On Saturday 12 March hundreds of people gathered in central London in response to a call by activist group Sisters Uncut to protest against police violence, with the sound of 1,000 rape alarms detonating outside Charing Cross Police Station and echoed in the streets. Police officers stood by as the alarms blared, but once the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill becomes an Act, this kind of noisy action could result in limits on rights to protest and mass arrest for everyone refusing to comply with police restrictions.
Is this the sort of noisy protest the government intends to outlaw?
This week marks the anniversary of the vigils for Sarah Everard that kick-started the #KillTheBill movement. It’s worth taking a moment to revisit the context of that spring. Britain was in a ‘tier 4’ lockdown and police forces around the country had used health regulations to unlawfully declare protests and public assemblies were ‘banned’. The sweeping and controversial new PCSC Bill had just been announced, whilst news of Sarah Everard’s murder at the hands of a serving Metropolitan Police officer who had ‘arrested’ her for breaching COVID regulations was only a week old.
“Not in accordance with the law”
What then happened next should teach us valuable lessons about what might happen when the government’s anti-protest bill passes into law. When police stormed the bandstand at Clapham Common and arrested women holding a vigil for Everard, senior officers had already been told by a judge that coronavirus regulations, though vaguely worded, did not ban all protests. One senior police officer, in a rare moment of candour, told the Guardian before the vigil went ahead: “We have discretion, we choose which laws we enforce and when.”
Officers that night were not concerned with legal opinions, or thinking about human rights. As they arrested mourners at the vigil, their orders came from the very top of the Met’s hierarchy, whilst it was the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC), the body representing Britain’s policing leadership, who issued guidance to forces that they should not allow the vigils to go ahead.
Last week, a High Court ruling said these decisions were unlawful. Judges said that breaking up the protests on Clapham Common breached the Article 10 and 11 rights of the women involved, and one arrestee is suing the Met over their use of force. The ruling is clear:
“None of the [force’s] decisions was in accordance with the law; the evidence showed that the [force] failed to perform its legal duty to consider whether the claimants might have a reasonable excuse for holding the gathering.”
So would this protest be banned?
Leap ahead one year, and the PCSC Bill is threatening to place yet more vaguely-worded powers into the hands of the police – to use at their discretion. The government has reinserted the controversial noise clause back into the Bill after the House of Lords threw it out, allowing police to shut down protests which might cause “serious disruption to the activities of an organisation carried on in the vicinity or have a significant impact on people in the vicinity of the protest.”
So how noisy will be too noisy? We’ve been promised NPCC guidance for police officers on this, developed with organisations such as the College of Policing. As we’ve seen time and again, however, the NPCC have either failed to clearly explain how citizens’ right to protest are protecting or – as with the vigils – they’ve issued guidance that breaches human rights obligations.
Netpol has been fighting for years to get clear guidance issued that would offer some human rights protection. In the end, we’d waited so long that we wrote our own – you can read our Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights here. Despite lobbying, the National Police Chiefs Council have yet to comment on it.
In truth, it’s likely that whoever is in command of policing a protest will have the discretion to decide how and when to use their new powers. Theoretically, you might not even have to make noise to face restrictions on your rights – these conditions might be placed on protests in anticipation of them making noise, although quite how this will work is difficult to comprehend. We know Chief Constables will have the power to impose restrictions if they think noise thresholds – whatever those may be – might be breached at a given demonstration.
So what of Saturday’s Sisters Uncut protest? At the sound of 1,000 rape alarms and a rising tide of voices from the crowd outside their police station, what decision do you think the Met Police would make?