Protest rights

We must not let the government use the situation in Israel and Gaza to erode our civil liberties

Posted on 20 Oct 2023

The Government’s response to protests relating to Israel and Palestine is an attack on our fundamental right to stand up for what we believe in

Throughout history, people have gathered to mourn, express anger and demand change in response to devastating world events.

The ability to stand up for what we believe in is a fundamental right – one that all of us, no matter what causes are close to our hearts, hold dear. And it is essential to a healthy and functioning democracy.

But what we have seen in recent days from this government, in response to protests relating to Israel and Palestine, is an attack on that right.

It is a continuation of this government’s project to erode the ways in which we can make our voices heard.

Historically, governments in the UK, like others across the world, have used moments of crisis to launch attacks on all of our civil liberties – often starting with those who are already marginalised.

We saw this in response to 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings, with the creation of new and broad offences around ‘glorifying’ terrorism and the extension of the period for which terror suspects could be held without charge.

And we saw it during the Covid pandemic, with the police handed draconian new powers – which we now know were disproportionately used against people of colour.

Worryingly, it is happening again now – and it should concern all of us.

Last week, ahead of Saturday’s demonstration in support of Palestine, the Home Secretary published an extraordinary letter to police forces. In it, she sought to direct the police to abuse their powers in order to crack down on expressions of solidarity with Palestine – even going so far as to say that waving a Palestinian flag could be a criminal offence.

This was a gross overreach, so much so that the Metropolitan Police had to clarify that expressing support for Palestine, including waving a Palestinian flag, does not in itself constitute a criminal offence.

But in spite of this clarification, the Home Secretary’s words had a dangerous impact – sowing confusion about the law, creating uncertainty about what consequences people might face for taking to the streets, and discouraging people from making their voices heard for fear of arrest.

This wasn’t the only attempt to restrict and discourage protesters.

The night before the demonstration, the Metropolitan Police announced multiple conditions related to it. One of these would have prevented ‘any person participating in or associated with’ the protest from deviating from the route, or else they may face arrest.

This was a breathtakingly broad and vague condition.

In practice, the condition meant people faced the risk of being arrested if they left the route for any reason – like tending to an emergency, going to the toilet, or simply leave early.

The wide powers given to the police to restrict protest should sound alarm bells for us all.

On Wednesday evening, the police threatened people driving vans with images of Israeli children taken hostage with breach of the peace.

We may see the police imposing similar expansive conditions as further demonstrations are called in the coming weeks.

Some of this is in part due to the fact that the Home Secretary recently changed the definition of ‘serious disruption’ – the threshold which allows police to impose conditions on protests – to mean anything ‘more than minor’.

This effectively gives the police almost unlimited powers to shut down protests.

This measure was soundly rejected by parliament when the government tried to introduce it in the Public Order Act – but now the Home Secretary has simply introduced it through the back door using ‘secondary legislation.’

This is a shockingly undemocratic act and one we’re currently challenging through the courts.

Liberty stands against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. We are concerned that the harshest effects of the government’s clampdown on free expression will be felt by those who are already more likely to be targeted, harassed and surveiled by the state.

For example, there is a real worry that the discriminatory Prevent duty, which forces teachers, doctors and social workers to monitor and in some cases report the people they work with to the government, may be used to stop young people from having conversations about Israel and Gaza, as has happened in the past.

In 2016, for example, a schoolboy was questioned by counter-terror police at his home, after wearing a pro-Palestine badge and wristband at school.

Rights and community groups have long highlighted the disproportionate impact of the Prevent duty on Muslims, and we fear that this will only worsen.

More widely, the Government’s recent statements may serve to prevent people from speaking about Israel and Palestine altogether.

Protest is how we protect each other, safeguard our rights,  and ensure we can stand up against oppression and injustice.

Protest is also a vital safety valve, giving people an outlet for their emotions, whether about the climate, the cost-of-living crisis, or the situation in Israel and Gaza.

Now more than ever, as politicians seek to use fear and division to prevent people from speaking up and making our voices heard, holding on to that right is crucial.

In the days and weeks ahead, it’s vital that we don’t let the government exploit this crisis to strip our rights away further.

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