Anti-racism / Protest rights

Our right to protest is more important than ever during lockdown

Posted on 12 Jun 2020

Recent moves by the Government to erode the right to protest and stifle dissent must stop

Protest is how we stand up to power, tackle injustice and protect our rights. It is a core pillar of our democracy. When we are side-lined and cut out of other routes to justice, protest is how we ensure our voices are heard.

But the right to protest is under threat.

In recent weeks thousands have headed to the streets to stand up against police brutality and systematic racism. They marched in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protests in the US and across the world sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands a police officer in Minneapolis.

Those who marched this weekend asserted the right to protest at a time when it is under grave and dangerous threat.

Not only have the authorities been using the lockdown laws to clamp down on protest. But on both days this weekend police kettled protestors for hours – an aggressive tactic in any situation which has long been used to stifle protest, and which in a pandemic is particularly alarming to see.

We should be alarmed by any heavy-handed or blanket restrictions that are used to undermine the right to protest

There have been reports that on both days police demanded personal details as a condition for letting anyone leave the confines of the kettle. If this is true, their actions were not only concerning – they were likely unlawful.

After protestors were kettled Liberty called on Met Commissioner Cressida Dick to ensure officers didn’t use these tactics again. But they did – the next night.

Any police or Government action that undermines the right to protest right is a dangerous step that threatens our liberty and democracy. That’s why we should be alarmed by any heavy-handed or blanket restrictions that are used to undermine the right to protest – even if they are introduced under the guise of protecting public health. While it is the Government’s responsibility to protect life, it is also its duty to protect and uphold the right to protest.

When a protest is about the failure of the state to protect our lives equally, using public health as a reason to stifle this protest is open hypocrisy.

At the heart of this protest was the call for an end to discriminatory policing and police brutality which is very real here in the UK. The police’s actions this weekend underline that need.

Since the protest Home and Health secretaries have already placed the target of blame for any future coronavirus spikes on protestors backs.

When this pandemic started, Government introduced sweeping police powers.

Liberty issued clear warning that these powers would harm people of colour, and this proved to be true as a recent Liberty Investigates’ report uncovered. Using the virus as a reason to oppress the right to speak out against the Government’s continued flawed policing policies is an insult and an injustice.

Throughout the pandemic the Government has avoided scrutiny and accountability at every turn. The lockdown regulations which the police have been using to restrict protest are not only unclear – they were bought in unnecessarily using emergency powers, and have not been given any scrutiny in Parliament. This is particularly alarming because these powers could be in place indefinitely.

Since the protest Home and Health secretaries have already placed the target of blame for any future coronavirus spikes on protestors backs. Something which has been swiftly followed by speculation of summer riots, and proposals to fast track prosecutions. There can be no mistake that the Government is laying the groundwork for even more aggressive policing of future protests and full stop.

There can be no mistake that the Government is laying the groundwork for even more aggressive policing of future protests and full stop.

The sad truth is that authoritarian attacks on protest are nothing new. Recent years have seen alarming moves to erode the right to protest and stifle dissent. It is time for that to stop.

It is the Government’s responsibility to ensure the right to protest right is protected and upheld – but that will not be achieved until the Prime Minister considers how the actions of his Government undermine the right to protest for all of us.

The work to uphold protest in Britain must start by curtailing the broad powers that are used to stifle protest and impose sanctions on people expressing dissent.

But it must also amend the Coronavirus Act and Coronavirus Regulations to include an explicit exception on the rules around gatherings to make clear that people can exercise their right to protest. Failing to make this exemption explicit was out of step with everything before it. Even the Civil Contingencies Act – one of our most authoritarian laws – makes allowance for strikes.

Liberty was founded in protest. We were created to protect this right from police repression. Since 1934 we have safeguarded this basic right and stood against any bid to curtail our rights. We will continue to uphold this right for everyone, to ensure that in the face of injustice and oppression, we can all have our voices heard and stand up to power.

Liberty is calling on the Government to:

  • Curtail sweeping powers handed to police under the Coronavirus Act and Coronavirus Regulations
  • Add an explicit exception to the rules on gatherings under the Coronavirus Regulations to make clear that people can exercise their right to protest

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