Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
The horrifying scenes at the Clapham vigil for Sarah Everard brought up many ugly questions about police power in this country. Questions that ethnic minorities have been raising for decades. The Black Lives Matter protests in the summer sparked nationwide discussions surrounding police brutality, something which has now raised its head again. The viral photo of four policemen escorting a young woman with a shirt that read ‘abuse of power comes as no surprise’ illustrates the painful irony of the situation. Women and girls simply wanted to join together in peaceful remembrance of a tragedy in the community before the boot of the Metropolitan Police was stamped down.
With this in mind, the natural reaction from the government, one might expect, is an outcry against this abuse of power and those responsible facing consequences.
One might expect this, but the reality is quite the opposite. Home Secretary Priti Patel, in reaction to the vigil, claimed that it had been hijacked by anti-police extremists who sought to use the protest to push a political agenda. Boris Johnson too said that he had complete faith in Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick and her officers.
Instead, the government are trying to pass a new bill that would increase police power and effectively serves as a crackdown on protests. The mandate for this comes from the 2019 Conservative manifesto promise to ‘back our police’ and tougher sentencing on some of the worst offenders. Priti Patel and Justice Secretary – Robert Buckland, have since answered the calls of Cressida Dick for increased police powers.
The proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Bill allows the police to shut down protests that cause ‘serious inconvenience or annoyance’, as well as creating new penalties for the perpetrators. It even goes as far to give police the power to shut down demonstrations if the noise from them ‘may result in serious disruption on the activities of an organisation’. The public nuisance provision of the bill makes partaking in protests that are deemed to be a ‘serious annoyance’ punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
This bill comes mainly due to the disruption and chaos the Met Police faced during the April 2019 Extinction Rebellion uprising. During the 10 days of protests, beginning on the 16th of April, activists effectively shut down central London. They blocked to roads at Marble Arch before moving to Parliament Square which was also occupied. In addition to this they caused £6,000 of damage to the Shell headquarters, marched on Heathrow airport and glued themselves to the London Stock Exchange – to name just a few occurrences. Whilst it is true that this must have been a huge inconvenience for the everyday people of London, one must think of the bigger picture.
Protests such as this are indicative of wider social movements. The right to freedom of speech, assembly and protest are the very cornerstones of democracy – something that the UK claims to be masters of. Extinction Rebellion’s goals were to create chaos to prompt change in government climate policy, something that is key to the survival of humanity. The Black Lives Matter movement marched simply for human decency and equality, as well in remembrance of those lost at the hands of the police. Those on Clapham Common last weekend just wanted to remember Sarah Everard, a woman murdered on her way home. Yet the government want to infringe this basic right of expression and protest. As the pictured woman’s shirt said, abuse of power truly does come as no surprise. If we give the police the power to determine what constitutes a ‘serious annoyance’, then where does it stop?