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We are facing the biggest crackdown on our democratic rights in decades – we mustn’t lose sight of that

“The seriousness of the #PoliceCrackdownBill cannot be overstated. It is a deeply authoritarian & racist piece of legislation that would increase police powers, stifle dissent & further criminalise marginalised groups.”

Darran McLaughlin (Momentum NCG member and Bristol Momentum member).

A week ago in Clapham, a vigil in memory of Sarah Everard was brutally broken up by police. The images of officers forcibly removing and handcuffing women there to grieve and express solidarity with each other shocked the country – revealing to millions the police violence that many communities across the capital and the country face on a regular basis. 

Since then, tens of thousands of people have taken part in protests against police violence and the Tories’ Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, led by organisations such as Sisters Uncut and UK Black Lives Matter, which have extensive track records in opposing the sharp end of state violence. 

The seriousness of this Bill cannot be overstated. It is a deeply authoritarian and racist piece of legislation that would increase police powers, stifle dissent and further criminalise marginalised groups. The Bill seeks to prevent non-violent protests that cause “disruption” or “annoyance”, threatens activists with draconian sentences, and would allow police to seize the homes of Gypsy Roma, and Traveller communities and take their children into care.

The backdrop to this legislation is a policing system that has never been held fully accountable for hundreds of deaths in custody over the last few decades, with black and brown people dying in disproportionately high numbers. The timing of the Bill is likely in anticipation of a wave of protests that will follow any reckoning with the Government’s handling of COVID-19 and the long recession we are now at the start of. 

The Bill represents one of the biggest attacks on our collective democratic rights in a lifetime, and if it was proposed in another country our media would rightly be decrying it as an attack on democracy and freedom of expression. Unsurprisingly, self-proclaimed champions of free speech are overwhelmingly silent in the face of the state looking to dramatically expand its powers at the expense of civil society. 

The Labour Party voted against the Bill in the end, though Starmer’s previous unwillingness to stand against the equally repressive and dangerous Spy Cops Bill indicates that Labour’s opposition may well be temporary. It is certainly flimsy. 

Because of the fragility of opposition in Parliament, it is even more important that we recognise the power of protest in forcing the hand of politicians and delivering change. Were it not for the commitment and bravery of demonstrators across the country, it is likely Labour would not have opposed the Bill and the Government would not have pushed back the journey of the Bill through Parliament. It is a temporary victory, but a significant one and we must not forget how it happened. 

And while attention is now on the events of last night’s protest in Bristol, we must also not forget why so many people have felt compelled to take to the streets in the first place, and how many lives have been taken by a policing system out of control. If we lose sight of the bigger picture, the only beneficiaries are the Conservative government and their anti-democratic agenda. Socialists and progressives of all stripes have a responsibility to unite against this.

It is unfortunate that what began as a peaceful demonstration in Bristol ended in violence. We must wait to see what the investigation into these events uncovers. But MPs, journalists and opinion-formers would do well to recall that from Orgreave to Hillsborough, from the killing of Jean Charles De Menezes to Mark Duggan, the role of the police in instigating violence is often ignored, hidden or wrongly justified.

If the Government wants people to protest peacefully, it cannot remove our right to do so. Democracy means more than turning out to vote once every few years. We must resist attempts to divide us or deflect attention from the actions of the Government, and we must stand together against this dangerous bill.

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