They can already disperse unplanned marches with relative ease, and the new legislation extends this power to static gatherings. The charge of violent disorder, created by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, already allows protesters to be sent to jail for up to five years if they are in a crowd of three or more and “threaten unlawful violence”. Any experienced organiser of protests will tell you that the best safeguard against being shut down or victimised by the authorities is not complying with the law, but mobilising large enough numbers that you cannot be moved and widespread enough sympathy that prosecuting you is more trouble than it’s worth.
No doubt the government will try to use the Bristol riot to justify the policing bill and set up a narrative separating ‘good’ and ‘bad’ protesters – and no doubt both the media and much of the liberal commentariat will play along – but the irony is that the new legislation is a recipe for more chaos, not less. For protesters, the decision about whether or not to negotiate with the police has always been a matter of weighing up options: doing so means that you might get permission for a rally or a march, but it also means giving the police information they might not otherwise have had, including names of organisers who can be prosecuted. If the pendulum swings too far against the right to protest in a legal way, the organisers of protests will have no incentive to identify themselves at all. This will probably make protests smaller and less easy to coordinate, but it will also make them more confrontational and immediately disruptive.
Those opposed to the new legislation can afford to breathe a sigh of relief, and to congratulate themselves. Without the efforts of feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut – which stepped in to organise the vigils and protests, and is now attracting upwards of 2,000 people to its online meetings – the bill might well not have been delayed. But we should also not be complacent. The government is hoping that a pause will drain the movement of its energy. There is, to be sure, still time to win concessions on the legislation, and the Lords can and should dig their heels in. Now is the time to build a movement of resistance on a grand scale – one that is broad, but which is also capable of articulating a politics around state violence, class, and systemic racism and misogyny that goes well beyond a purely defensive campaign. The fact that the street movement is being led by grassroots groups such as Sisters Uncut, rather than mainstream NGOs and liberal politicians, puts it in a good position to do this.
If the bill does go through, the whole of English civil society will face a stark choice. Complying with a law that bans any form of disruptive protest activity will mean policing ourselves. Doing so would drastically curtail the effectiveness of campaigns and damage the democratic rights of every person in England and Wales. For grassroots campaigns and social movements, the answer will be obvious: we will break the law where we have to. The real test of strength, however, will be in the response of larger institutions – NGOs, charities and trade unions – and the extent to which they are willing to step over the threshold and refuse to normalise a ‘new normal’. In seeking to curtail our right to dissent, Priti Patel could well make breaking the law an ethical duty.Print