By Charlie Kimber
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Use your right to protest — it’s the best response to Tory police bill

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We still have the right to protest—and it’s necessary to defy the new laws whoever is the target
Issue 2803
A protest against the Tory police bill in London last year, people stand on Whitehall, setting off purple flares and holding yellow placards

A protest against the Tory police bill in London last year (Picture: Guy Smallman)

The Tories forced through a string of brutally repressive and racist measures into law on Wednesday. They have major implications for protesters, Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, refugees, migrants and black people. And in an outrageous symbol of its utterly ineffective opposition, Labour abstained on one of the final key votes over a government assault on refugee rights.

The Nationality and Borders Bill is a racist response to desperate people fleeing war and poverty. It will close even further any legal route to Britain and therefore push refugees into reliance on people smugglers. When there is no border, you don’t need a trafficker to move around. When there is a thicket of obstacles, you rely on gangs that overcome them for profit.   

Just as the bill passed through the House of Lords, some peers tried to ensure that Britain would have to follow international regulations on asylum. The Labour Party told its members not to oppose the government. Labour lord Prem Sikka tweeted that in a vote of whether to force the government to comply with the Refugee Convention, “The vote was lost by 212-157. Labour abstained. I voted against the party whip. Today, the government abuses refugees, tomorrow it is you/me.”

The battle has to start today to defy the law, welcome refugees, block deportations—and repeal the new measures and all racist laws. Stand Up To Racism said, “Despite protests and campaigning, the bill is now law. We have to come together to resist its effects.”

The police bill, passed into law the same day, combines authoritarian populism, a desire to find scapegoats—and a tiny bit of fear. It ramps up state powers in a way that can be trumpeted as “dealing with the disruptive minority” in a search for Tory votes. It also means harsher treatment for groups such as Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil.

These, along with Black Lives Matter, were specifically mentioned by the government during the debates around the bill and will now be criminalised further. But the powers can be used against any protester or trade union pickets. This is a deliberate and thought-through strategy to say that an otherwise good and functioning society is under assault by anti-democratic zealots. It will encourage every racist cop and every police officer who thinks all protesters are scum. And it lays up measures for when the level of struggle is much higher. This is the fear element, because the government knows there is deep anger that at some point could burst out more widely.

Across the globe, as crises multiply, capitalism becomes more authoritarian in order to deal with unrest. “Emergency measures”, “special powers” and new rounds of laws are the order of the day. There are fewer carrots on offer, so there is more stick in terms of ensuring compliance.

Labour did oppose most of the bill. But until the outcry after the cops’ assault on the Sarah Everard vigil, it was—again—going to abstain.

The law is a real assault. But it’s not true, as some people now say, that “protest is banned” or that “fascism has arrived”. The reason for the generally low level of strikes is Britain is not that Nazi gangs smash up the Unison and Unite union headquarters, murder union general secretaries and beat pickets with iron rods. That’s what happens under fascism.

A major problem is that many union leaders either fail to encourage—or actively block—any real resistance. And the unions should have fought against these new measures much harder. Equally, if the TUC union federation’s national demonstration on 18 June is only a few thousands, it won’t be because it’s been declared illegal.

It is perfectly possible to build a mass protest and launch more strikes. And having done that, it is necessary to defy the new laws—whoever is targeted. This is a foul and reactionary government. But we can still fight and win. The best way to defend protest rights is to use them.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

The bill, as now passed, means measures including:

  • Making it a criminal offence for protesters to cause “serious distress, serious annoyance or serious inconvenience” without “reasonable excuse”—carrying a penalty up to ten years’ jail.
  • Allowing the police to impose restrictions on marches whose “noise” could cause “serious disruption” to a nearby organisation or government department.
  • Targeting Gypsy, Roma and Traveller groups by turning trespass from a civil into a criminal offence.
  • Creating a criminal offence of residing in a vehicle on land without permission.
  • Confiscating the homes of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, if they stop in places that have not been designated for them.
  • Targeting anyone “residing on land” while causing noise that could be said to have damaged the environment.
  • But attempts to make “locking on” a crime and to give the police greater powers to stop and search without suspicion were thrown out by the Lords in January. Because of the parliamentary method used to introduce them, the Commons could not reinstate them and they are not part of the bill.
  • Strengthening stop and search powers even more.
  • The Friends, Families and Travellers campaign group said, “We’re aware of the darkness the criminalisation of trespass could bring to the nomadic way of life. It will not eradicate travelling. Instead, it will force those who have nowhere else to go into a direct confrontation with the law. A family seeking somewhere to bed down for the night will have to reckon with the possibility of their home being seized, their children thrown into care and their livelihoods torn apart.”

The Nationality and Borders Bill

The bill, as now passed, means measures including:

  • Indefinite detention of refugees arriving in Britain.
  • Intercepting refugees at sea and pushing them back towards France. Campaigning, PCS union pressure and the threat of legal action forced the government last weekend to abandon a plan to “push back” dinghies in the English Channel. But the announcement was coupled with a new scheme for the Royal Navy to take over anti-migrant operations in the Channel.
  • Offshore processing for refugees, with the government already having struck a deal to deport people to Rwanda.
  • Making it a criminal offence to “knowingly arrive” in Britain illegally—that is without the required papers. Of course, most refugees have to flee war, poverty and environmental collapse without going through all the obstacles of visas and visits to government offices.
  • Allowing for refugees to be treated differently based on how they entered Britain.
  • Blocking the citizenship rights of people born, and growing up, stateless in Britain. It will also empower the home secretary secretly to strip up to six million British people of their citizenship because they could theoretically have citizenship rights in another country.
  • Amnesty International says, “The home secretary’s attempt to paint this bill as targeting ruthless criminal gangs is a cynical distraction from her true intent” It is “to simply, and at whatever the cost, punish, penalise and deter people who seek asylum”. “The xenophobia that underpins this Bill is plain. It is as ruthless to victims of repression, torture and exploitation as it is exploitative of the racism and prejudice they face,” it said.

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