Thousands of protesters marched in Britain on Saturday to protest a massive new police bill that would create new restrictions on protests in England and Wales and impose heavy fines for not following police instructions.
The bill, officially known as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, was introduced in early March and has since faced widespread pushback in England and Wales. It also includes judicial and sentencing reforms, among other changes, but protesters are specifically outraged by the proposed new police powers in connection with the protests.
If the bill passes, according to the BBC’s Dominic Casciani, the police will have the authority to impose start and end times for protests, as well as noise limits, even if there is only one person protesting.
Furthermore, writes Casciani, the bill would criminalize violation of restrictions that protesters “should have known, even if they have not received a direct order from an officer” and “intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance.”
According to Labor MP Jeremy Corbyn, a former party leader, the bill “effectively criminalizes peaceful protest.”
“The right to protest is at the heart of a democratic society,” Corbyn said in a video Friday. “It is part of who we are. And together we will defeat Boris Johnson’s dangerous proposal to ban protests. “
This weekend’s “kill the bill” marches are not the first. According to The Guardian, Bristol, in south-west England, has been the scene of at least five protests in the past two weeks, including one that turned violent and saw at least two police vehicles set on fire in early March.
Nothing of the same scale has been reported so far on Saturday, but according to Sky News, at least 26 protesters have been arrested in London following a clash with police.
The UK is in the middle of its own debate on policing
As the New York Times explained late last month, the bill comes at a sensitive time in the UK. The abduction and murder of Sarah Everard in London last month, and the subsequent reprimand of a vigil honoring Everard for violating Covid-19 restrictions, have sparked a debate about the role of police at the front and center of the United Kingdom.
A London police officer, from the same police force that disrupted the vigil, has been charged with Everard’s murder.
The country also saw its own Black Lives Matter movement last summer after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Protesters from across the UK took to the streets to protest against racism, inequality and police brutality, and in Bristol, a crowd knocked down a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston and dumped him into the harbor.
In London, a statue of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill was also painted over the summer.
Bristol, England – Protesters toppled a statue of Edward Colston, a 17th century slave trader, and dumped it into the harbor. It has been recovered and will be placed in a museum 4 / pic.twitter.com/ZZ5rPst6YZ
– Reuters (@Reuters) June 12, 2020
A provision in the police bill currently before Parliament specifically increases the penalty for damaging these statues. According to the BBC, the measure “clarifies that damage to memorials could lead to up to 10 years in prison.”
In response to that provision and Everard’s murder, “kill the bill” protesters have marched with signs that read “10 years to protest, 5 years to rape,” according to The Guardian. On Saturday, according to the AP, protesters chanted “Scared women everywhere, the police and the government don’t care!”
Despite the protests, the bill has advanced in the UK Parliament with the backing of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party. In mid-March, he passed his first vote in the House of Commons, 359 votes to 263, and the measure was advanced to the committee.
According to the New York Times, the Conservative government hoped to take advantage of outrage over Everard’s death to pass the bill, but recent opposition appears to have changed that. The committee’s process has reportedly been delayed until the end of the year, the Times reports, as protests and criticism from the Labor opposition continue.
“The tragic death of Sarah Everard has instigated a national demand for action to address violence against women,” David Lammy, a Labor MP and shadow secretary of state for justice, said in March. “This is no time to rush into ill-thought-out measures to impose disproportionate controls on freedom of expression and the right to protest.”