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Authoritarian silencing of dissent

by
01 April 2021

A new Bill will have a chilling effect on the right to protest, says Holly-Anna Petersen

christian climate action

Ben Buse and the Revd Sue Parfitt, both members of Christian Climate Action, are removed by police as they block the entrance to the Palace of Westminster, during Extinction Rebellion protests, in September 2020

Ben Buse and the Revd Sue Parfitt, both members of Christian Climate Action, are removed by police as they block the entrance to the Palace of Westmin...

SOME of the greatest moments of human progress were won because of protest: the suffragettes, the civil-rights movement, the civil disobedience that helped to overthrow apartheid.

Allowing injustice to continue is easy, but working to challenge the status quo is hard — which is why it is horrible to watch the Government trying to rush through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which will have a chilling effect on the right to protest in Britain.

The Bill will criminalise activities that do nothing more than cause a single person serious “annoyance” or “unease”. It also forbids protests if the noise “may result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation” — which might rule out protests outside Parliament Square if the shouts happen to disturb MPs’ tranquillity in the Palace of Westminster.

Causing disruption to the powerful is usually the point of any protest, and is usually a fixture of any healthy democracy. And yet, speaking in support of the Bill in the Commons last week, the Conservative MP David Amess seemed to think that this authoritarian silencing of dissent was to be celebrated: “My office looks on to Parliament Square, and I have long complained about the endless demonstrations that take place.”

 

AS A founding member of Christian Climate Action, the Christians of Extinction Rebellion, I understand why the Government would like to prevent concerned citizens’ holding it to account for its actions. It is much easier to make grand promises than actually to deliver on them. Politicians are notorious for it.

The climate emergency is one issue on which it has taken public protest to bring about action that our leaders had promised but failed to take. In April 2019, concerned citizens of Extinction Rebellion brought parts of central London to a standstill (News, 18 April 2019). A few weeks later, Parliament declared a climate emergency, and, two months later, the Government signed into law the UK’s first ever net-zero emissions target. No doubt, when writing up the Bill, lawmakers had in mind the Black Lives Matter protests, which uncomfortably put the issue of racism front and centre, and which the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, described as “dreadful”.

The Government now seems adamant in clamping down on such freedom of expression. MPs and interested citizens were given just a week to read, digest, and interpret the 307-page Bill before it was put before a vote in Parliament — no doubt because the Government wished to avoid as much scrutiny as possible.

Sir Peter Fahy, a former Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, voiced concerns. Responding to the heavy-handed policing of the vigil of the murdered Sarah Everard (News, 19 March), he said: “This weekend has shown the crucial importance of the right to protest, and you’ve got to be really wary of more legislation being rushed through just because certain politicians didn’t like certain demonstrations in the summer.”

Along with the new sweeping powers given to police to criminalise protests over a certain volume, the Bill also hands remarkable new power to the Home Secretary, Priti Patel. The 1986 Public Order Act, which this Bill seeks to amend, states that police have powers over protests that cause “serious disruption”: a power that they used to arrest the Extinction Rebellion protesters. But the new legislation allows Ms Patel to “make provision about the meaning” of this phrase, effectively allowing her to change the meaning without parliamentary scrutiny.

In the Commons debate on the Bill on Monday of last week, it was Theresa May, a former Home Secretary, who pointed out the danger of such executive overreach: “It’s tempting when Home Secretary”, she said, “to think that giving powers to the Home Secretary is very reasonable, because we all think we’re reasonable. But, actually, future Home Secretaries may not be so reasonable.”

 

AS THE saying goes, the job of good journalism is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The same could be said for a good protest. But this Bill wants to kill off protests that might afflict the comfortable.

Outrage is a natural response to injustice. Protests themselves are acts of desperation: the final cry of those who are locked out of power and have nothing left but their voice and their liberty. It is this last cry of the voiceless which the Government is seeking to silence — literally.

As a Christian, I take inspiration from Jesus’s act of protest in the Temple, when, seeing the poor being exploited by the moneylenders, he upturned the moneylenders’ tables and chased them out with a whip. That certainly caused some disruption, and he would, no doubt, have been criminalised by this new Bill.

And, as a woman, I am grateful for the “seriously annoying” women who came before: the suffragists, who loudly helped to win my right to vote. They were, no doubt, quite a source of frustration to the powerful at the time, and would have caused plenty of “serious annoyance” — but thank God that they did.

The freedom to protest is at the heart of any well-functioning democracy. The Government should be ashamed of this Bill, and I hope that the parliamentary part of our democracy works to amend it heavily during the Committee Stage after Easter.

 

Holly-Anna Petersen is a mental-health therapist and a founding member of Christian Climate Action.

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