Get Organised to Defend Dissent

New Anti-Protest Laws from April 2022

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act introduces new powers for policing demonstrations, enabling police to clamp down even more on protests they deem “disruptive”.

Why Defending Dissent Matters Now

 

New sweeping anti-protest laws come into force from April 2022. Many of the new powers in the Act are poorly defined, with the Home Secretary having powers to regulate the meaning of “serious disruption”. In practice, the police themselves will often be able to decide when and how to impose conditions, opening the door for widespread abuse.

This means that protesters, especially if they are near a business or a public building, may find themselves facing threats of arrest in circumstances that they have not previously encountered.

It’s vital that we resist these new police powers. Netpol will support grassroots groups as they face these new police powers, working to provide information and resources and looking for ways to challenge the Act in the courts and on the streets.

A last-minute concession offered by the government, to ensure the Act was passed, was for the Home Secretary to “prepare and publish a report” on the way new powers are used.

Based on how so much of what emerges from the government is self-congratulatory propaganda, we have little faith a Home Secretary’s report on protests will be any different.

That is why, over the next two years, we need to build up our own body of evidence on the way police powers are misused and freedom of assembly rights are violated.

Netpol is monitoring the impact of new powers – and that’s where you come in.

Know Your Rights for everyone

New police powers were introduced primarily to disrupt and further criminalise campaigners who use direct action or civil disobedience tactics, which can mean something as simple as blocking a road.

This means groups who adopt these tactics need to ensure, before organising a protest, that they know what these changes to the law mean.

You may also want to arrange to have Legal Observers at your demonstration and have conversations in your group about what to do if someone is arrested.

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ACTION: Make sure you are fully briefed

What you can do:

Resisting police surveillance

There is a new label the police apply to campaigners – “aggravated activism” – that justifies intelligence gathering on groups associated with “unlawful behaviour or criminality” or that cause “an adverse economic impact to businesses”.

This is aimed squarely at protecting corporate and business interests against challenges from campaigners.

We need better protection for the members of our movements most likely to face such targeting – and a greater awareness of the basic security practices which can help us challenge police intelligence gathering.

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ACTION: Understand the surveillance threat

What you can do:

Challenging the use of police powers

This new Act is open to legal challenge, and Netpol will be monitoring the use of new police powers in England and Wales.

We need your stories and testimony to help us do this.

If the police attempt to use their new powers to impose noise restrictions during a demonstration or in advance, we want to know: at what point the noise is deemed excessive? Who will police officers target for arrest for noise they say causes disruption?

We also do not yet know how, in practice, protesters “ought to know” police have placed conditions on a protest that they can then be arrested for violating.

With ample evidence that the policing of protests organised by racialised communities is more often confrontational and likely to lead to arrests, we also need to highlight how the use of new powers reinforces institutionally racist assumptions about what is “disruptive” or “noisy”.

Please contact Netpol if you encounter noise conditions on your protest, are arrested under the new ‘public nuisance’ laws, or if you are told by police that they’re using Section 12 or 14 of the Public Order Act to put conditions on your protest.

To learn more about the new police powers, read a full briefing of the new Act.

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ACTION: help us challenge police powers

What you can do:

Keeping each other safe

While it’s not true that all protests will now become “illegal”, it is true that new police powers further criminalise protest – and the target of these new powers are likely to be movements using direct action and civil disobedience tactics.

With a huge amount of discretion allowed to the police in how they use these powers, we can expect to see the racism and prejudices of the police exposed once again. That’s why it’s vital that we support each other and are prepared to respond to police targeting with practical knowledge and solidarity.

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ACTION: offering solidarity

What you can do:

What’s the background to the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act?

The Act is a huge piece of legislation, and as well as targeting our right to protest it increases the criminalisation of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, and increases harsh measures in the criminal justice system which disproportionately effect Black and Brown communities.

Section 3 of the Act deals with protest related offences. Policing bodies had lobbied hard for years to gain new powers, and found a receptive audience with Home secretary Priti Patel, who referred to protesters as “vandals and thugs”. In March 2021, the government first introduced their draft Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill, which became an Act in April 2022.

The passage of the Act through Parliament – with new and ever more draconian amendments from the Tories, many of which were rejected by the Lords – shows ministers’ transparent desire to use the Act to attack and criminalise protest movements using direct action tactics.

What guidance will the police have about using their new powers?

When the police are given new powers, the first thing we see is the abuse of those powers. And previous experience shows that the police are quick to use any excuse to shut down protest.

We saw this in March 2021, when the National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) issued guidance that forces should shut down Kill The Bill protests and vigils in remembrance of Sarah Everard, claiming that public gatherings were banned. But one senior police officer at the time, in a rare moment of candour, told the Guardian: “We have discretion, we choose which laws we enforce and when.”

The decision to shut down protest was later ruled unlawful – and it kick started a powerful movement to Kill the Bill. Now, Netpol are concerned that no meaningful provisions are in place to protect our right to protest in the face of increasing police power, despite years of demanding clear guidance on how the police plan to protect human rights.

A Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights

Rather than continuing to ask the police for greater transparency and getting nowhere, we think it’s time we collectively started offering some solutions of our own. Netpol’s Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights sets out what people taking part in protests have the right to expect from the police. The Charter calls for:   

  • Proper protections – not more restrictions – for the right to protest. This includes an end to treating direct action and civil disobedience as an excuse to shut down protests completely.
  • An end to routine surveillance of protesters. This includes strict limitations on the use of police video recording, use of facial recognition, and surveillance of social media sites used by campaigners.
  • An end to the excessive use of force and the targeting of organisers for arrest, surveillance and punishment. Black-led protests in particular disproportionately face excessive and violent interventions by police.
  • An end to targeting the most vulnerable. The police have a particular duty to protect the rights of young people, vulnerable and disabled people wishing to exercise their rights to freedom of assembly.