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The Government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill passed its second reading in the Commons on Tuesday evening and is now due to receive amendments and further debate. But having passed its first parliamentary hurdle it is likely to succeed. This Bill is one of this Government’s flagship pieces of legislation, a comprehensive reform of multiple aspects of the justice system, and among those reforms are increased restrictions on the right to protest. 

This Bill is problematic for two reasons: firstly, it fundamentally challenges the efficacy of protest by making disruption, which is at the heart of protest movements, illegal and secondly, it uses vague legal language which will dramatically increase police power when dealing with protesters.

The Bill empowers the police to end any stationary protest which ‘causes significant nuisance’, causes serious annoyance’ or is deemed seriously ‘disruptive’. It places restrictions on the level of noise a protest can cause and it shifts the burden of knowledge to the protestors, with the police being permitted to fine protestors for breaking laws they did not know existed. 

This Bill rests on the assumption that protests need not be disruptive in order to be effective. When charged with allegations that the Government is violating the right to protest, Home Office Minister Victoria Atkins responded by drawing a distinction between peaceful vigils and ‘very, very disruptive protests’. What seems truly at issue here are violent protests which border on riots, but instead of targeting those specifically this Bill attempts to curtail all disruptive social movements arguing that they should be restricted and that this does not infringe upon the public’s right to protest.

But noise, disruption and nuisance are entirely part of genuine protests; a real component of what gives them leverage. The most effective way to guarantee that the public discusses a movement and that the media covers the demands is to cause disruption. Extinction Rebellion was effective precisely because it was disruptive. For almost a week they dominated news headlines, gaining their cause a national profile. 

Furthermore, there is a long history of disruption being an effective catalyst for social change. When the Suffragists demonstrated in favour of women’s right to vote, or when the American civil rights movement sought to fundamentally change the fabric of their country, they both utilised disruption as a tool to promote change. In a 1977 paper Piven and Cloward concluded that when economic power is lacking, social movements must rely on disruption in order to promote change, and in fact this reliance on disruption is justified by its effectiveness, providing support for my argument that disruption is often an essential component for achieving reform.

Defenders of the Government’s stance might argue that the level of disruption the capital experienced over the summer is never justified, for instance the Sun described the Extinction Rebellion protesters as a ‘mob’, focusing on Londoners who faced lengthened commutes owing to the protests. However, this argument comes from a subjective judgement of the worthiness of the cause. Those who deny the severity of environmental change may indeed view Extinction Rebellion’s protests as unjustified. But would the same cries be heard if protests erupted for the rights of women, or racial injustices? We cannot defend legislation that affects all protest movements by arguing that the causes we do not agree with should not have the right to disrupt our lives. These new restrictions will apply universally, and they will come to impede social change we do believe in if nothing is done. 

Alternatively, it could be argued that disruption actually turns the public away from social movements, frustrating rather than informing them. Even if this is true, polling following the Extinction Rebellion disruption showed that the number of people rating climate as an issue they were concerned about was at its highest since 2008. While they may have frustrated the public, they succeeded in promoting discourse around their issue, which is the overarching goal of protest movements.

But, this legislation also goes much further than just limiting disruption. It empowers the police to prohibit protests which cause ‘serious annoyance or nuisance’. Importantly, serious nuisance and annoyance are not well-defined legal terms, broad in nature and could apply to almost any protest. Additionally, the legislation’s enforcement is defined in terms of annoyance to members of the public, but this is relative. The level of annoyance you experience from a protest depends entirely on your perspective, and from whose perspective are police to interpret the law, the environmental protestor or the morning commuter? 

Now the Bill is in the process of being passed, it may seem futile to continue to argue against it, but the fact remains that it will fundamentally change the way social movements occur in Britain. As a nation that has always prided ourselves on our respect for individual liberty, it would be a great shame to turn our back on that tradition. Frankly this Bill has little place in a modern democracy, especially one as proud of its liberal heritage as Britain. 

Frankie is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Vladimir Morozov]