The Police, Crimes, Sentencing and Courts Bill passed its Third Reading and is now in the House of Lords. It’s a grisly piece of legislation that threatens the right to protest, criminalises homelessness, and risks the viability of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller way of life. It has rightly been fought against, most fiercely in Bristol this March, but the Bill goes deeper than this – it brings to light the dark roots of policing and threatens the country’s democracy.
Modern policing has its roots in England in 1819, a dire year as the Napoleonic Wars had left the economy in tatters. The Corn Laws and harvest failure meant food was scarce and expensive, discharged and deprived soldiers were wandering the country, and riots from radical groups such as the Luddites, who were protesting the conditions and consequences of the industrial revolution, were common.
They didn’t have the vote and they wanted it to enact change to stop these miserable conditions. Then, at a protest in Manchester, a cavalry charge on some 60,000 peaceful protesters which killed a dozen of them in what has been called the Peterloo Massacre. ‘Liberticide’, Shelley named it in his sonnet ‘England in 1819’.
It’s from this horror that Sir Robert Peele realised the need for a more professional body to deal with these protests. He’d seen similar sights during his management of the British colonial occupation of Ireland, and he soon created the Metropolitan Police Force. If we consider what the 1819 protests were for – suffrage for working-class men, and parliamentary reform – we can see that the police were created to protect the interests of the interests ruling class.
200 years later, it looks like the police have a completely different function: to fight crime and protect us. Films like ‘Bad Boys’ and shows like ‘Luther’ give us the idea that the police are here to protect us from violent hooligans who would surely hurt us if they were not there. It’s a pernicious narrative, gifting the police a ‘monopoly on violence’ and a mask to legitimise their actions.
In fact, as Alex Vitale argues convincingly in ‘The End of Policing’, the police are simply the government’s way of maintaining the status quo. A tool to manage and produce inequality and quash social movements of those on the losing end of economic and political arrangements, the same as it was in Manchester all those years ago.
‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.’
The new Bill criminalises doing something in public that causes, or risks causing, ‘serious annoyance’ or ‘significant disruption’. The entire purpose of a protest, including peaceful ones, is to cause disruption and therefore draw attention to the issue. For instance, if the Royal College of Nursing did strike as they planned to, the disruption caused would be immense – but that would serve to bring light to the terrible pay nurses receive.
If Extinction Rebellion organised another major protest and brought London to standstill again, that would serve to warn us about the impending climate disaster this current administration doesn’t act on. Yet both examples would become illegal under the new Bill with a grave result – issues the government doesn’t want to deal with, it doesn’t have to. We lose the right to hold the government accountable.
That’s not all that should concern us. The Bill outlaws ‘unauthorised encampments’, essentially setting up a conflict between the state and the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller populations, which rely on the freedom to roam. Furthermore, in a letter to Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick, 13 charities and housing groups warned that the Bill risks people being imprisoned for sleeping rough. Those on the losing end of political and economic arrangements are being stifled.
Forget commentators, like the Good Law Project, who write that the Bill ‘marks a significant departure from the historic approach to the policing of protests under the Public Order Act 1986’. It’s the other way around: the 1986 Act marked the departure from the historical approach to protests. This Bill is history bearing fruit and returning to the norm. The police are now fulfilling their original purpose: crowd control. The mask of crime-stoppers is slipping, and the ugly face of state repression is found lurking beneath.
But what’s the government so scared of that it needs to ban protests? It may not be 1819, but the country is in a sorry state: the possibility of conflict in Northern Ireland, the fragmentation of the Union, and a nation crippled by Covid-19.
That this government, which grows more lawless every day, wants to implement this Bill should come as no surprise. It seeks to silence dissenting voices who point out that Johnson and his government are a picture of ineptitude. In return, they fall back on the tyrant’s trusted methods of criminalising opposition.
In few countries can you vote for those that govern you, and in fewer can you safely speak out against those that do. State repression is the norm in the world, and the freedom to protest is rare. It is the lifeblood of democracy and we should fight hard to keep it.
As Shelley wrote after the Peterloo Massacre, ‘Rise, like lions after slumber/ In unvanquishable number! / Shake your chains to earth like dew/ Which in sleep had fallen on you: / Ye are many- they are few!’