The timing of the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill has generated precisely what it was seeking to minimise: more protests. Police clashed with “kill the bill” protesters in Bristol for the fourth time in a fortnight this weekend, as more than 1,000 people gathered to oppose the new legislation, bringing traffic to a standstill.
Reading the contents of the 300-page bill can feel like being trapped in a 21st-century version of Animal Farm. Though the government says that everyone has equal rights, the bill reflects the subtext of this official line: only as long as citizens pipe down and do as they are told. While it says that “freedom of expression is a cornerstone of British democracy”, the bill proposes amendments giving police greater powers to restrict protests that cause “intimidation or harassment” or “serious unease, alarm or distress” to bystanders.
The point of protests is that they are unruly, noisy and a source of irritation to many. Without them, we might still have elections in which only rich white men could vote, and wealthy landowners might still curtail our rights to roam the countryside. The reason for the proposed restrictions, as the bill solemnly explains, is a recent change of protesting tactics, such as people gluing themselves to buildings and obstructing entrances. Since the large-scale Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests in April 2020, the Metropolitan police commissioner, Cressida Dick, has said she wants to change police powers to deal with protests. But there is little new about the civil disobedience methods used by XR, save perhaps for jauntier props.