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Activism

Kill the Bill protest: ‘People truly have had enough’

Protesters young and old and from a variety of interest groups turned out to oppose a bill proposing wide-ranging policing powers across the UK.

When Leigh Meyer, a podcast producer, arrived at the Clapham Common vigil for Londoner Sarah Everard on March 13, Meyer didn’t expect she’d be pounding the streets in protest the very next night. Nor that she would join the Kill the Bill marches for weeks afterwards demonstrating against police powers.

The Metropolitan Police, after judging the Everard vigil was unlawful, arrested several women in forceful scuffles condemned by feminist groups and Conservative politicians alike. So the following night, thousands attended a protest organised by anti-austerity group Sisters Uncut calling for the government to kill its controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill.

“This bill is just another representation of this dangerous government,” Meyer told me, at Saturday’s ‘Kill The Bill’ protest in Trafalgar Square. If passed by parliament, the PCSC bill would hand over, among other things, more powers to officers to control and shut down protests.

“I would not have gone on that protest the next day had it not been for how the police responded” at the vigil, said Meyer. 

Met police officer Wayne Couzens stands trial accused of Everard’s kidnap and murder. The Met’s response to Everard’s vigil and resulting protests have sparked a national reckoning over police power. It catapulted the government’s307-page bill to national attention and helped unite disparate social movements into a broad coalition condemning the proposals. Campaigners say police already possess too many powers they routinely overstep.

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“I don’t think anyone wants the police to have more power than they already do,” Georgia Nicole, a 19-year-old student who also attended Everard’s vigil, told me at Trafalgar Square. “They are drunk on power.”

On Saturday, Kill The Bill rallies took place in forty UK cities. They drew diverse crowds of tens of thousands of people hailing from all ages and stripes including feminists, racial justice campaigners, students, socialists, greens, lawmakers, parents, unions, anarchists, dog-walkers, tenant activists and many more.

“People truly have had enough and are realising their collective power,” Meyer said.

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Campaigners say the proposals are intended to curtail the types of protests witnessed in spring 2019 from Extinction Rebellion and in summer 2020 from Black Lives Matter supporters.

The bill would create new triggers under which police could impose conditions such as start and finish times on protests. Among the heavily opposed triggers are any “noise generated” that has “significant” impact on nearby people or businesses. It would also allow officers to police “assemblies” (static protests) with the broader powers currently permitted for policing “processions” (moving protests).

“If we hadn’t been able to block roads, make a noise, make our presence felt, the politicians would have carried on taking no notice at all,” Charmian Kenner, a 66-year-old campaigner with XR Grandparents and Elders, told me on Saturday.

Kenner, one of the first people to block a road at Marble Arch in 2019, said the XR protests were vital “because they finally made politicians sit up and take notice of the climate emergency.” (Bowing to pressure, the UK parliament declared a climate change emergency in May 2019.)

The bill also proposes extending the maximum prison sentence for defacing a public statue to ten years, in a move condemned as targeted at activists voicing anger at Britain’s institutional racism and colonial legacies in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd.

“The police over the years have used stop and search unfairly [and] disproportionately against black people,” Rahila Gupta, a 65-year-old management committee member of Southall Black Sisters, told me on Saturday.

Gupta recalled fighting against “draconian legislation” in the 1980s — “when the slogan ‘Kill The Bill’ was first thought of.” She said Black women suffering domestic violence felt betrayed by the police who she said, when called to aid victims, were often more interested in their immigration status than protecting women of colour.

“All of this is very chilling, it’s the beginning of a police state,” Gupta said.

Opponents want the bill scrapped entirely, not amended. “You can’t polish that to make it any better,” said Kevin Blowe, campaign coordinator at the Network for Police Monitoring.

Lawyers say the risk of beefing up policing powers is not always the law itself. Instead, it’s about how it’s understood by protestors — who may decide to stay at home, said David Mead, professor of human rights law at the University of East Anglia.  

“It’s what lawyers call a ‘chilling effect,’ so it kills people’s behaviour before they ever do anything,” he said. That’s why the bill’s an “existential threat” to the human right to protest, Mead said.

Every Monday morning between January and April 2019, hundreds of private hire and minicab drivers demonstrated at London Bridge and Parliament Square to protest working conditions.

The demos were crucial for building collective power, said James Farrar, general secretary of the App Drivers and Couriers Union. They culminated in February’s Supreme Court ruling Uber drivers were workers entitled to a minimum wage and holiday pay, not self-employed. But Farrar said if the PCSC bill had been passed, the ADCU’s campaign would have failed.

The bill also proposes widening the restricted zone near Parliament Square and would prohibit blocking traffic to parliament. Private hire drivers—often people of colour—depend on Transport For London licenses to work, which can be revoked after only a police caution. So because protesting would threaten their livelihood, Farrar said, they’d likely stay at home.

“You need to go on the streets to demonstrate your power,” Farrar told me. If the bill sails through parliament, he said, “What are they left with — bleating on on Facebook or something? You’re forced into a smaller and smaller box.”

Another cause for opposition is the bill’s disproportionate impact on Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities by making it a criminal offence to reside in a vehicle on land without permission.

Heather Bower, a 55-year-old designer and public servant, told me on Saturday, “The state is getting further and further right wing and I’m really scared. There’s so much to protest against.”

Priti Patel, the home secretary, defends the bill. A Home Office spokesperson said the right to protest is a cornerstone of democracy, but, “It is totally unacceptable to smash up private property, block emergency vehicles and prevent the printing press from distributing newspapers.”

Labour opposes the bill. But even Theresa May, the former Conservative prime minister and home secretary, voiced concerns last month.

“Freedom of speech is an important right in our democracy, however annoying or uncomfortable sometimes that might be,” May told the Commons, adding, “So I do worry about the potential unintended consequences of some of the measures in the bill which have been drawn quite widely.”

May’s concerns—despite later voting for the bill herself—speak to the wide coalition of opponents the government has provoked.

One protestor with co-organisers Sisters Uncut, speaking at Trafalgar Square from a makeshift speaking platform out the back of a truck, told the crowd, “Priti Patel made the same mistake as Maggie Thatcher with the poll tax — don’t attack us all at once, you idiot.”

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