How ‘Kill the Bill’ Protests Have Reawakened Solidarity

The Covid-19 pandemic has been an isolating experience, but protests against the Police Crackdown Bill have shown the power of collective action – and the solidarity we need to build a better society.

The last few weeks have seen widespread anger against Priti Patel’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill. The backlash is directed above all at Part 3 of the legislation, which gives police forces broad authority to place restrictions on protests and public assembly.

Under previous UK legislation, police must show that a protest may cause ‘serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community’ before imposing any restrictions; under the new bill, police will be allowed to criminalise protests they believe constitute a ‘public nuisance’, including actions undertaken by just one individual.

Across the country, from Bristol to London, Glasgow, Penzance, and beyond, the public response has been vociferous. Demonstrations have attracted large and diverse crowds, and organisers seem to have faith that the movement is gaining momentum.

Those organisers are approaching this cause from a range of campaigning angles: they include feminist groups like Sisters Uncut, anti-racist groups like Black Lives Matter, labour groups like trade unions, and environmental groups like Extinction Rebellion – to name only a few. Less grassroots-based organisations like Liberty and Amnesty have also spoken out to criticise the bill and warn of its consequences.

Cambridge’s ‘Kill the Bill’ protest on 3 April was a microcosm of this cross-cause unity. The small but mighty crowd included representatives from Unison, Stand Up To Racism, Black Lives Matter, Gypsy and Traveller organisations, and trans rights organisations. The rally featured several impassioned speakers who referred to the need for groups to solidarise in order for the movement to grow.

One Labour councillor in attendance told Tribune: ‘We are here today to protest against this outrageous piece of legislation that’s going to ban the right of freedom of speech in public. This is an insult to British democracy.’ This sentiment was echoed by Dave Kennington, nurse and Co-Chair of the Addenbrookes Unison branch, who said: ‘The last year has been atrocious from a government point of view both in terms of ineptitude and corruption. This is a time when we need to concentrate on protesting to oppose everything that is happening right now. It’s no coincidence that they’ve chosen this particular point in time to crackdown on protest.’

Tom Woodcock from the National Education Union and Stand up to Racism reflected on the motives behind the crackdown. ‘This bill is an out and out attack on people who have been protesting in the last year, particularly around Black Lives Matter and climate change,’ he said. ‘It’s written all the way through the bill. They’re bringing in the bill because they’re petrified of resistance against what they’re doing now, against the impact of Covid, the challenge to systematic violence against woman and girls. They don’t want those struggles to link up and to form a response that can stop them from driving through cuts.

‘The answer is to do exactly what they do not want us to do,’ he continued. ‘When they say we should find another way of making our point, we must be clear that it’s through direct action, strike action, and protest that things actually change.’

A History of Solidarity

Britain has a long and proud history of solidarity action among those fighting state oppression, despite the ruling class’s best attempts to quash it. The 1984-5 Miners’ Strike is one of the most famous examples of how disparate organisations with varying political goals have come together in shared action.

The main strike started on 6 March 1984 with a walkout at Cortonwood Colliery, and other pits in South WalesYorkshireScotlandNorth East England, and Kent soon joined. The Thatcher government’s response was furious and relentless – a campaign not only to close the pits, but to crush the trade union movement that was standing in the way. Sinister tactics, including the deployment of secret services to infiltrate the NUM and the effective forced starvation of families of striking miners through cuts to state benefits became widespread.

But the miners were not the only ones suffering under the enforcement of the Thatcherite worldview. Members of the LGBT community famously came together to form Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), a group which fundraised to support mining communities and fostered deep relationships that continued well beyond the end of the strike. Miners also received support from activists from the Broadwater Farm Estate in Tottenham, where riots protesting the institutional racism of the police took place in October 1985.

In 1985, London-based Trinidadian activist and writer John La Rose wrote of the Miners’ Strike that ‘no single battle of the working class and people in Britain has aroused so much passion and attracted so much solidarity from black workers and the unemployed. What has struck us and won our admiration has been the courage, determination and heroism of the miners and their families, especially the women in their organisations.’ What held these groups together was the shared sentiment of being unjustly oppressed by the state and suffering brutality at the hands of its actors.

Divided We Fall

The Thatcherite project was above all one of individualism: if there is no such thing as society, solidarity is much harder to achieve. The consequences of this kind of atomisation have been made obvious by the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic, laying bare festering structural inequalities which prove that even if the oppressed do not stand together as a community, they still suffer as one.

And small acts of solidarity have defined the bottom-up response to the pandemic—from mutual aid and foodbanks to Marcus Rashford’s intervention on Tory school meals—even while the top-down response has been one guided by individual profiteering and greed. It’s in these circumstances that our collective stake in our rights to protest has been recognised: legal changes that quash one movement can and will quash them all.

After the initial spurt of protests in March, the PCSC Bill’s next step in the passage through parliament was pushed back on the schedule – a decision which demonstrates the power of coordinated, shared protest movements to affect what takes place in the Houses of Parliament. The Conservatives, it seems, may be about to discover something unexpected: that rather than stamping out protest nationwide, they have given solidarity in Britain a radical new lease of life.