Protest rights

Protest isn’t a gift from the State – it’s our fundamental right. But not content with its new Policing Act which gives police even more powers to shut down protests, the Government is attempting to further criminalise people for taking to the streets with its Public Order Bill.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

Protest is fundamental to democracy and has a long, proud history in the UK. But it has often come under threat.

Liberty was founded in 1934 after police threatened the protest rights of demonstrators on the National Hunger March. And still today, a raft of tactics are undermining your right to protest.

In recent years, the police have targeted some protesters with facial recognition surveillance technology. Liberty client Ed Bridges was scanned by facial recognition cameras at a peaceful Anti-Arms Fair protest in Cardiff.

People belonging to some protest groups have been considered extremists and added to counter-terror lists.

And people arrested at protests have faced the possibility of hugely disproportionate prison sentences that go far beyond fair consequences for their actions.

During the pandemic, police forces have wrongly claimed the COVID regulations placed a blanket ban on all protests, and have arrested and fined hundreds of people for demonstrating against injustice.

They have even arrested Legal Observers who act as independent witnesses to police behaviour at protests to help ensure people’s rights are respected. This is a shameful tactic to deter people from taking to the streets.

In April, the Government passed the Policing Act which gave police more powers to shut down ‘seriously disruptive’ protests – a term that can be defined and re-defined by the Home Secretary to stop demonstrations the powerful don’t like.

Thanks to an enormous national movement against it, the House of Lords stripped some of the worst anti-protest proposals out of the Policing Act before it became law.

But the Government is now resurrecting its rejected plans with the Public Order Bill.

WHY SHOULD WE BE CONCERNED?

Protest empowers communities to stand up to injustice, influence decision makers and play an active part in democracy between elections.

And throughout history civil disobedience has been vital to safeguarding our democracy and securing our rights – from women’s right to vote, to the right to be protected from discrimination.

Heavy-handed crackdowns on protest grind democracy to a halt and violate our fundamental human rights.

The Policing Act, and now the Public Order Bill strike at the heart of protest. Already rejected by the people and Parliament, the Public Order Bill is re-proposing:

  • A new offence of ‘locking on’ – attaching yourself, another person or an object to anything else – a tactic synonymous with the Suffragettes. ‘Attach’ isn’t defined, so could potentially mean anything from using superglue to weighing down balloons to linking arms.
  • New offences of ‘interfering with key national infrastructure’ – essentially meaning an offence of protesting at sites of power – and doing anything at all that might ‘obstruct’ transport works.
  • Expanding stop and search – which is disproportionately used against Black people – to allow police to stop and search people and vehicles for, and then confiscate, any items that could be used to commit the new offences. So really any protest-related item.
  • Protest banning orders that can be issued even if you haven’t committed an offence. They can include electronic tagging and prohibit you going to certain places, meeting certain people, and even using the internet. This aims to devastate movements and political communities.

These proposals risk criminalising anyone who takes to the streets for a cause they believe in, from racial justice campaigners to grieving families looking for answers and justice.

It’s another part of the Government’s plan to hide from accountability for its actions and make itself untouchable.

WHAT IS LIBERTY DOING ABOUT IT?

Liberty has a proud history of defending the right to protest.

From our formation in response to police violence against Hunger March protestors to intervening in legal cases where demonstrators have been handed disproportionate prison sentences and taking on Public Spaces Protection Orders that make it more difficult for people to hold local demos, we will always stand up for protest.

We worked with a vast coalition of human rights organisations, charities, protest groups, lawyers, academics, grassroots activists and campaigners to defeat these proposals before. And we can defeat them again.

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