Protect your freedom to protest

“Too often we forget that protests are one of the reasons why we have many of the freedoms and rights we now cherish.” Kevin Blowe, Campaigns Coordinator for the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol), considers what the updated Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill will mean for civil rights movements. 

Police at XR protest
Kevin Blowe

Our ability to enjoy the countryside, our right to roam, our national parks: we owe a debt for all of these pleasures to acts of civil disobedience. 

Today, we rightly celebrate these actions. Every year since 2013, the National Trust and the Peak District National Park Authority has held a walking event to mark the anniversary of the famous Kinder Scout mass trespass on prohibited grouse moorland then owned by the Duke of Devonshire. 

What is not always appreciated, however, is the 400 trespassers who set out for Kinder Scout in April 1932 faced an enormous police presence (almost a third of the Derbyshire force). As a result of scuffles with gamekeepers, six – most of whom were Jewish, working class young men, the oldest only 23 – were arrested, prosecuted and convicted of riotous assembly and jailed for up to six months. 

At the time, the National Council of Ramblers' Federations opposed the tactics of the trespassers and distanced themselves from their actions, but the harshness of the sentences led to growing public sympathy and a number of copycat mass trespasses. 

Too often we forget that protests – disruptive, annoying, inconveniencing protests – are one of the reasons why we have many of the freedoms and rights we now cherish and that many have involved this kind of direct action and civil disobedience. 

The suffragist movement was prepared to break the law to demand votes for women and for a significant part of their history, trade unions were either outlawed or their activities were illegal. In 1988 opponents of homophobic legislation were willing to break the law by occupying a BBC news room and abseiling into Parliament. 

And let’s not forget – it was women from Sisters Uncut, who refused to back down to threats by the police and risked arrest to go ahead with the protest and vigil at Clapham Common in memory of Sarah Everard, who have also raised public awareness of government plans to make sweeping changes to the law. The proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will give the police extra powers to limit a new generation of protesters. 

From challenging the arms trade, government inaction on climate change or investment in repressive regimes, protest remains one of the few options available to campaigners without access to power. Now, however, the bill seeks to introduce new powers that restrict protests that make an impact – protests that are too “disruptive”, too noisy or that challenge corporate interests, based on subjective grounds such ‘serious annoyance’ or ‘serious unease’. 

Worse still, a Home Secretary whose ire is focused in particular on environmental campaigners Extinction Rebellion and on the Black Lives Matter movement will have powers to define what these terms mean, without needing to consult Parliament.

In parallel to wide-ranging legislation, the police have also indicated an intention to ramp up surveillance on protesters categorised with a broad new label: ‘aggravated activists’. Its definition includes campaigners seeking political or social change ‘that involves unlawful behaviour or criminality...or causes an adverse economic impact to businesses’.

If passed, the new bill will increase the risk of criminalising demonstrations outside the corporate headquarters of a polluter, or the embassy of a country committing war crimes, or a store belonging to a company that mistreats its workers. Labelling individuals as “aggravated activists”, however, allows the police to actively disrupt their entire campaigns. This is going ahead whether we have new laws or not.

Moreover, even if the bill is rejected, the police still retain enormous powers that, over the years, they have interpreted so that even minor breaches of the law (like blocking a road) are treated as invalidating the collective legitimacy of protesters’ demands. 

Netpol and a coalition of local and national organisations, including Extinction Rebellion, CND and Campaign Against the Arms Trade, believes people taking part in protests have a right to know what to expect from the police. We think it is time senior officers committed to respecting Britain’s existing human rights commitments by adopting our new Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights – or explain why they refuse to do so. 

The Charter calls for proper protections – not more restrictions – for the right to protest. This includes an end to treating civil disobedience as an excuse to shut down protests completely.  It also includes calls for the police to justify unrestrained surveillance and for strict limitations on the use of video recording, facial recognition, and monitoring of social media sites used by campaigners. 

We need to change the debate on policing protests and demand transparency and accountability from the police based on international law. That means celebrating and protecting our rights today – not just in years ahead and with the benefit of hindsight.

Find out more about the Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights on the Netpol website.

Kevin Blowe is Campaigns Coordinator for the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol)