Priti Patel’s anti-protest bill was postponed following an outcry over the heavy handed response of the police in breaking up a vigil in memory of Sarah Everard, murdered by one of their colleagues. But are the government planning on rethinking their approach and watering down – or removing – the sections relating to protest, or are they simply hoping that after a while we will all forget?
The day after the Bill was paused, newspapers and internet feeds were loaded with reports from an anti-lockdown protest in London. Descriptions of ‘scuffles’ with police, and reports of injured officers felt more than a little convenient. There was less focus on the fact that only 36 people of several thousand were arrested, the vast majority for breaches of Covid-19 restrictions rather than their behaviour on the protest.
Just one day later, a #KillTheBill protest in Bristol carried even more lurid headlines. With police vehicles covered in graffiti and set on fire, and police station windows being smashed, the outcry from the media – and sections of the public – was of course inevitable. But what actually happened on the ground?
Obviously, I don’t know. It is entirely possible that a group of activists were so outraged by the Bill that they expressed their fears in the only way they thought anyone would pay attention to; Priti Patel was certainly not going to invite them around for a cup of tea and a friendly discussion. This eyewitness account however paints a very interesting picture, with police dogs, horses, and batons seemingly being weaponised against peaceful protesters to elicit a reaction.
Certainly, having been on the receiving end of a government orchestrated conspiracy, it’s hard not to be cynical. The government has a lot to gain in swinging public opinion against protesters, and we have a rich history of parliamentary, police, and press collusion in this country. Here’s five examples:
- During the miners strike, at the ‘Battle of Orgreave’ in 1984 the BBC switched footage which showed police officers charging at miners who defended themselves against a wall of batons with mud, rocks, and anything they could get their hands on. With the footage reversed, it appeared to viewers that the miners provoked the police assault.
- For decades, animal rights campaigners were chastised for setting fire to a string of Debenhams stores, as a protest against the chain selling fur. What few knew until recently was that at least one of the fires was started by an undercover police officer known as Bob Lambert.
- In 2001, as protesters railed against New Labour for bailing out Europe’s largest animal testing laboratory, 1,000 activists carried out a series of mobile demonstrations across the south of England. At one of these protests, activists stormed a facility belonging to pharma giant GSK, and emptied giant vats of Horlicks which flooded the car park. As a result, the Home Secretary declared in parliament that the protestors were ‘both bad and mad’, but he did not mention that one of the key instigators in that action was an undercover police officer.
- 2008 saw a huge mobilisation of environmental protestors, who set up a ‘Climate Camp’ at Kingsnorth Power Station. The police responded with violence, attacking peaceful protestors, and even confiscating toilet roll to sabotage the camp. To justify the violence, the police and government ministers claimed that over 70 police officers had been injured. A Freedom of Information request revealed that these injuries included reports such as ‘stung on finger by possible wasp’, ‘officer succumbed to sun and heat’, and ‘used leg to open door and next day had pain in lower back’. In fact, not a single police officer had been injured by protesters.
- At a 2009 protest against the G-20 in London, newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson was violently shoved to the ground by police, and subsequently died of his injuries. His autopsy revealed a baton mark on his thigh, a dog bite on his calf, a bruise on his head and huge internal bleeding. As he lay dying, a medical student ran to his aid, but she was pushed away by the police, who later told his widow that they were pelted by bottles as they attempted to help her dying husband. It was a lie they were forced to publically retract. Internal documents highlighted the police’s priority was to shift blame from themselves to the protesters, writing ‘the only issue is to ensure that the media report Mr Tomlinson as a victim and not a supporter of the protests.’
Regardless of whether recent events are part of some sneaky government plot, or simply an expression of alienation from people terrified of losing their basic rights to expression, there is something we all need to remember. If the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is eventually passed, it will not make burning cop cars, or smashing windows more illegal. If and when people are arrested for those actions, you can be sure no court will be lenient. What the Bill will criminalise however, is exactly the sort of protest activities that Priti Patel will predictably tell the Bristol rioters that they should have been pursuing.