The Public Order Bill shows silencing dissent is the government’s number one priority right now
What’s the government’s first bill of the new Parliament? Something to tackle sky-high energy bills? Something to address the climate crisis? Something to address the NHS staffing crisis? Of course not.
It’s another piece of authoritarian anti-protest legislation to make it harder for us to protest their failure to do any of these things. It’s a clear sign that the government’s top priority is making it harder to protest the cost of living crisis and not helping people through it.
The Public Order Bill takes the attack on civil liberties we saw with the Policing, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Act one step further. In a show of their determination to attack our civil liberties, it is being steamrollered through, reviving the failed measures they attempted to sneak into the earlier Act – which were rightly thrown out by the Lords.
This Bill contains measures that would have banned the protests that won votes for women
As well as ramping up police powers to restrict protest and expanding discriminatory stop and search powers, it would introduce jail sentences and unlimited fines for demonstrating around national infrastructure like airports, railways and printing presses or “locking on” to buildings.
From the Abolitionists to the Suffragettes and the Chartists, our country’s rich tradition of dissent paved the pathway for the rights and freedoms we all enjoy today. Demonstrations and direct action are the reason that someone of my race, gender, and class has the rights I do. This Bill contains measures that would have banned the protests that won votes for women and trade unions.
The Public Order Bill seeks to stop people making their voices heard, disadvantaging our poorest and most marginalised communities. In doing so, the government is drawing another line in the sand between people who benefit from the political establishment and people who wish to question and challenge it.
The widespread opposition to the government’s first anti-protest bill showed that attacks on the right to protest are deeply harmful and unpopular. It is utterly shocking that the government is doubling down again.
This legislation would introduce new serious disruption prevention orders and extend stop and search powers, further entrenching racism in our criminal justice system rather than tackling it. Just last month, there was national outcry when it emerged that a Black teenager had been strip-searched by Metropolitan police officers at school after being falsely accused of carrying cannabis.
We’ve seen a string of revelations about the closely enmeshed racism and misogyny that still blight UK policing: from the abuse and strip-search of Dr Duff, the vile racism and misogyny uncovered in Charing Cross police station and the horrifying violence towards women at the Sarah Everard vigil in my constituency. It’s clearer than ever that women are not even safe from male violence – even from those tasked with protecting us.
Rather than listening and learning, the Tories keep pushing through attacks on civil liberties which will make this situation even worse.
The Bill specifically targets the activism of groups such as Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil, Insulate Britain, Kill the Bill, and the Black Lives Matter movement who have successfully used disruptive methods to draw attention to major injustices like the climate emergency, attacks on our civil liberties, and institutional racism. Instead of addressing these injustices, the government wants to stop people speaking out about them.
It follows a pattern of vocal government support for protest around the world whilst cracking down on the right to speak out in the UK. As Amnesty International points out, “these authoritarian provisions…are similar to repressive policies in countries the UK regularly criticises - including Russia, Hong Kong, and Belarus”.
Time and again, protest and activism have given a voice to the voiceless and dragged us into confronting vital issues. But the message from the government couldn’t be clearer: put up and shut up.
This attempt to criminalise dissent is a threat to everyone’s right to stand up for what they believe in and for anyone who believes in building a better society where nobody is left behind. We must defend our right to protest.
Bell Ribeiro-Addy is the Labour MP for Streatham.
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