The Home Office, with energetic leadership from Priti Patel, is attempting to push the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill through parliament. Many fear the Bill will erode the right to protest and increase the possibility for excessive police force in protest policing.
The police violence exhibited at Saturday’s Clapham Common demonstration in memory of Sarah Everard makes clear that the possibility of such force is never far beneath the surface.
However, the true effect of the PCSC Bill is more insidious than this. The Bill seeks to change not only the policing of protest, but our very understanding of what protest is and what it stands for in society.
A recent report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of the Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) – which provided the research for the Bill – drew on interviews with serving officers. These interviews showed only lukewarm support for new legislation, with officers expressing a desire for better resources in enforcing current protest laws above new laws.
So why is the Home Office so keen to pass the PCSC Bill?
The answer, I suspect and fear, has to do less with the actual mechanics of protest policing itself, and more to do with the Tory’s ongoing and entirely self-destructive culture war.
The HMICFRS report is titled “Getting the Balance Right”. The balance in question is that between the historic and well-established rights of protestors to protest, and an entirely new category of rights, seemingly invented by Patel: the “right to go about one’s daily business”.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the whole point of protest precisely to highlight and challenge those aspects of “daily business” that are problematic? For instance, accepted norms that excluded minorities. This role reversal, from protest rights to daily business rights, is not merely semantic. It has far-reaching consequences.
If everyday life is a right, any attempt to change it must be inherently negative, an intrusion of power into an otherwise neutral space. If Patel gets her way, the very possibility of progressive protest disappears and all protest is fundamentally illegitimate.
This, in turn, will enable “ordinary people”, those who are just “going about their business”, to consider themselves victims. Never mind racial minorities, trans people, women, the Gypsy, Romani and Traveller community, the environment and so on, whose rights, including the most basic right to exist, are refused every single day. In Patel’s understanding of rights, it is the everyday man on the street who is the victim because he can’t go about his business.
At the heart of this is a backwards understanding of what rights are and what they are for.
Rights are not a bubble by which we shield ourselves from the world. On the contrary, they are the very means by which we engage with the world. Rights – to speech, thought, assembly, petition – are what enable even the most tiny and feeble human to stand in opposition to the edifice of power that is the state, white supremacy, patriarchy, capital, and whatever regime of “normality” it imposes.
Rights don’t exist to protect the status quo. They exist to empower those who challenge the status quo.
There is a chance that the Bill will not pass through Parliament. But even if the Bill fails, it will not be the last attempt Patel and the government make to prevent legitimate protest and resistance. And Labour under Starmer’s leadership will offer no barrier to them.
Going forwards, we need to be clear that efforts to undermine protest will not come only in the form of physical violence from the police forces. Rather, they will be hidden in language and discourse. The PCSC Bill shows how the Tories will seek to define us out of existence.