James Belchamber

When the Tories ban peaceful protest, what options will remain?

Protests have been an essential tool for achieving greater freedom, and for highlighting the plight of oppressed people, for almost all of humanity. Without the protests of the UK civil rights movement we may still have "No Irish, no blacks, no dogs" proudly displayed in our B&Bs; without the marches of the WSPU women may still not have the right to vote.

But protests have another function: when properly enabled, they are an effective and relatively non-destructive option for trying to achieve social/political change. People can come out and march, even with their families and their friends - without having to prepare to defend their right to do so. By heavily restricting the right to protest, the Tories are giving those people a choice: shut up, or prepare to be attacked by the police.

This risks an almost certain escalation of violence between protesters - of all stripes - and the state.

Liberals will be found marching for many reasons; many Liberals would have been at one or both of the 2019 People's Vote March protests. Organisers reported over a million people (1.5% of the country!) attended, and people were angry - the Brexit vote, won with such promises as £350m/week to the NHS (a far cry from the 1% pay rise this government actually gave them), was being hardened into a gross attack on people's liberties. People were scared for their livelihoods and they were angry that their freedoms were being taken away.

The marches, however, went through almost without incident - largely due to the state and the police enabling the march to go ahead safely.

Compare and contrast this to the heavy-handed actions of the Metropolitan Police in Clapham on Saturday - a brazen attack on women grieving another woman being killed at the hands of a man. But also, let's compare it to the crowds celebrating Rangers premiership win not only a week before - with no kettling and no attacks on the fans.

Protesters will learn something in the contrast between the police attack on the vigil, and the Rangers game - namely, be sure that the police fear you. This escalation will be met by the police with more force, which will be met by protesters with more escalation. We're likely to start seeing guerrilla tactics on our streets again - and we will all be in the cross-fire.

Let's compare it to something else. The last time the Tories were in power, they had promised - as part of their manifesto - to replace the relatively unpopular rates system of property taxes. Their solution? A regressive poll tax that placed an unreasonable burden on the poor.

People were angry - and they got out on the streets in protest.

This all came to a head on March 31st, 1990, when a quarter of a million people marched towards Trafalgar Square. The police, after blocking most of the crowds on Whitehall, then started to deploy heavy-handed tactics (ostensibly to clear the protestors "obstructing Whitehall") - charging the protestors, at one point using a riot van. The result of this was the infamous Poll Tax riots, which led to 113 injuries and millions of pounds worth of property damage.

This is what happens when you force people into a corner - they're not all just going to shut up; all the state is doing is training them to come ready for a fight. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill risks this becoming part and parcel of every protest. It's not hyperbole to say that we risk a similar escalation to Hong Kong - where pro-democracy protesters once defended themselves with umbrellas, but now arm themselves with petrol bombs, in fighting to reclaim freedoms they so recently took for granted.

Most people don't protest - and as such, it's not really a right we tend to value. More often, it's seen as a nuisance - protests spill out into streets and disrupt people's lives. But as Liberals, we must defend this right - both as a necessary outlet for frustrated communities, and as an essential tool for ensuring that the shadow of oppression cannot slowly cast itself - one by one - over each of us.

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