New powers to clamp down on protesters and demonstrations “come from a place of fear” and have to be opposed “if we are moral citizens of good conscience”, a local campaigner has said.
East Cheshire animal rights advocate and environmentalist Jane Smith, an Alsager town councillor, was speaking after the introduction last week of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022.
The law has been toughened up following protests by climate action groups Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain because “in recent years, certain tactics used by some protesters have caused a disproportionate impact on the hardworking majority seeking to go about their everyday lives” the policy document said, giving examples such as “halting public transport networks, obstructing roads, blocking ambulances from reaching hospitals” and “preventing hundreds of hard-working people from getting to their jobs”.
It added that during summer 2020, 172 Metropolitan Police officers were assaulted by a “violent minority” during the BLM protests and that police made almost 1,000 arrests related in Insulate Britain’s protests.
But Coun Smith, who represents the Animal Welfare Party and who has organised protests against the Government’s badger cull scheme in east Cheshire and joined a demonstration at the COP UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow last autumn, described the Bill as a “legislative assault on our right to protest” and was “shocked at how easy it can be to lose very hard-fought freedoms overnight”.
Coun Smith told the Chronicle: “When our deepest-held views are not represented by candidates on the ballot paper, which means that elected politicians will never speak for us, we have to do these things ourselves.
“Protest is already a desperate act, often physically and emotionally risky, and now it stands to be criminalised by this Government.”
The Act will allow for a broadening of the range of circumstances in which police may impose conditions on a protest, including a single person protest, to include where noise may cause a significant impact on those in the vicinity or serious disruption to the running of an organisation.
Serious disruption to the activities of an organisation is defined as including where it may result in people connected with the organisation not being reasonably able, for a prolonged period, to carry out their activities within the vicinity of a protest.
But the policy paper said the measures would not ban protestors from being too noisy.
It said: “The police will only be able to impose conditions on unjustifiably noisy protests that cause harm to others or prevent an organisation from operating. The threshold for being able to impose conditions on noisy protests will be appropriately high. Police will only use it in cases where it is deemed necessary and proportionate.”
Last Tuesday, the day the Act came into effect, placard waving Brexit protester Steve Bray, regularly seen in the background of television broadcasts outside Parliament playing loud music, was reminded by police officers of what the new legislation meant.
They showed him maps of where he could and couldn’t make a noisy protest.
He vowed to carry on despite the “North Korean” law, the BBC reported.
“If you can’t be seen and you can’t be heard, what’s the point of the protest?” said Mr Bray.
Coun Smith echoed those sentiments: “MPs are supposed to keep a check on the health of our democracy, not curtail it. Most Parliamentarians are sleeping on the job, swollen with self-interest, at this unprecedented time when crucial freedoms are at stake.”
She added: “Telling the truth seems such a simple thing, as does standing with a placard or marching through a town centre. But these are simple things that this Government fears, because personal and collective truth-telling through protest really does help create real change.
“The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill comes from a place of fear, but its impacts would be huge, and we have to oppose it if we are moral citizens of good conscience.”
According to Coun Smith, the Bill will undermine “not only my right to protest but also my deepest identity as an Earth citizen because I think it’s not only our right but our duty to speak up for the one planet any of us can call home, when governments and corporations destroy it for commercial gain.” She said: “As activists, we already answer to higher laws, because much of what we oppose is destruction that’s legally sanctioned by the Government – the badger cull, for example, or ancient woodland lost to HS2.”
“Frighteningly,” added Coun Smith, the Bill also “seeks to demonise an entire ethnic minority”.
She explained: “Years ago the Government mandated that Travellers, Gypsies and Roma may only stopover in designated sites. Many of those sites are immediately next to waste tips, food processing plants and motorways.
“Traveller babies on many designated sites are forced to grow up breathing polluted air of such poor quality that it wouldn’t be acceptable to anyone anywhere.
“This Bill proposes to arrest and imprison travelling people who stop in undesignated places, and to confiscate their homes – criminalising the very families who are suffering from a lack of suitable sites. This is a deliberate attack on an already vulnerable minority, and we shouldn’t allow this to happen to anyone.”
MP Fiona Bruce has also criticised the new law, although she voted with the Government.
Speaking last year she said freedom of assembly and speech were fundamental rights that “are hard won but easily lost”, said, expressing concern about the-then Bill.
The MP, special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, found herself criticising her own Government for proposing a law that could curtail protests based on religious belief, siding with those on the left who fear the Bill could limit the freedom of speech and protest in this country.
“Allowing the police to issue conditions on one-person protests, rather than the current two, potentially brings into scope street preachers,” she said, though she added that prosecutions against street preachers, “invariably failed” due to falling foul of freedom of speech rights.
She added: “Without amendment, the Bill could increase police apprehension of otherwise lawful speech and could have a profoundly chilling effect on free speech more widely.”