Photo: Steve Eason (CC BY-NC 2.0)

When the power to determine what is in the public interest is claimed as the exclusive right of police forces, we need to be really worried, says Don Flynn

There is a special angel in the heavens charged with the job of whipping up irony whenever it seems appropriate.

Her wings could be heard beating hard on Tuesday when the Commons passed the second reading of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill with a majority of nearly one hundred. As government ministers pleaded for confidence in police chiefs deciding what was good for democracy in the UK, the spectre of the previous Saturday’s wrecked peaceful vigil for the murdered Sarah Everard loomed in the minds of many.

Branded by the civil rights campaigning organisation Liberty as a threat to the right to protest – “the lifeblood of a healthy democracy” – among the many proposals of the PCSC bill is one which puts a power to deny a protest event entirely in the hands of the same police forces that so badly misjudged the public mood only a few days before.

Ramping up police power

The bill was introduced to Parliament shortly after the publication of a report by the Constabulary and Fire Rescue Services Inspectorate which the Guardian reported as calling for the development of “covert intelligence gathering methods and an expectation of increased use of facial recognition technology” in order to prevent what the Inspectorate claimed was “serious disruption caused by protests”.

The government reasons that these powers will be granted to police authorities on the implicit understanding that chief constables know best when it comes to balancing the public interest in sustaining a right to protest against the inconvenience this might cause in the places where they take place. But the perfect illustration as to how misplaced that confidence is likely to be was provided by the debacle of the policing of the memorial vigils marking the killing of Sarah Everard which took place in London and elsewhere on the night of Saturday 13th March.

When MPs commenced the debate on the second reading of the PCSC bill on the following Monday, the public outrage at the sheer incompetence of the leadership of the Metropolitan Police was palpable. Loud calls were ringing out for the resignation of the Met commissioner Dame Cressida Dick, who was widely condemned for permitting a police action which curtailed a gathering in Clapham Common, leading to the manhandling of women at the event and the destruction of floral tributes.

This was not a good look and posed the question for many as to whether heads of police forces, acting in concert with home secretaries, could ever be trusted to reach balanced decisions with respect to the right to protest and wider public interests. Demonstrations, particularly when they do cause inevitable disruption of the flow of traffic and other inconvenience, will not always attract the instinctive sympathy that many will have felt for the Sarah Everard vigils, but that should not be taken as a measure of whether the act of protest is serving the bigger cause of democracy or not.

Rolling back liberty

In addition to the fiasco of the police action on Saturday evening is the even larger concern with the direction that state regimes across the world are taking with respect to democratic protest. In the debate in Parliament, Labour MP Clive Lewis made the important point that there is no ‘English exceptional’ that makes liberty more secure in this country than it is in, say, Belarus, Myanmar, Hong Kong or, for that matter, Minneapolis, USA. When the power to determine what is in the public interest is prised out of democratic processes and claimed as the exclusive right of police forces acting to support party political regimes then we need to be really worried.

Among the voices keenest to register the alarm as to where Britain might be heading with measures like the PCSC bill are the environmentalist campaigns associated with Extinction Rebellion and the anti-racist Black Lives Matter. From the perspective of the latter, blogger Umair Haque has argued that the bill provides the government and its agencies “outsized powers [which] are not remotely normal in a liberal democracy. The powers to basically intimidate anyone the government doesn’t like, and string them up as a ‘criminal’ — they are what secret polices in authoritarian states have, and use, to keep dissent crushed, stifled, and suffocated”.

Among those who know what it is to have liberty taken away with drastic consequences are the Chinese communities from Hong Kong settled in Britain. In a petition which will be presented to the government, the community activists write:

“As Hongkongers, we know first hand how concepts of ‘public order’ can be manipulated to narrow the freedom of assembly. We have seen all space for dissent crushed in our own home as a result of the National Security Law, notably the arrests of 47 pro-democracy politicians (effectively our entire political opposition)…

“In 2019, one slogan that came to prominence in our movement was “no rioters, only tyranny”. It guided our ethos: in the face of repressive laws we are all united in the fight against injustice. For this reason, we stand with all in resisting the #PoliceCrackdownBill – because protest is a right to be defended for all.”

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