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UK: Calls For #KillTheBill as the UK Government Seeks to Stifle Protests Even Further

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– ECF update to the CIVICUS Monitor, published on 06 April 2021, accessible here.

Introduction

As reported previously on the Monitor, the UK government and authorities have been cracking down on the right to peaceful assembly, with senior government officials labelling environmental and racial justice movements as ‘criminals’. During this reporting period, the government introduced a policing bill which gives significantly more power to the police and threatens peaceful assembly. The kidnapping and murder of Sarah Everard sparked protests over the lack of safety for women. A metropolitan police officer has been charged in connection with the murder. The disproportionate force used by police during a vigil to remember Everard led to a backlash against the government and police, in the context of attempts to increase police powers.

Peaceful Assembly

#ReclaimtheseStreets protests

Reclaim These Streets, a group of women that wanted to channel collective grief following the murder of Sarah Everard by a police officer, and to commemorate all women lost to violence, organised a short vigil on 13th March 2020 at Clapham Common in London.

Before planning the vigil, the group reached out to the Council and the Met Police in Lambeth to ensure that the event could take place “safely and legally”. After initially receiving a positive response, they later said that the vigil would be unlawful and that if activists continued they would face fines worth thousands of pounds and charges under the Serious Crimes Act. The group raised over 37,000 pounds in the event that police took action against protestors. Following this, the group legally challenged the police’s decision as unlawful. In a statement, the group said:

“This is a vigil for Sarah, also for all the women who feel unsafe, who go missing from our streets and face violence every day. By forcing us to cancel the Reclaim the Streets Vigil, the metropolitan police will be silencing thousands of women like us who want to honour Sarah’s memory and stand up for our right to feel safe on our streets.”

On 12th March 2021, the high court ruled to leave the organisers and the police to decide on whether protests should go ahead, refusing to intervene in a legal battle between the organisers of vigils and the Metropolitan Police. However, during the hearing the police admitted that there was no blanket ban on protests and that they have discretion on how to respond to planned events. Consequently, Reclaim These Streets urged people not to attend gatherings on Clapham Common due to COVID-19 and legal consequences.

However, hundreds who showed up at Clapham Common on 13th March 2020 for the vigil were met with heavy handed policing (see also here). These events have led to calls for the resignation of police commissioner Cressida Dick, who defended the police’s response to a “really big crowd’. Reclaim These Streets released a statement the same evening, explaining how they were “deeply saddened and angered by the scenes of police officers physically manhandling women at a vigil against male violence”. They also stated that:

The Metropolitan Police failed to work with us despite the High Court ruling yesterday that a vigil could potentially go ahead lawfully. In doing so, they created a risky and unsafe situation. It is their responsibility to protect public order, public health and the right to protest – they failed tonight on all accounts…This week of all weeks the police should have understood that women would need a place to mourn, reflect and show solidarity. Now is the time for the police and the government to recognise that the criminal justice system is failing women. Tonight, it has failed women again, in the most destructive way. We will keep fighting for women’s voices to be heard and to matter.

The group also released a statement to the Police Commissioner, stating their disappointment in the failure of the police to consult protest organisers prior to releasing a public statement regarding the vigil. They also highlighted how they had “only ever sought to be constructive” and to work with the force “to ensure that the right to assemble is achieved lawfully and with all the appropriate and proportionate safety and policing measures in place”, reaffirming that the High Court ruling had made it clear that “the law does not prevent police from permitting and facilitating peaceful assembly”.

Government response to the police violence

Home Secretary Priti Patel explained that she had had “extensive discussions” with Met police regarding the vigil, and had asked the Met Police for a full report on what happened. Patel also said that the vigil had been “hijacked” by protesters. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “The police do have a very difficult job but there’s no question that the scenes that we saw were very distressing.”

On 19th March 2020, 62 MPs and peers supported a letter coordinated by Liberty and Big Brother Watch to the home secretary stating that allowing the police to criminalise people for protesting was “not acceptable and is arguably not lawful”. The highlighted that the right to protest in the UK has been threatened by:

  • Lockdown regulations, which police have used to arrest and fine protesters
  • The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which aims to impose serious restrictions on the right to protest
  • The Coronavirus Act, which contains broad and excessive powers to restrict protests

Sam Grant, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Liberty UK, said:

“We must all be able to stand up to power and have our voices heard. In a healthy democracy, protest is a critical way we can fight for what we believe in. The Government’s current quasi-ban on protest is completely unacceptable…”

“Using short-term restrictions on protest to stifle dissent while they pass permanent ones is as absurd as it is authoritarian. Now is the time for us to come together to stand up to this aggressive and egregious use of power.”

On 30th March 2021 the government investigation commissioned by the Home Secretary into the events that unfolded at the Clapham vigil found that police “acted appropriately”.

#PoliceCrackdownBill calls for new restrictions on right to protest

On 9th March 2021, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill was announced as part of plans to “strengthen police powers to tackle non-violent protests that have a significant disruptive effect on the public or on access to Parliament”. The new law grants police greater powers to crack down on protests, including outlawing protests that are noisy or cause “serious annoyance”, single person protests and protests outside the UK parliament.

CSOs Liberty UK, Friends of the Earth UK and Bond UK told the CIVICUS Monitor that the bill makes the following concerning changes:

  • Major changes to the Public Order Act 1986, resulting in increased conditions and restrictions for assemblies and protest marches, significant increases in penalties for breaches (greater prison sentencing and an almost doubling of fines), and reduced threshold for prosecution.
  • The statutory offence of public nuisance, with a 10-year maximum sentence, is likely to be used much more regularly.
  • An increase in buffer zones around the parliament and new rules preventing obstruction of roads/car passages.
  • The creation of a new trespass offence of residing on land without consent criminalises the ways of Gypsy and Traveller communities and gives powers to confiscate the homes and possessions of those suspected of the offence.
  • The new trespass offence is vaguely defined and means those seeking access to the countryside will face uncertainty about the legality of their position, deterring some groups and activities.
  • The penalty for criminal damage of memorials has increased to up to ten years in prison, and has expanded to include not only built objects, but gardens too. The general broadness of the wording also means this is open to abuse.

More than 150 organisations (including Extinction Rebellion, Liberty, Big Brother Watch and local organisations) warned ministers that the new 307-page Police, Crime and Sentencing bill is “an attack on some of the most fundamental rights of citizens”. They also argued that the bill was being rushed through parliament before people had “been able to fully understand its profound implications”. Extinction Rebellion UK described the bill as “a blatant erosion of democracy”, and Black Lives Matter UK said that it “effectively criminalises protestors” and that “it must be opposed”.

Netpol argued that police must protect and not restrict the right to protest. The organisation has launched 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. They demand that police respect existing international human rights standards – or explain why they have refused to do so. The charter has gathered over 200,000 signatures.

On 15th March 2021, prior to the parliament’s vote on the bill, police made arrests after hundreds of people, who had gathered to oppose the passage of the new policing bill and to highlight violence against women, marched through central London. Activists from several movements, including Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, Stop HS2, various anti-fascist groups and activists from the feminist group Sisters Uncut, involved in the organisation of the vigil for Sarah Everard, came together to support the right to protest and called for #KillltheBill,

On 16th March 2021, the bill passed its second reading in parliament- the first chance MPs get to vote on a proposed law – by 359 votes to 263. This was despite debates on controversial aspects of the bill, including giving significant powers to police, failure to protect the right to protest and the heavy 10-year sentence for destruction of statues/gardens, with Labour leader Keir Starmer calling on his MPs to vote against the bill.

In the following days there were protests in several cities across the UK, with people calling to #ReclaimtheStreets and #KilltheBill. In London, police arrested four legal observers from the Black Protest Legal Support (BPLS), an organisation led by Black and Brown lawyers to monitor the policing of protests, despite clearly identifying as ‘legal observers’. Two of the observers were taken into custody and detained into the early hours. All four were told to expect fines in the post. Liberty has threatened legal action against the Metropolitan Police on behalf of the four legal observers, arguing that their arrests at a recent protest were unlawful. It has given the police two weeks to respond and drop fines against the legal observers.

Police clashed with protestors in Bristol on 21st March 2021. Protesters have criticised the mainstream media narratives that described them as having ‘turned violent’ and condemned the police’s use of excessive force, including kettling, the use of batons, and dispersal techniques such as horse charges, as “violent in both intent and effect”. Protestors also reported that police drove directly into the crowds of protesters, after which police vehicles were set alight and vandalised. In a collective statement, several groups said:

“The stigmatisation of protesters is a tactic of division that we won’t stand for. It is a fearful response by a state that thrives on division and scarcity. While the police can use violence against people with impunity, protesters are condemned for ‘violent’ damage to property…. The police use violence to divide us, but we will not be divided. The conservative media attempts to paint a moral hierarchy, but we will not be forced apart. We know that this bill can be defeated, and we are coming together in a coalition of solidarity to do just that. We will not be silenced. We will kill the bill!”

Extinction Rebellion in Bristol reaffirmed their commitment to non-violence and the right to peaceful protest, stating that “The escalation of [the] peaceful protest demonstrates why it is essential that organised peaceful protest remains legal”.

On 26th March 2021, activists occupied a former police station in South London, close to where Sarah Everard was last seen, demanding that the restrictive bill be withdrawn.

“We the “serious annoyance” have occupied the former Cavendish Road Police Station located 200m away from where Sarah Everard was last seen. We demand the withdrawal of ‘The Police Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill’; an end to male violence; defunding of police and a refunding of communities. We have shouted, we have marched and we now stand as a coalition to resist this authoritarian state.”

On 27th March 2021, several protesters were arrested after more than a thousand people gathered for the third #KilltheBill protest for that week in Bristol. Police were given orders to disperse the crowd for breaching “COVID-19 legislation”.

 

 

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The accumulation of these events, coupled with the murder of 33-year-old Sarah Everard by a police officer, repeated crackdowns on protesters over the last year and targeted moves by Home Secretary Priti Patel, who has labelled protestors as “domestic extremists”, have catalysed a hostile political environment for protestors and civil society in which tensions are running high.

Next steps

The bill will go to the Committee in the House of Commons. There appears to be a slowing down of the process, potentially due to public outrage – the outcome of the Committee must be presented by 24th June 2021.

Dozens of arrests at protest against COVID-19 lockdown in London

Anti-lockdown protestors were met with a heavy police presence on 20th March 2020. The protest began peacefully at 4pm but soon resulted in clashes between police and protesters, over 30 arrests and heavy-handed policing. By 7pm officers wearing riot gear arrived at Hyde Park urging people to go home. See and read more here.

COVID-19 legislation

Despite warnings by rights groups to repeal the Coronavirus Act emergency legislation, the UK government extended the Act for another six months on 26th March 2021.

Association

Over the past few months government officials have openly criticised CSOs for being critical and speaking out.

In December 2020, the speaker of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg accused UNICEF of ‘playing politics’ after it launched a campaign to feed children in the UK. UNICEF committed to pledging £25,000 to a south London charity to supply breakfast boxes over the Christmas holidays. Rees-Mogg said that UNICEF was trying to gain “cheap political points” and called the campaign “a political stunt of the lowest order”.


The Third Sector reports that during February 2021 charities were summoned to a meeting with the culture secretary in a move to “warn them off attempts to rewrite British history”. It was reported that over 25 charities were invited and were to be told “to defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”. These comments are in relation to work that some charities have been doing on slavery and colonialism. While some charities chose to attend the meeting, others boycotted it. Jay Kennedy, head of policy and practice at the publishing and training charity the Directory of Social Change, said:

“The idea that a fact-based analysis of the central role of slavery and colonialism over the past 500 years of British history and economic development is somehow now being warped by ‘ideology’ or ‘woke activists’ is double-speak and historical malpractice.”

Following this the government set up a working group to determine guidelines for how heritage charities can talk about history.

In addition, on 15th February 2021 during a speech, Charity Commission chair Baroness Stowell warned CSOs to not be “captured” by politics. She said: “If Charity is to remain at the forefront of our national life it cannot afford to be captured by those who want to advance or defend their own view of the world to the exclusion of all others. Charities can adapt to the latest social and cultural trends but there is a real risk of generating unnecessary controversy and division by picking sides in a battle some have no wish to fight.”

Expression

  • On 22nd January 2021, Robyn Vinter, an investigative journalist and contributor to The Yorkshire Post, faced online intimidation and criticism from several Tory MPs over a COVID-19 related story, which they labelled as false. The Coalition for Women in Journalism (CFWIJ) condemned the intimidating behaviour of government representatives towards a journalist.
    • On 29th January 2021, Huffington Post UK journalist Nadine White was subjected to online harassment by UK Treasury & Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch MP, who tweeted a thread which attempted to discredit the journalist. The tweets come after White asked the minister why she did not contribute to a video with black cross-party MPs calling for greater uptake of the vaccine by the black community. As a result of the harassment, White has now turned her profile onto private mode.

  • Northern Irish journalist Patricia Devlin was targeted with death and rape threats by a paramilitary group. The Coalition for Women in Journalism calls on the Irish authorities to investigate death and rape threats made towards crime journalist Patricia Devlin by the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), a loyalist paramilitary group in Northern Ireland. Most recently, on 12th February 2021, Patricia’s name was depicted on graffiti alongside a gunshot target. This was the latest in a series of sinister attempts to frighten her into silence.

  • On 1st March 2020, BBC journalist Sonja McLaughlan was subjected to “misogynistic and abusive” attacks on social media after she covered a rugby match. The BBC released a statement condemning such online abuse. The CFWIJ said:

“Sports journalism has remained a difficult space for women journalists to enter due to prevalent sexist attitudes. To silence the few voices that are present there is despicable behaviour.”

    • As documented by Mapping Media Freedom, Huffington Post’s deputy political editor Arj Singh was accused of tampering with a leaked recording of UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab by Jacob Rees-Mogg, the speaker of the House of Commons. Rees-Mogg accused Singh of editing the clip “unfairly, improperly, and broadly dishonestly”, and added: “I think we should look at that type of poor-quality, online journalism. It’s not the sort of thing that would happen in the Times.” He also claimed that the work was “shockingly distorted by low-quality journalism”, adding: “It’s a very cheap level of journalism, it’s not a proper way to behave.” Michelle Stanistreet of The National Union for Journalists (NUJ) said in a statement:

“It’s not acceptable to dismiss reporting you don’t like as fake news. It’s completely unacceptable to resort to insults and personal smears of journalists simply trying to get on with their job.”

  • On 19th March 2021, a Westminster magistrate’s court issued an interim stalking protection order against far-right leader Tommy Robinson, after he arrived on the doorstep and threatened Lizzie Dearden, home affairs correspondent for The Independent. He also falsely accused Dearden’s partner of being a paedophile in an attempt to intimidate her. Dearden had approached Robinson’s lawyers for comment a few days earlier for a investigative story into “claims he misappropriated donations from his supporters”.

  • The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) issued a statement raising concerns over threats faced by journalists during an anti-COVID-19 and anti-vaccine protest in Hyde Park (see peaceful assembly). Photographers and videographers reported facing verbal threats, including death threats. Several journalists removed their masks to avoid being targeted, while others reported that they considered leaving the protests due to fears of violence. Protesters also attempted to obstruct journalists from doing their work. NUJ Secretary General Michelle Stanistreet said:

“Throughout this pandemic, reporters and photographers have continued doing their jobs as key workers, ensuring the public remains fully informed and documenting important events during an unprecedented time. It is wholly unacceptable that in carrying out this vital work reporters and photographers are being abused and threatened.”

“The policing of demonstrations and protests must ensure that journalists are able to do their job safely and without fear of attack, and that those who seek to curtail the right to report should be dealt with robustly.”

  • On 23rd March 2021, during a protest against the Policing Bill in Bristol, journalists from The Bristol Cable were physically confronted by a police officer who threatened to arrest them and use force against them. The journalists confirmed that they were members of the NUJ and proceeded to show their press cards.The officer responded, stating: “force may be used against you, it doesn’t matter if you claim to be journalists.” The senior commander however told the officer to stand down and allow the journalists to do their job. The police later issued an apology to the journalists.

  • On 24th March 2021, after the Bristol protests, Martin Booth, a reporter for independent magazine Bristol24/7 was questioned and temporarily detained by police at 2am. Booth was covering the protest and was on his way home when two officers grabbed him. He said:

“When the officers grabbed me, I immediately told them that I was a member of the media. Despite being a journalist for 20 years, however, I have never had a press card.”

Police accused Booth of being a protester and only released him after another photojournalist, who he was with at the time, confirmed this.

Proposed free speech law for universities

On 16th February 2021, the education secretary announced proposed legal measures to “strengthen free speech and academic freedom” at universities. The measures aim to tackle the “increasing number of cases of individuals being silenced”. However, the measures have been opposed by university unions.

The University and College Union (UCU) general secretary, Jo Grady, responded:

“It is extraordinary that in the midst of a global pandemic the government appears more interested in fighting phantom threats to free speech than taking action to contain the real and present danger which the virus poses to staff and students.”

“In reality the biggest threats to academic freedom and free speech come not from staff and students, or from so-called ‘cancel culture’, but from ministers’ own attempts to police what can and cannot be said on campus, and a failure to get to grips with the endemic job insecurity and managerialist approaches which mean academics are less able to speak truth to power.”