By BEN FIRTH
For a party which has portrayed itself as spending much time and effort protecting us from perceived attacks on our democracy and free speech, this seems like a particularly abrupt U-turn, even by the Conservatives’ standards. To go from posturing as upholders of democracy with plans such as legally requiring voters to show photo ID, to this bill in a matter of months suggests that upholding democratic values aren’t actually at the top of this government’s priorities. Instead, this bill marks the Conservative’s most brazen, unapologetic, and dangerous step away from democracy yet.
So, what exactly does this bill include and why should we be so concerned by it? This bill is not only a direct attack on citizens' right to peaceful protest, but it is also the latest instalment of a divisive culture war which sadly seems to resonate with so many.
Firstly, the suppression of peaceful protest. The Home Secretary will have the power to define “serious disruption to the life of the community” caused by protests, even single-person protests. The police will then be granted additional powers to impose conditions on these disruptive protests, and protesters will now be vulnerable to charges if they don’t comply with conditions “they ought to have known”, even if they weren’t actually made aware of them. Without doubt, the vague wording of this bill was intentional, as it certainly isn’t unreasonable to suggest that the definition of what constitutes “serious disruption” will depend on the extent to which the government is being criticised by the protest. Anyone who truly believes that these conditions will be implemented consistently is living in the same wilfully ignorant or dangerously compliant universe where voter ID has been introduced to reduce (almost non-existent) voter fraud, and not to disenfranchise poorer voters.
The maximum sentence for damage to a memorial over the value of £5,000 has been 10 years since the Criminal Damage Act 1971, however, this £5,000 minimum value will be abolished by this bill.This seems to be a direct response to the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol or the damage done to Churchill’s statue during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. The lengths gone to in order to protect statues like that of a slave trader or a man who was, amongst other things, an advocate of genocide, is typical of this country’s whitewashed view of its predominantly shameful history and refusal to entertain the notion that some of its most significant historical figures aren’t the infallible heroes worthy of the esteem which we blindly attribute to them.
Unsurprisingly, these draconian measures have been met by ‘Kill the Bill’ protests around the country, the most publicised of which have been in Bristol. In the same city where protesters toppled Edward Colston’s statue last June, there have been five protests so far, four of which have seen recurring themes. Peaceful protesters, declaring that they are exactly that, have been attacked by police, wielding batons and “using shields as weapons”. For once the police have not discriminated, as they are just as willing to assault a journalist as they have been protesters. After the first three protests, Avon and Somerset police claimed that they were reacting to violence amongst a minority of protesters, yet we should be forgiven for struggling to believe any of their press releases after they falsely reported that officers had suffered broken bones and a punctured lung. Of course, this is not to deny that protesters acted violently; police vans were burned, and projectiles thrown. However, when riot police break up a peaceful, masked, sit-down protest, it begs the questions of who was seeking out violence and who initiated it.
The fact that the first four protests were against COVID-19 regulations is no justification for the disproportionate police response either. Instead of using Covid as a smokescreen to further the Tories’ own authoritarian aims, authorities should be cooperating with protest organisers to achieve safe, socially distanced protests, which is attainable.
Clearly, no change in the police approach to protests like these will arise from leaving them to hold themselves accountable; of the members of the ‘independent’ watchdog which vindicated the Met’s similarly awful handling of the Sarah Everard vigil, more than half were former officers. Equally, the refusal of senior opposition politicians and the media to vocally condemn the police’s unreasonable response, as well as the bill itself, shows why the Tories felt so emboldened to attempt such an unashamedly undemocratic manoeuvre in the first place.
Untold damage is being done to this country’s self-styled, and already somewhat questionable, title of ‘Beacon of Democracy’ when the majority of media outlets are all singing from the same Tory hymn sheet and recklessly brandishing the protesters as violent thugs. The press has largely ignored the fact that the majority were peaceful; the first protest on the 21st of March began with a sit-down protest outside the City Hall, protesting the bill’s criminalisation of Roma and Traveller communities. Instead, by dedicating the front pages to images of burning police vans and the police making arrests, with little room spared for the peaceful protests, it has ensured that anyone who merely glances at the headlines will be convinced that everyone who attended was a thug seeking out violence.
In Priti Patel’s own words, the right to peaceful protest is a “cornerstone of democracy”. Clearly, she forgot to mention that this only applies if and when it suits the Tory agenda. The UK’s democracy is being systematically dismantled by this government and this Crime Bill is another nail in the coffin.
Image: Unsplash (Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona)