Protesters outside the House of Lords, as peers vote on amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill
The drummers are outside parliament – pink ear defenders on, shoes off. Two dozen people have gathered, in another attempt to get the House of Lords to reject some amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
It’s a sunny day, and they’re here for Kill the Bill. As the bill reaches the end of its parliamentary journey, Tuesday’s protest is touted as the “final chance to Kill the Bill”.
Which makes you wonder: Is this the end for the movement? The Big Issue braved the first properly sunny day of the year to find out.
The Kill The Bill movement sprang up in response to the bill – often shortened to the Policing Bill – which included serious restrictions on the right to protest.
The movement managed to mobilise tens of thousands to take to the streets of cities around the country, in protests big and small.
In Westminster, almost a year to the day after the riot, a group of drummers, accompanied by flag wavers and placard twirlers, stand outside the House of Lords. The goal is to make as much noise as possible. There’s a light police presence, and it’s a relatively low-key affair.
One protester in a pink leotard yells: “Where’s the fucking army? We want the Irish Guards.” The man with no shoes plays an invisible kazoo into a megaphone.
They’re here because the government inserted a raft of anti-protest amendments into the bill before it was due to go in front of the Lords. In January, peers rejected these, inflicting a landmark number of defeats on the government. Then, by virtue of the Tory majority, MPs voted to put those anti-protest measures back in.
Now, the Lords must decide whether it’s worth digging in or giving way. The bill, and its anti-protest measures, will pass between the two houses until the tension is broken and a winner emerges.
Jane Legget has been going to protests since 1969, when she began fighting for equal pay and abortion rights and against apartheid, the Vietnam War, and racism. Now, she’s wearing an Extinction Rebellion backpack and protesting against a bill that feels like fait accompli.
“I suppose, back then, I was really far more optimistic that we were going to win,” she said.
“We had a lot going and we thought we were going to change the world. In a way it did.”
Faced with the policing bill, as well as the Nationality and Borders Bill, she’s less optimistic. She believes it’s the government’s way of preparing for a climate emergency – with the borders bill portending troops on the beaches to deal with hundreds of thousands of climate refugees, and the Policing Bill a way to stop resistance.
Despite the unlikely odds, the Kill the Bill movement has given her hope.“We’ve had nighttime demonstrations, daytime demonstrations, the number and standard of organisations has been astonishing. I’ve learned a great deal from being here,” Legget says.
“I don’t think this is over by any means.”
Looking forward to anticipated Extinction Rebellion action next month, she adds: “I’ve been arrested and I will continue to be arrested over this coming rebellion.”
Another protester, waiting for the drums to ramp up, gives his name only as Qu4ntum (pronounced Quantum).
He’s been involved with Extinction Rebellion, Kill the Bill, Just Stop Oil, and is planning to join up with HS2 rebellion – a group resisting the much-delayed high-speed train line.
“Today is a big day because if nothing is made today, and no decisions are made, we won’t be able to do this. We need to be able to disrupt, because disruption makes people aware of the cause.”
Protesting, and the right to do so, is personal to him, he explains: “I want to be a full time activist because I was brought up in a care home. I want to be an activist for the care sector. Care leavers, care home kids are undermined. Refugees are undermined, they aren’t given the rights they’re meant to have.”
Around parliament, within a minute’s walk of each other, a handful of protests show what might be at stake if the right to protest is restricted.
Angus Rose is on his ninth day of hunger strike. He wants a public, televised briefing – led by Sir Patrick Vallance – to tell the public of the risks of and solutions to climate breakdown.
The second and third days, when your body starts to adapt, are the hardest,” he said. “I am prepared to die. Yesterday was really difficult, thinking what I might lose.”
A few metres away is a man by the name of Robert Unbranded. He’s wearing a sandwich board saying “plastic is out of control”, with empty green plastic bottles dangling from it.
The corner, in the shadow of Big Ben, has been his spot for three hours a day for the past three years. In that time, some change has been made with plastic, but he’s unsure how much credit he can take.
“Three years have passed. I can’t say I’ve achieved anything. Things happened but I can’t say I’ve been instrumental.”
Across the road, a group of girls holds a banner up: “KLS stands with refugees.”
They’re students at Katherine Low Settlement, a community centre in Battersea. They have English as a second language and are here to highlight how the Borders Bill will affect people like them.
An open-top bus drives past, with pro-NHS banners draped from it. “Where’s our £350m a week” one reads. “We’ve been living off Boris’s claps instead.” Labour MP Barry Gardiner, it transpires, is onboard.
Different causes, varying levels of disruption, but all protests – and all with an uncertain future under the Policing Bill.
In the afternoon, the Lords does what it can – asking the government to “think again” on a range of measures, including conditions on noisy protests, and on making misogyny a hate crime.
Are the protesters influencing this? The government defeats in January were a tangible victory, but most are realistic that the bill’s measures will eventually pass. The question is whether they believe they’re changing things.
At the bigger rallies – the Saturday afternoons with speakers and microphones and crowds of thousands – you’ll find plenty there. But on a weekday morning, with two dozen drummers, that doesn’t feel like a necessary illusion.
They’ve been part of protest movements before, and will be again – fighting for the next cause that comes along.
Handing out leaflets to passers-by – an endless stream of children on school trips and politicos sweating in their suits – a protester sums up the will to continue.
“We’ll keep fighting it even if it passes. It’s a long game.”
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