, aimed at criminalising our right to protest even further. The National Security Bill also includes even more measures to restrict the right to demonstrate.
This, combined with continued anti-protest rhetoric from successive Home Secretaries and other ministers, has led to the largest number of protesters imprisoned than there have been for generations.
There are currently at least 54 people in prison for taking part in protests, [with Just Stop Oil highlighting that over 100 environmental campaigners have spent some time in prison this year]. These range from those who resisted violent policing and faced disproportionately severe charges at the Kill the Bill demonstrations in Bristol in March 2021 and others who resisted far-right counter-demonstrators during Black Lives Matter protests in Newcastle in 2020, to Just Stop Oil protesters for breaching injunctions and, most recently, four people from Palestine Action accused of criminal damage.
Meanwhile, government inaction on the climate emergency means time is running out to prevent the kind of extreme weather disruption that will make campaigners blocking the M25 seem insignificant.
The cost of living crisis is crippling people’s ability to heat their homes and put food on the table, while corporations are making enormous profits from soaring energy prices, from the privatisation of NHS health budgets and from selling weapons to repressive regimes.
Despite the best efforts of the government, though, protest is still legal. We still retain the right to dissent, and people are still continuing to take action because there is no other choice.
Just looking at the protests in regimes such as Iran and China shows us that no matter how repressive the state becomes, people will still take to the streets when it is the only way left to make their voices heard.
How has Netpol responded to these challenges?
In 2022, Netpol launched our Defend Dissent campaign focusing on the anti-protest laws introduced by the PCSC Act. This campaign includes gathering evidence of the way new uncertain powers interfere with the right to demonstrate; providing resources on challenging surveillance and ensuring people know their rights. We have set up a secure online reporting form that the movements we work with are sharing with their members.
As part of this work, we have written guidance on the new legislation, are delivering in-person workshops and have spoken to groups about the Act’s potential consequences, including reassuring several groups that the legislation does not mean that protest is illegal.
In June, we held a joint online event with Garden Court Chambers, How will the Police Crime Sentencing & Courts Act impact our right to protest? In October, we collaborated again on a webinar entitled Disrupting Rebellion: The Public Order Bill & the government’s latest crackdown on protest.
Through our monitoring of the new legislation, we are seeking evidence of how an increase in intolerance towards protesters, reflected by the government’s desire for even more laws, influences the way police respond to public assemblies and how this is used to justify even more expansive surveillance of campaigners.
We have also been running a Bullshit Arrests competition to find the most ridiculous use of police powers in 2022.
The joint winners were both food-related: one was for wilfully giving bananas to protesters who were sitting on a road. The other involved 16 hours in a police cell for possession of eight bags of chips intended for campaigners glued onto a caravan outside an oil terminal (chips that were, it turned out, given to their intended recipients anyway by the police themselves).
Even more anti-protest laws
In May 2022, we produced guidance for campaigners and a parliamentary submission on the new Public Order Bill. In particular, we have highlighted the potential impact of Serious Disruption Protection Orders – which can be imposed without a criminal conviction and could see campaigners banned from going to protests or using the internet for political action. These orders will lead to the growth in surveillance of the groups (predominantly environmentalists) that the government wants to crack down on.
The same month, we finally saw the publication of new official guidelines on the policing of protests – almost seven years since Netpol first engaged with the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) and its predecessor ACPO on the need for greater clarity and transparency. We are pleased that our pressure has had some real success, particularly in sharpening the guidance on police commanders’ legal obligations.
There are, nevertheless, significant omissions from the NPCC’s operational advice (notably on diversity and surveillance – see this comparison with the Charter. Netpol will continue to press for our Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights as a practical alternative to what remains inadequate guidelines.
We coordinated with the Article 11 Trust to publish a report, Protecting Protest, on the importance of legal observers, and the shocking ways they are treated by police. Findings revealed high levels of harassment, violence and discrimination from police: 90% of legal observers experienced aggression or physical force from police while volunteering. This frequently included police attempting to block human rights observers from undertaking their duties.
This groundbreaking research was presented at a meeting of human rights organisations in Vienna in July 2022. We continue to use our social media reach to regularly put out calls for legal observer volunteers to monitor policing at numerous demonstrations around the country. Their role is absolutely vital.
This year Netpol also collaborated with Campaign Against the Arms Trade on a report titled A Very British Problem: The Evolution of Britain’s Militarised Policing Industrial Complex, exploring the ways new surveillance technologies, sometimes based on military-grade equipment, have been adopted by British police forces and exported around the world.
Over the course of the year, we have offered strong, public and vocal support to those imprisoned for the 2021 Bristol protests, including direct help with families who set up Justice for Bristol Prisoners and publishing the voices of Bristol defendants Chris and Tyler.
Finally, we have published a comprehensive and well-received guide on organising a police monitoring group, which we are currently working on producing and distributing as a pamphlet in 2023.
Lost in the Matrix
Our report “Lost in the Matrix” in the summer on the “threshold and terminology matrix” that determines who is potentially categorised as an “aggravated activist” is one of the most read on our website and has been referenced by others as a warning of the consequences of the proposed new Serious Disruption Prevention Orders.
This built on Netpol’s work on police surveillance that included, in August 2019, us becoming the first to publicise the end of the domestic extremism label and in September 2020, to highlight that this had been replaced by “aggravated activism”.
Looking forward to 2023
Our campaign to Defend Dissent will continue because, short of the government collapsing again, the Public Order Bill is likely to become law in February or March 2023. We will be ready to monitor its impact, provide advice and training to campaigners and ensure that we are in a position to challenge this new legislation wherever possible. We will also be ready to respond to whatever other new laws the government wants to introduce.
The increased use of injunctions to stifle our right to protest is another worrying area. Netpol will be holding an event with Garden Court Chambers on Thursday 26th January 2023 to explore further how they’re being used and what we can do about it.
On 15th February, we’re holding our first-ever Aggravated Activism Day. This is an opportunity to celebrate all the brave, beautiful and everyday things we all do that are labelled as aggravated activism. We’ll be holding a benefit gig with Mark Thomas in London and are encouraging people to get involved across the country. This could be a demo, a reading group, a coffee morning, a meeting, a benefit gig, or knitting an anarchist hat. Use your imagination and get involved!
We’re also planning a Defending Dissent conference in September 2023. Stay tuned for more information in the new year.
And as ever, we will try to challenge the use of police powers, stand up for campaigners and extend and promote collective solidarity across our movements.