Kill the bill: Resisting a UK police state

Kill the bill: Resisting a police state in the UK
6 min read
25 Mar, 2021
Comment: A repressive new policing bill has been postponed, but anger over Covid failures, BLM and the Everard demonstrations points to the coming wave of collective rage, writes Malia Bouattia.
The 300 page bill gives greater powers to police forces when handling protests [Getty]
The British government never misses an opportunity to further repress dissent, and the pandemic has been no different. Given the growing anger over its mismanaged Covid response, the government is doing all it can to control the public sphere and avoid a scenario where public anger can become organised and find a sustained expression.

Early on in the crisis, the government was able to capitalise on people's fears of being infected and on lockdown restrictions to stop protests, but this was never going to be a long-term solution.

Rather than meeting the demands of the people to adequately fund the NHS in order to manage infection rates, for example, the Tories preferred to pass out contracts to their wealthy friends. This cost lives and public safety, so it's hardly surprising that they're now focused on keeping a lid on public discontent.

Since the introduction of the Coronavirus Act 2020, the response by the government has been to increase policing and surveillance, restrict freedoms, and criminalise protests. To further shift us towards a police state, people were even encouraged to inform on each other over potential infringements of Covid-19 restrictions.

An emboldened police force began distributing thousands of fines, and in some cases, abusing their positionDerbyshire police were criticised for using drones to "spy" on people walking in the empty, open Peak District, and for unfairly handing out fines

As the months passed and the death toll continued to increase along with the numbers of the unemployed, people's anger towards the government also intensified.

The response to thousands demonstrating against repression, police brutality, systematic racism and state violence, was to further strengthen the powers of complicit institutions

The disproportionate impact of the Coronavirus itself, as well as the economic crisis brought on during the pandemic, on brown and black people reinforced the racialised nature of poverty and inequality in the UK.

Unsurprisingly, these issues fuelled the summer of Black Lives Matter demonstrations which also reached the UK. Protesters pointed out that the state was killing them whether through poor living conditions, or at the hands of racist police officers. There was no other choice but to take to the streets in protest. 

Despite the visible outcry, the extensive global solidarity, and even some government recognition of the issuesnothing changed for the better. 

In fact, it was quite the reverse. 

By the autumn, the government was renewing the Coronavirus Act 2020, with all its draconian measures with practically no opposition in parliament. 

The response to thousands demonstrating against repression, police brutality, systematic racism and state violence, was to further strengthen the powers of complicit institutions. 

Read more: Violent police response at Sarah Everard vigil underlines a dangerous reality for women

And now, after the killing of Sarah Everard by a police officer - a tragedy which again led to vigils against gender-based violence - the government is attempting to pass the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

Similarly to issues of racial inequality, the crisis has intensified the structural violence meted out against women - hit hardest through their over-representation in frontline jobs, while many are also stuck at home with abusive partners or family members. The anger that the Everard murder unleashed cannot be separated from these broader social realities. 

The bill will continue on the same trajectory of repression, especially towards protesters. This legislation seeks to equip police officers with the ability to severely restrict demonstrations by imposing start and end times, the routes of marches, and even set noise limits. We should be prepared for more restrictions over our ability to gather, harsher fines, and for all of us to be at the mercy of whatever the police deem to be a "public nuisance".

If the aggressive response at the Sarah Everard vigil is anything to go by, placing the decision over what is considered a threat to society in the hands of the police is not the answer. 

Moreover, despite the backlash the police received for their heavy handling of the vigil, including from the Mayor of London, officers in Bristol unleashed a fresh and shocking display of repression against those protesting the new bill. 

This legislation seeks to equip police officers with the ability to severely restrict demonstrations

Contrary to the version of events recounted by Chief Constable Andy Marsh that some demonstrators were seeking confrontation, journalist Martin Booth said that protesters "were not spoiling for any fight". In addition, initial claims that police officers had suffered broken bones and a punctured lung were later retracted by Avon and Somerset Police. 

Since the start of the pandemic, we have seen inexplicably weak opposition in parliament to these repressive policies. In this context, it is unsurprising that Boris Johnson's government is confidently putting forward this latest anti-protest legislation.

While the hysteria that followed the Covid-19 outbreak may have eased the initial Coronavirus Act's passage into law,  this certainly wasn't the case when the vote came to renew it. The spinelessness of our politicians, especially those calling themselves the opposition, has laid the groundwork for the bill the Labour party is now opposing.

Even this basic opposition was hard fought for. There is no doubt that growing public opposition to the over-policing of communities and the crackdown on our right to protest has led many of the previously quiescent MPs to now speak out. And after thousands across the country organised demonstrations to #KilltheBill, the vote in parliament has now been delayed until later in the year.

Placing the decision over what is considered a threat to society in the hands of the police is not the answer

The Tories are trying to buy time, but there is no sign that the social realities that are rightly enraging millions will diminish. 

The truth is quite the opposite. Even in an "ideal scenario" where the government manages to continue rolling out the vaccine in an attempt to return the country to "normal", fundamental questions still need answering. Our government let countless people die in order to prioritise businesses, while simultaneously failing to protect frontline workers, our health service, or our jobs.

If crisis management has served as an effective dampener for social discontent, both BLM and the Everard demonstrations point to the coming wave of collective rage. The Tories and their allies in the Starmer-led shadow cabinet will not be able to hide forever. 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.