In late March, after consecutive weekends saw demonstrations across the country, the passage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill through Parliament was delayed.
That delay was no small victory against a government built on intransigence, but it was a temporary one – and on 18 May, the public distracted by the smell of sun cream and vaccines, the bill slipped quietly back onto the agenda. It’s been under committee scrutiny for the last four weeks.
Here’s a rundown for those who have been avoiding our legislative hellscape. Building on 1986’s Public Order Act and 1993’s Criminal Justice Act, both of which made major inroads into civil liberties long taken for granted, the PCSC Bill renders any protest of one or more people that causes or might cause ‘serious annoyance’ or ‘inconvenience’—noticeably loose terms left open to police interpretation—punishable by a ten-year prison stretch.
That would be bad enough, but there’s plenty more. The bill threatens to criminalise nomadic Gypsy and Traveller communities by making trespass a criminal rather than civil offence, commits to expanding racist stop-and-search powers, and introduces another ten-year sentence for damaging a statue. In essence, it gives generous expansion to the worst bigotries and excesses of the British police state.
The mass mobilisation against the Bill during its first round in the Commons was the result of a combination of factors beginning with the killing of Sarah Everard by police officer Wayne Couzens. Protestors led by Sisters Uncut refused to bow to the demand to shut down a vigil planned in her memory, and the police intervened with brutality, slamming unarmed women onto the floor of the Clapham Common bandstand.
If you believed the police were acting in the interests of public safety before Clapham, you didn’t after. As Mashal Iftikhar wrote in Tribune back in March, police violence does not protect public health: there was no way to spin this as an infection control measure. It was state actors brutalising their critics.
Sisters Uncut channelled the ensuing rage into a series of demonstrations, the largest of which saw thousands on the streets of London on May Day. Trade unions, racial justice groups, LGBT+ campaigners, environmentalists, left-wing activists and those concerned about civil rights all found common cause against the effort to stifle dissent. It was a reminder of the strength of solidarity, but also of the wide—and growing—scope of state repression, which has been and is being felt by movements across the board.
In case another reminder was needed, Avon and Somerset Constabulary kindly went about replaying some of police brutality’s greatest hits. Police in Bristol set on protestors with dogs and batons, attacked journalists, posed as postal workers to enter the homes of young women, and, after one night of unrest, claimed that their officers had suffered injuries including broken bones and a punctured lung – a lie that was later retracted. The necessity of killing the bill was there for the world to see.
But this bill is only the latest in a legislative assault led by the Tories (and aided by a supine, if not enthusiastic, Labour) – one also comprising the already-enshrined Spy Cops and Overseas Operations Bills. Taken together, the trio achieves two related goals: first, extending the ability of state actors to do what they want without interference from the law; second, limiting the ability of a theoretically sovereign electorate to stop them.
Some will feel that the need to pass legislation on the first front is unnecessary given so much of our political class already operates outside legal strictures. Since November 2020, Michael Gove, Matt Hancock, Gavin Williamson, and (indirectly) Priti Patel have each been found to have acted unlawfully, and have remained not only free but comfortable on some of the highest pedestals in the land. The same is true for those they command: the process streamlined by the Spy Cops Bill had been common practice for years, and only one member of the British armed forces has ever been prosecuted for war crimes in Iraq.
That state impunity leaks. Wayne Couzens’ admitted kidnap and rape of Sarah Everard cannot be separated from the fact that he was a serving Metropolitan Police officer – a role which granted him huge power over the lives, liberties, and bodies of others, usually utilised without repercussion. Benjamin Monk, the police officer yesterday convicted of the manslaughter of Dalian Atkinson, is reportedly the first in 35 years to be found guilty of unlawfully killing a member of the public while on duty, despite the fact that the Independent Office for Police Conduct reported 276 deaths during or following police contact in the year 2018-19 alone – more than one every other day.
This argument—that it’s one rule for them—is not new. We know that racialised working-class communities are criminalised for existing while white parliamentarians cut lines at their leisure; we know that ruling-class solidarity is a defining feature of the British justice system. What’s more novel in this latest string of laws is the explicit codification of that one rule in a Britain that still at least nominally considers itself—and is considered by the rest of the world—a liberal democracy.
The problem for the ruling class is that while electoral politics is in a chokehold, street movements are still capable of holding power to account. In the last decade, People’s Assembly and UK Uncut have drawn attention to the ravages of austerity. Extinction Rebellion raised public discussion of the climate crisis. Black Lives Matter mobilised masses against institutional racism. As recently as last month, hundreds of thousands filled the streets to protest Britain’s complicity in Israeli apartheid.
But most of our government is only here on a brief vacation from a banking or lobbying job. They see politics as business—an opportunity to secure the maximum profit for themselves and their friends with the minimum effort—and this, perhaps, goes some way to explaining the evasive attitude to public anger now epitomised by the Bill: if you have no interest whatsoever in helping the public, even nominal public accountability is a hell of a nuisance.
There are elements of our political system that are so ingrained it’s easy to forget they’re not actually necessary for it to function. Violence is one of them. The fact that those in power find protests attended by thousands ‘annoying’ rather than instructive is another. Neither is inherent in democracy; both are inherent in an aggressive capitalist system masquerading as democratic.
The Bill is expected to return to the Commons on 5 July, and we can and must kill it – but we must also take this as an opportunity to question the nature of a system against which we have to fight so hard. Do we live in a representative democracy, as we’re told, in which popular interests are channelled by the political class and final sovereignty rests with the people? Or do we live in a managed democracy, in which popular interests are repressed wherever possible in the interests of maintaining the position and power of our ruling elite?