The Metropolitan police took ‘swift’ action on 6 May to shut down protests at the coronation of king Charles, in a series of arrests that showed how little the idea of ‘policing by consent’ now means in practice.
In a classic example of why negotiating with police is fraught with risk, weeks of ‘dialogue’ in advance of the coronation by the campaign group Republic failed to prevent the immediate arrests of several of its members who were accused of having equipment used to lock-on. [‘Locking-on’ happens when protesters attach themselves to other people, objects, or buildings as part of their protest – ed]
Another police sweep resulted in the arrest of volunteers with ‘Night Stars’, a Westminster council group who distribute free rape alarms and safety information to women. Over the coronation weekend, a total of 52 people were arrested on protest- related charges.
“In order to build a case for imposing banning orders, officers will gather intelligence on hundreds of people”
Sections of the new Public Order Act were rushed into force to give police additional powers to deal with anti-monarchist protesters, but police paranoia around royal events is nothing new. We saw similar paranoid repression during the royal wedding in 2011, when protesters dressed as zombies were arrested for breach of the peace.
Many fear that new police powers will mean protest is now illegal. This is not (yet) true....
Police repression will come as no surprise to those whose communities have faced decades of harassment. But the Tory party’s vitriol against ‘disruptive’ protest is adding new fuel to the fire – and we have to resist the narrative that ‘good’ (quiet) protest is still lawful while ‘bad’ (direct action) protests must be criminalised.
With a huge level of discretion granted to the police to use expansive powers, we can expect to see the prejudices of the police exposed once again, not least the Met’s institutional racism that led to such a violent police response to Black Lives Matter demonstrators in 2020. That’s why it’s vital that we support each other and are prepared to respond to police targeting with practical knowledge and solidarity.
The government has sought to restrict the right to so-called ‘disruptive’ protest in three ways. Firstly, ministers want to severely narrow the idea of what is ‘acceptable’ disruption that inevitably results from protests, to mean only the most minor inconveniences are considered legitimate.
Secondly, they are expanding police powers to offer senior officers what they might potentially find useful at some point, rather than on what is genuinely reasonable or proportionate (the standard for human rights compliance).
Thirdly, they are introducing new laws to criminalise the methods by which serious disruption might potentially take place, rather than focusing on the actual degree of disruption a protest could lead to.
In all cases, the importance of fundamental rights to freedom of assembly have been almost completely ignored.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 was the starting point: it enables the police to limit protests based on a vaguely-worded and highly- subjective decision about whether they were too noisy.
It is significant that over the last year, this power has not yet been used. Instead, the police have relied heavily on another part of the new legislation, the revised offence of ‘public nuisance’. This was hardly ever used against protesters in the past but is now more often the preferred charge, instead of ‘obstruction of the highway’, for blocking roads.
This is because it has proven the most convenient way to shut down protests. Usually, this involves little thought about the so-called ‘balance’ between demonstrators and the rights of others and it has enabled the detention in prison of a record number of campaigners, the largest number in decades.
The new Public Order Act (POA), meanwhile, creates a number of new offences related to disruption, particularly when directed against business or corporate interests. These include ‘obstruction of major transport works’ like road building or ‘interference with key infrastructure’ such as oil or gas exploration – had the law been in place before, it would undoubtedly have applied to protests at fracking sites. The Act also creates a new criminal offence of ‘locking-on’ to another person or an object as part of direct action or civil disobedience tactics.
There was already wide- ranging public order legislation in place. Why create new offences?
Primarily this is because they carry much tougher sentences on conviction, including imprisonment. It is also easier to convince a court to remand detainees or impose restrictive bail conditions. However, it also helps to justify the introduction of new police powers to stop and search anyone suspected of going to commit an offence of obstructing the highway, or public nuisance, or any of the new offences in the POA.
The greater severity of new offences also provides a pretext for targeting a few key organisers with another alarming part of the POA – Serious Disruption Prevention Orders. These are essentially anti-protest banning orders that can prevent an individual from associating with named others, going to certain areas or attending protests. It may mean anyone who has an order imposed on them is required to wear an electronic ankle tag as part of its enforcement.
These are civil orders, so courts will be able to decide, on the balance of probabilities (the civil standard of proof, not ‘beyond reasonable doubt’), that an individual is likely to cause disruption – based solely on intelligence from the police.
In 2019, at a ‘protest round table’, the Home Office said police had identified ‘circa thirty environmental activists who travel the country orchestrating protests and taking direct action’ as the likely targets for new banning orders – a small number of largely pacifist protesters, although the number has most likely grown since then. We do not know exactly how many, because the police say it will cost too much money to provide Netpol with a figure.
In order to build a case for imposing banning orders, officers will seek to gather intelligence on hundreds of people in the movements their targets are part of, on the people they know and on the places they work, even if they personally have never committed any kind of unlawful activity.
So on top of new, more severe offences and even more new police powers, the Public Order Act represents a massive increase in police surveillance.
None of this means that protest is now illegal, but it has become a lot more uncertain.
This is why Netpol’s priorities are much less on the passage of legislation through parliament or efforts to amend government bills and instead are focused on creating the conditions to challenge the spread of uncertainty once new laws are passed. As campaigners and as movements, we can all help to do this, in four ways.
Firstly, by making sure everyone knows their rights – because knowing what powers the police have gives people enormous confidence to challenge their misuse on the streets.
Secondly, by resisting police surveillance – which means better protection for the members of our movements most likely to face such targeting and a greater awareness of the basic security practices which can help us challenge police intelligence gathering.
Thirdly, by getting better at offering more practical solidarity – so trying to avoid seeing ourselves in isolation from other campaigns and understanding that the threat of oppressive policing falls on all of us, so we had better start offering solidarity to each other, even if we disagree on tactics.
Finally, it means monitoring what is happening around the country. Netpol needs your help to know when new powers are used and in what circumstances, so we can build a case for why we believe that they exist primarily to disrupt and further criminalise the right to dissent.