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In Britain, the Left Is Resisting a Massive Expansion of Police Powers

A bill advanced by Boris Johnson’s government would give British police massive powers to criminalize protest and evade public scrutiny. But the “Kill the Bill” movement has mobilized impressive opposition against it — providing a first sign of the Left rebuilding after Jeremy Corbyn’s defeat.

Thousands of people attend a Kill The Bill demonstration as part of International Workers' Day on May 1, 2021 in London, United Kingdom. (Mark Kerrison / In Pictures via Getty Images)

Britain’s parliamentary left has been in a state of fragmentation following the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the December 2019 general election. The last eighteen months have seen the purging of socialists from the party under new leader Keir Starmer, with mass suspensions of members and efforts to block left candidates from standing on spurious and opaque grounds. Adding to this fragmentation, Starmer has kept Corbyn suspended from the parliamentary party since November 2020. Now, however, progressive and left-wing movements are coming together in protest against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill put forward by the Tories in March.

Starmer’s Labour Party has, until recently, taken a conciliatory approach to the Conservatives’ bill, which would, among other things, increase the ability of the police to suppress and control many different forms of free assembly. Meanwhile, Britain’s billionaire-owned media has done its usual job of spreading misinformation on the political situation around the bill, demonizing the groups who do not want to see it passed.

In the face of this intense hostility, a diverse cross-section of left-wing movements and other citizens’ rights and environmental groups have organized throughout the country. Demonstrations against the bill have erupted all over Britain in the last six weeks, building to a massive day of action last Saturday, May Day, when thousands took to the streets in protest.

Police Violence

These protests began days after the PCSC Bill was introduced in Parliament on March 9. While the bill had been rushed through for debate, a police riot during a vigil for a murder victim soon ignited protest against the planned legislation. On March 12, after a member of the Metropolitan Police, Wayne Couzens, had been arrested and charged for the kidnapping and murder of thirty-three-year-old Sarah Everard, thousands gathered on London’s Clapham Common in her memory. Yet the vigil for Everard was violently shut down by police, and videos of attendees being assaulted and dragged from the site went viral. Over the following five days, the abolitionist feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut helped organize demonstrations against the PCSC Bill around Britain, attended by thousands. On March 17, the newly scrutinized bill, which was set to be debated on March 19, was delayed until June.

Jasmine Ahmed, a representative from Sisters Uncut, told me that the police violence at the Everard vigil “solidified what we knew, which was that the police are not there to protect us and that the police are state violence, and the police will protect each other.” The sight of violent arrests at a vigil for a murdered woman gave organizers the opportunity to highlight the dangers of the PCSC Bill and its increase in police powers.

With the bill’s progress through parliament delayed, protests against it have continued to bring thousands into the street across Britain, with some of the biggest rallies occurring in London and Bristol. The protests have been accompanied by police violence as well as the arrest of legal observers. Through the protests, grassroots activist groups, civil rights groups, left-wing parliamentary organizations, and some trade union contingents have been building a solidarity movement that could be the best hope for the British left since Corbyn rose to the Labour leadership. Ahmed of Sisters Uncut told me, “Because the bill impacts so many different communities, alliances have been built in resistance.” Emboldened by their majority in Parliament, the Tories’ latest rush to sweep away civil rights has had the unintended consequence of building a new bridge of solidarity across the Left.

The powerful response to the police violence at the vigil for Sarah Everard has put the right to protest at the heart of the “Kill the Bill” movement. The bill would allow police to set start and finish times for protests. It would give them leeway in criminalizing protests that they deem to be a nuisance to the public. Under the bill, police would be able to control the actions of just one person by calling their public activity a protest. It would allow protesters to be fined for not following protesting rules that police believe that they “ought” to have known, even if they had not been expressly told of those rules. At present, police have to tell protesters, for instance, that they need to move on from a place where they are rallying, before officers can claim that they are breaking the law and take actions against them. Under the PCSC Bill, police could move in and make arrests and give out fines without warning.

COVID-19 lockdown restrictions have already given a taste of what a curtailed right to protest would be like. Until March, automatic £10,000 fines were given out to protesters for breaking quarantine measures. The restrictions on protest in the PCSC Bill would help to institutionalize the COVID-era criminalization of protest in British law. Recognizing that the bill’s restrictions on the right to assembly would endanger their ability to picket, a few trade unions, including the Communication Workers Union and the University and College Union, have now begun to speak up in protest of the bill or have sent contingents into marches and rallies.

Criminalizing Travelers

The PCSC Bill’s criminalization of peaceful gatherings extends beyond the right to protest, covering a variety of other forms of public assembly. The bill would create a new law making it illegal to reside on land without prior consent. Police would be able to remove anyone they determined were making an “unauthorized encampment,” fine them, arrest them, and seize their possessions. This provision is a direct attack on the Roma and Irish Traveller populations, who are still living a nomadic way of life. Roma people and Travellers, who are some of the most impoverished in Britain, and among the most frequently imprisoned, often serve as scapegoats for rural districts looking to paint over the most visible signs of poverty in their communities. The PCSC Bill would remove their historic right to trespass and transform this traditionally nomadic way of life into an illegal form of homelessness.

Luke Smith, a representative from GRT Socialists, a group that describes itself as a campaign that “fights for the welfare, equality and representation of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities” spoke to me about the bill’s provisions against trespass. He sees the bill as an attempt to destroy not just a way of life but also the cultural memory of Romani people and Irish Travellers.

What they’re proposing is three-month prison sentences, £2,500 fines, the seizure of assets and goods to pay for cleanup, and on the back of those three things is that, obviously, if you put a kid’s parents in prison for three months, then where do the children go? They get taken into the care system, they get forcibly adopted, and people come along and pretend those children aren’t Gypsy and Traveller, and they’ll give them to families that are not from our community. They won’t tell the children. It’s a way of forcibly assimilating people.

A number of organizers protesting the PCSC Bill see the participation of Roma and Traveller communities as vital to coalition building — and as representative of the broad inclusivity of their movement as a whole. Although few in number, the inclusion of members of this community is viewed by “Kill the Bill” organizers as a powerful representation of the many populations who would be affected by the bill, and whose poverty and marginalization has so far prevented them from taking part in political action.

Uniting the Resistance

Sisters Uncut, who continue to lead in the grassroots coalition-building efforts to “Kill the Bill,” have repeatedly made the argument for shared struggle among these marginalized groups. In their May Day announcement, they write, “If this police powers bill becomes law, we will see even more police violence — against people who speak up against injustice, and specifically against Black, Muslim and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.”

The feminist direct action group for survivors of domestic violence points out the damage that extended prison sentences can do to families, often leading to exactly the kind of violence the government’s supporters claim the PCSC bill is trying to prevent. Jasmine Ahmed told me, “The approach to take longer sentences is often pitched as being good for survivors, but actually, over half the people in women’s prisons are survivors of domestic violence themselves . . . When family members are having to spend longer in prison, that might mean that a parent and a child are left more vulnerable at home to poverty and to violence in other kinds of ways.”

The inclusion in the PCSC Bill of lengthened prison sentences and increased policing and stop and search powers has allowed the Kill the Bill protest movement to dovetail with Black Lives Matter and the nascent prison abolitionist movement. Ahmed told me, “This bill comes in a context of the government trying to build at least six mega prisons across the country since 2016. They are trying to fill those prisons rather than putting resources into the welfare state to bring people out of poverty.” The United Kingdom already has the largest prison population in Western Europe, and the new bill would potentially add thousands to that population. Black and brown communities, who are already disproportionately impacted by the criminal legal system in Britain, would be further policed and criminalized as a result of the PCSC Bill.

Adam Elliott-Cooper, a representative of Black Lives Matter UK (BLM UK), told me in a recent interview that the bill is “being used in an almost explicitly racialized manner not only through the criminalization of Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities, but also in the ways in which it seeks to target’ ‘gangs,’ which are a category of crime associated with black communities in Britain by the state and particularly by police.”

Spy Cops

The PCSC Bill comes in the context of a series of bills that have been run through Parliament which are gradually eroding the Human Rights Act of 1998. This includes the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Act, known as the “Spy Cops” bill, which allows British undercover agents to commit criminal offenses with impunity. Sonali Bhattacharyya, a representative of Momentum, the socialist Labour Party pressure group, told me in a recent interview, “We can see from the direction of travel from the Tories’ ideology that they’re trying to preemptively suppress dissent ahead of introducing increasingly authoritarian measures.” The “Spy Cops” bill and the PCSC Bill can be used to chip away at the Human Rights Act before it, too, could get repealed by the current government.

With a large Tory majority in Parliament, the behemoth 300-page PCSC Bill is expected to become law. While Kill the Bill organizers are cautiously hopeful that the protests could have an impact between now and the bill’s return to Parliament on June 24, its passage is almost certain.

The Labour Party was set to abstain on the bill, as they did on the “Spy Cops” bill, which passed in the House of Commons in October 2020. Labour leader Keir Starmer, the former Director of Public Prosecutions — who recently criticized the Tories for cutting police budgets — attempted to rebrand Labour as the law-and-order party ahead of the May 6 local elections. It was only after the police riot at the vigil for Sarah Everard that Labour announced it would be voting against the PCSC Bill.

However, even if Labour did throw its full weight behind killing the bill, it is unlikely that enough Tory MPs will join them to defeat it. With the legislation more or less set to pass, the protest movement against it takes on a qualitatively different character. The overarching purpose of the Kill the Bill movement — its coalition building and mainstreaming of abolitionist politics — is to construct and solidify a left-wing movement in the UK. Elliott-Cooper of BLM UK told me, “What we’re aiming for is to make this bill unenforceable, to make us, as a people, ungovernable under this particular legislation.”

Unenforceable

The strengthening of an extraparliamentary grassroots left wing, the coalition currently being built by groups like Sisters Uncut, could be the key to ensuring that the PCSC Bill is unenforceable if it becomes law. Deborah Hermanns of Momentum told me:

A lot of the protests across the country were led by small grassroots groups, so there’s been an effort to build a broader, society-wide coalition involving trade unions, civil rights organizations, and the parliamentary left as well. We sit at that intersection a bit between the movements — the trade unions, the parliamentary left — so what we’ve been trying to do is use our contacts to connect people and help build that coalition.

The Momentum representatives I spoke with see the PCSC Bill as an attempt to stymie the potential of the growing Left: a movement that has grown in the last five years under the influence of the Corbyn leadership.

Uniting around this shared decarceral struggle, and uniting the grassroots left around abolitionist politics, as was done in the United States in summer 2020, has the potential to unite a left wing that was fragmented by the defeat of Corbyn’s Labour Party in 2019. The more people who can be brought into the movement to violate the terms of the PCSC Bill, should it pass, the less likely it can be enforced and lay the groundwork for the further dismantling of the Left and of human rights in Britain and by British agents abroad.

Signs that the bill will be unenforceable were everywhere on May Day, as thousands took to the streets in a massive national day of action in protest of the bill. More than forty separate demonstrations were planned around the country. The coalition marching included Sisters Uncut, BLM UK, and Extinction Rebellion UK. They marched alongside union contingents, local community groups, and left Labour Party members. May Day’s demonstrations give us a taste of what the Left is capable of when it works together to fight against a common threat. These protests are a hopeful sign that these coalitions can hold together after the Kill the Bill demonstrations fade from the public eye.