Given the Met’s brutal treatment of peaceful women, the timing of Priti Patel’s bill to boost policing of protests couldn’t be worse
The Peterloo massacre in 1819, the abuses of the suffragettes in the early 20th century, the killing of Blair Peach in 1979, the recent “spy cops” scandal: there have been many dark moments in Britain’s history of policing and protest. To this long list we must now add the scandalous police response to a public vigil held on Clapham Common, south London, marking the disappearance and death of Sarah Everard. That this brutal reaction to the women who gathered to remember her was presided over by the first female Metropolitan police commissioner and the fourth female home secretary is a bitter feminist irony. It should be a reminder that we need to change how the system works, not just the faces that govern it.
The pandemic has created an opportunity to crack down on peaceful protests. Under current social-distancing laws, gatherings of more than two people are forbidden in most circumstances. But regardless of this legal framework, the Met is still obliged to follow the Human Rights Act, which stipulates that power should be exercised proportionately and only when necessary. The purpose of policing isn’t primarily enforcement, let alone brutality: it is to keep the peace. What happened on Saturday is now infamous, documented in widely shared images and videos of uniformed officers manhandling peaceful female protesters to the chants of “Shame on you”.
Under current lockdown rules, the organisers of the Reclaim These Streets vigil acted impeccably. They offered to work with the police to ensure the planned one-hour vigil was calm and socially distanced, complete with volunteer stewards so that public safety could for the most part be self-policed. Given that a police officer has been charged in connection with the death of Sarah Everard, you might have expected the Met to have gratefully accepted this plan. Indeed, this seems to be what happened at borough command level, before Scotland Yard intervened. This catastrophic misjudgment appears to have come from high up, as Reclaim These Streets resorted to a high court application to ensure the vigil could go ahead (the judge recommended that organisers and police continue to talk).
Despite Cressida Dick’s refusal to resign, a change of leadership at the top now seems inevitable. But politicians and commentators have equal cause for reflection. Women have frequently complained that the justice system doesn’t take violence against them seriously, warning that low levels of rape prosecutions by the Crown Prosecution Service effectively decriminalise one of the gravest crimes.
Much of this is no doubt down to austerity. But there is also the separate issue of public appearances. Though our elected representatives seem desperate to appear tough on law and order, this same concern doesn’t appear to extend to female victims of crime. How else could politicians have voted in support of the “spy cops” bill, which grants total immunity to undercover agents who commit crimes while infiltrating criminal gangs, despite the reality that many of the victims of historical abuses have been women?
Since Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests took place in April last year, the Met commissioner, Cressida Dick, has publicly requested greater police powers to curb peaceful dissent. When XR blocked access to three printing presses owned by Rupert Murdoch in September, accusing newspapers of failing to report on the climate crisis, many politicians and commentators fell over one another to side with Murdoch over the climate protesters. Those who didn’t care about defending protesters’ rights when they were considered too green, or too black, have now woken up to find that a vigil for Sarah Everard has been broken up with a callous police response.
And now, as if to crown this dystopian moment, the home secretary, Priti Patel, will seek a second reading for the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill, which would grant Dick further powers. Its contents are dangerous and its timing in particularly bad taste. Labour has pledged to vote against the bill, which will curb protests if they “result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation” or have a “relevant impact on persons in the vicinity”. This is the very definition of a peaceful street demonstration. The bill’s explanatory notes, which deal with police powers to tackle “non-violent protests”, are worryingly authoritarian: they criticise current “gaps” in the law, and its limited focus on protests that are “violent or distressing to the public”.
Conservatives seem to have conveniently forgotten that free speech is a two-way street. It isn’t just for those with the privilege of weekly columns in British newspapers. Noisy protesters bearing placards are exercising this same right to free speech. The events on Saturday have made it clearer than ever that what is needed isn’t further police powers. There have been many dark days in our history of policing and protest. We owe it to Sarah Everard to wake up and turn on some lights.