Peaceful protest in action

Photo by the author

After a year of signing online petitions the government will simply ignore, this Saturday feeling a mixture of anxiety and compulsion, I went back to the streets to protest – while I still can – against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill at one of the 25 protests that took place across the UK.

For a couple of hours at lunchtime, Exeter’s Bedford St hosted a small but passionate crowd of around 150, all masked and doing their very best to remain socially distanced. Extinction Rebellion (XR) supporters made up much of the crowd, unsurprisingly as parts of the proposed bill are a clear kneejerk response to XR’s peaceful, direct action tactics. This is the legislative equivalent of the government putting its fingers in its ears, as though outlawing being angry and concerned about the state of our planet will make a catastrophe go away.

The Exeter event was a warm and peaceful affair. Anyone was welcome to say a few words and those who took up the invitation spoke from the heart about the importance of protest in effecting change both historically and for communities still marginalised by 21st Century Britain. As the opening speaker said, “there is not one thing that working people have gained that hasn’t been won except through protest on the streets, or strikes, or other militant action.” Governments don’t hand over workers’ rights to be nice. They do it because they are pressed to do so by trades unions or other forms of collective voice. The protestors gathered in Exeter today were all clearly fearful for the loss of that voice.

One woman spoke of her fear that while she protested so that she can at least tell her children that she tried to do something about climate change, those children may not be permitted to try if this bill passes. Another tearfully recited the Pastor Niemöller poem, “First they came for the Socialists….”

This is the really important thing to remember in such overcomplicated legislation. The bill has been described as a Trojan Horse, 300 pages dotted with tough-on-crime crowd pleasers such as longer sentences for assaults on paramedics. But you can only have that bit if you also accept the whim of the Home Secretary (this one, or any future holder of the office) deciding what is the appropriate noise level for a protest. Do you know what is hidden in there that might hit you further down the line?

An XR campaigner spoke about the power, influence and dishonesty of a British media owned by billionaire tax exiles who dominate the ear of both the public and the government. He revealed the story of his involvement in XR’s action to obstruct the Murdoch printing press near Broxbourne and how Rupert Murdoch met with four senior ministers soon after, Murdoch’s ire at this affront helping to write the PCSC bill. It’s pretty maddening that a distribution problem at one of Murdoch’s many media outlets is considered by the government an assault on free speech and democracy while legislation to shut off almost the only way for many people to be heard is claimed to be fair and just.

A young traveller named Otis told of how the way of life he was born into is under threat of being outlawed. Some people live differently and in his words this bill tells them “you’re not valid.” Otis didn’t have a pre-prepared speech and much of what he did say was “f*** it” or “f*** the bill” but he somehow neatly articulated the corner that traveller communities find themselves in. They face their society as they know it being outlawed and they are supposed to just go and be something else instead. Easy when you’re an ex-MP looking for a new life as a lobbyist, not so straightforward when you’re a kid from a marginalised community who quite likes being where he is.  

As I left and walked down the High St, a police car pulled up and two fairly slight, young female PCs got out and headed towards Bedford St. This seemed to me to be the right message rather than sending in Middlemoor’s brawniest specimens. As one of the speakers said, they’re our police and in fact many former officers have spoken out against this legislation.  They know that further complex and unpopular powers won’t help them to do their jobs. The Exeter event was entirely peaceful and as a result probably completely un-newsworthy for whichever broadcaster was mingling in the crowd filming and recording.

One banner read “It’s a beautiful day for a revolution.” It feels a long way from the big changes the country needs but I feel heartened that we can begin to really use our voices again.  Let’s hope this post lockdown springtime is also an awakening about the realities of the government.

Postscript: The PCSC Bill’s committee stage has been postponed until the summer. Now is the window of opportunity to write to your MP or local paper and express your concern about its contents.

Read more about the Bill here: