On May Day in 1994, over 20,000 people gathered in London to protest. It was the first of three major demos in the city, organised to oppose the Criminal Justice Bill: a bill which sought to redefine trespass, and give police more powers to deal with public-order crimes. Protesters, squatters, ravers, and nomads took to the streets as one, to defend their rights to live safely and without fear on the fringes of an increasingly harsh and intolerant society.
27 years on, public order, protest, and trespass have once again bubbled to the surface of the political agenda and spilled into public discourse. Sparking widespread reprisal, the now infamous Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill seeks to amend the 1986 Public Order Act to give the police more powers to tackle ‘disruptive protests’ and to amend the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (the outcome of the Criminal Justice Bill) with regard to unlawful trespass and ‘unauthorised encampments’.
The laws that the PCSC Bill seeks to ‘amend’—or in other words, bolster with even more draconian powers—are almost just as bad as the PCSC Bill itself. It’s important to acknowledge that they have their own histories, oppressive raisons d’etres, and stories of resistance.
The Public Order Act
The 1986 Public Order Act was a knee-jerk response to the tumultuous era of civil unrest in 1980s Britain, including the Brixton riots of ’81 and the miners’ strikes of ’84 and ’85 – in particular, the Battle of Orgreave in June 1984.
The act imposed new conditions on public assemblies, including protests, in order ‘to prevent serious public disorder, serious criminal damage or serious disruption to the life of the community’. These conditions include specifications on the number of people taking part, and the length and location of the protest. If these conditions aren’t met, or individuals taking part disregard the conditions, the police have the powers to arrest them.
In Section 39, it also gave police new powers to clamp down on Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller (GRT) communities and their homes (termed ‘unauthorised encampments’). It stipulated that if two or more people were trespassing on land with the intent to reside, and have already been asked to leave by the landowner, the police have the power to evict them if they have either caused damage to the land, or have twelve or more vehicles with them. If the police are met with defiance, they then have the power to make arrests and seize vehicles.
As the late ’80s rolled into the early ’90s, the Home Office’s attention turned to the booming UK rave and free party scene, as police were struggling to control the growing number of unlicensed outdoor events and the itinerant communities associated with them.
The last straw was Castlemorton Common Festival in May 1992 – ‘the rave that ended all raves’. When 20,000 hippies, New Age Travellers, and ravers arrived on the Common, for what would be the largest unlicensed event of its kind, it was already too late for the police to make their move. Preemptive powers were needed: cue the Criminal Justice Bill.
The Criminal Justice Act
Brewed for several years in the Home Office, the details of the much-anticipated Criminal Justice Bill were announced at the 1993 Tory Party conference by then Home Secretary Michael Howard.
Part V of the bill was titled Public Order: Collective Trespass or Nuisance on Land. It included sections which specifically addressed raves (63 and 65), famously giving police powers to shut down gatherings of more than twenty people where music characterised by the ‘emission of a succession of repetitive beats’ was played. Section 69 also gave police powers to stop people who were thought to be on their way to ‘commit trespass’.
Sections 77-78 gave more powers to local authorities to deal with unauthorised encampments, and Section 61 gave police powers to carry out evictions if trespassers had six or more vehicles with them (reduced from twelve in the 1986 POA). To add salt to the wound, Section 80 of the bill even repealed the duty of local councils to provide sites for GRT communities, withdrawing all grant aid for their provision.
Perhaps most unnerving of all—not only for its scope, but for the precedent set in law—was Section 68, which drafted a new definition of ‘aggravated trespass’.
This clause redefined trespass, codifying aggravated trespass as a criminal offence. It meant that if anyone was trespassing on land which wasn’t theirs, and they were deemed to be intentionally intimidating, obstructing, or disrupting any ‘lawful’ activity happening on that land, they would be committing a crime. The looseness of the definition left it worryingly open to interpretation, threatening the lifeways of already-vulnerable GRT communities, plus the activities of environmental protestors, hunt-saboteurs, squatters, ravers, and ramblers alike.
The Criminal Justice Bill was predictably met with fervent resistance. With no internet, the rave and free party scene formed the basis for spreading information through leaflets and posters, and squatted buildings became hubs for organising, including ‘New Squatland Yard’, where anti-CJB activists squatted the Artillery Mansions building in Westminster in February 1994.
As mentioned, awareness-raising and campaigning culminated in three major protests which took place in London. The first was organised for May Day 1994 by Advance Party, a collective linked to the free party scene. As resistance grew and the message spread, the Freedom Network—a much larger network of squatters, travellers, hunt sabs, and protesters—organised a second demo on 24 July, with up to 50,000 peaceful demonstrators turning up to the march, with minimal police repression.
However, the final demo, which took place on 9 October that year and drew a crowd of 100,000 supporters, ended in police violence. As one young woman who joined the march recalled in VICE: ‘As we got near Hyde Park there was a row of military police. You could see they were starting to get rough with people, so a group of us—girls—went to the front to try and diffuse the situation. We sat down cross-legged in front of them but they ran at us and beat the shit out of us.’ Her experiences are easily comparable to more recent testimonies from Bristol’s ‘Kill the Bill’ protests in March.
In 1994 the bill was passed, and the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act came into force. As the law stands today, aggravated trespass is a criminal offence, and can be, and has been, used against protestors, GRT communities, and indeed anyone causing a ‘disturbance’ on property which isn’t theirs – a loose term which has the potential to be used to prosecute basically anyone, almost anywhere, doing pretty much anything. Even if the PCSC Bill is dropped, the Criminal Justice Act is hardly a comfortable cushion to fall back on.
The authoritarian demands comprising the 1986 Public Order Act, the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, and the 2021 PCSC Bill all reflect deeper-set beliefs that have gradually taken root as social norms in our society. The notion of ‘public order’ is used as an excuse to control collective space, stifle dissent, and strip away civil rights, and criminalising trespass is merely a tool to protect the interests and assets of the propertied class, while simultaneously criminalising marginalised groups and their ways of life.
Despite not being able to defeat the CJB, however, the collective resistance efforts it ignited in 1994 unified a new movement. Solidarity was cemented between disparate causes, and in 1994, an open letter to Michael Howard by a Brighton anti-CJA collective read: ‘We are writing to thank you for the positive effect the Criminal Justice Act has had on our community. Your attempt to criminalise our culture has unified it like never before.’
If we do manage to ‘Kill the Bill’, the question, then, will be this: is it enough to settle for legislation as it currently stands, when the existing laws were the subject of such passionate and determined resistance fought by our parents, teachers, and comrades before us?