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“Protest is a human right”: Why you need to care about the policing bill

Kill the Bill protests are set to take place across the country this weekend

This week, peers in the House of Lords have been debating and voting on key amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, also known as the policing bill. The bill is controversial, and not without reason – it contains measures that restrict the right to protest in this country, as well as other proposals which threaten Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities.

Why should we care? Under the proposed legislation, Priti Patel – the brains behind the bill – would have the power to ban marches and demonstrations for being “seriously disruptive” while the police could impose conditions on protests that are deemed too noisy. If a protestor attaches themselves to another person or object, they could potentially face 51 weeks in prison. The police would also be able to arrest GRT people and confiscate their homes if they stop in places that have not been designated for them. 

17-year-old climate justice activist Scarlett Westbrook is horrified by the bill. “Being able to protest and voice opposition is a fundamental human right,” she tells Dazed.

Westbrook has now been campaigning for climate justice for seven years. She canvassed for the Labour and Green parties in Birmingham at the age of ten; became the youngest person ever to obtain an A-Level in government and politics at 13; and went on to organise school climate protest strikes at 14. To her, the bill is “absolutely abhorrent”.

“Giving individual police officers the right to deem whether a protest is valid or not is way too much power for individuals within a system that we know is really corrupted,” she says.

18-year-old Destiny Boka-Batesa is another youth climate activist. As a co-founder of Choked Up, a campaign raising awareness of the disproportionate impact of air pollution on people of colour, they share similar sentiments to Westbrook. “It’s just quite dystopian,” they tell Dazed. “It’s quite scary seeing that your rights are being stripped off bit by bit. I feel like the bill that's going to pass in a few days – should it actually pass – will be the final straw.”

“As someone that has been on the streets for years for numerous causes but especially in the name of climate justice, it's scary that the actions that I want to do will now be criminalised,” they continue. “It does bring about a lot of anxiety because protesting is an innate right. You don’t ask to protest, that would defeat the whole point."

Georgia Fulton, 23, is editor-in-chief of ClimaTalk, a non-profit organisation that seeks to demystify climate policy and amplify young people’s voices in the fight against the climate crisis. Like Boka-Batesa and Westbrook, Fulton is appalled by the bill. “When they gave their justification for it they spoke about Extinction Rebellion and how some of London’s busiest areas were brought to a standstill for days, and honestly, it made me laugh,” she tells Dazed. “Because that’s the point of a protest.”

“I think that is a very convenient argument for introducing authoritarian measures – to say that protesters have too much freedom. But the point of protest is to maintain freedom. So to me that just doesn't make sense,” she continues. “It just shows that Britain is moving towards – or actually has already moved towards – being an authoritarian state and that our freedoms are fundamentally jeopardised at the moment.”

Chillingly, Patel is also seeking to abolish the legal requirement for police to have grounds for suspicion before they stop and search protesters. As Black people in the UK are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, this is a particularly bleak proposal.

“As a woman of colour, it's already hard enough to protest,” Westbrook says. “We know that people of colour and people from marginalised genders are more prone to police violence and that’s without this awful bill. Knowing that this bill is going to pass means the dangers that present in protest to marginalised people are just going to further increase – and that’s really terrifying, because it already feels bad enough as it is.”

There’s still time to push back against this horrible piece of legislation. This Saturday is a national day of action, with Kill the Bill protests organised across the country. Although the bill is an affront to personal freedoms, it's important to remember that there will always be power and solace in collective action. As Boka-Batesa says: “Forces like the government are so threatened by the power and influence that the people have that they have to go out of their way to cripple us,” she says. “It's quite scary, but at the same time, it goes to show the power of the people.”