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'A Dark Stain on Our Democracy'
A letter to my MP about the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021
Today I sent the following letter to my MP, Stewart McDonald, regarding the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that recently passed its first vote in the Commons, and which will now go to Committee for review before a second reading and vote. To put it simply, this bill threatens to criminalise dissent, expand police and Home Office powers to decide what constitutes ‘proportional’ protest, and works in tandem with the recent SpyCops bill (which I wrote about in the previous newsletter) to expand the carceral state. I’m sharing this in the hope that you’ll also write to your MP, putting pressure on them to fight the passing of this bill into law. I would also urge you to take part in any actions happening nearby. If you’re unsure of who your MP is or how to contact them, try TheyWorkForYou.com. And if you want to link up with an organising group, I would recommend you check out Sisters Uncut.
Dear Stewart McDonald MP,
I’m deeply concerned about the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021. As it has recently passed a first vote in the Commons and is now entering the Committee stage, I’m hoping you can tell me what you plan to do to stop its being passed into law.
This bill threatens to have a chilling effect on engaged members of society of all stripes: whether they are labour organisers, racial and gender justice campaigners, climate activists or simply regular people exercising their democratic right to peacefully but boldly assemble to make demands of their legislators. Those who do snub this government’s attempts to stifle dissent and exercise their democratic right to protest will be at increased risk of arrest and possible incarceration. This is unbefitting of a society that claims to be a liberal democracy.
As you yourself must know, having been elected to occupy your office as a Member of Parliament, campaigning and organising are hard work. Getting people interested in politics is difficult and often thankless. The proposed bill adds to this difficulty in engaging citizens and residents in the democratic process by demonising and in some cases even criminalising activities that history proves are essential to preventing government overreach.
Kevin Blow of the campaign group Netpol has said: ‘Historically every campaign, from the suffragist movement to trade unions and equality campaigners, have involved actions that at the time were considered to be criminal or unlawful behaviour, but which led to the freedoms and rights we now cherish.’ The first episode of director Steve McQueen’s film anthology Small Axe, titled ‘Mangrove’, which is currently available on BBC iPlayer, faithfully relates the terrors that The Mangrove Nine faced in their battle against police brutality fifty years ago. Constables systematically terrified and brutalised black and West Indian communities in Notting Hill and elsewhere. The Mangrove Nine were eventually vindicated in their struggle, but one can only imagine how the current bill would interpret their legitimate and legal form of protest. Let that program be a warning to us now as this government attempts to expand police powers, and let it be understood that this bill threatens to turn the clock back on the right to dissent.
Despite claims from the police themselves that they have suffered equally from ten years of austerity, as an institution they are in fact overfunded at the expense of other arms of the state. To put this in context, the government plans to spend £15.8bn on police between 2021-22, while the Tories have piddled £2bn in crony contracts to their donors, according to research conducted by the Labour Party. Meanwhile, the Guardian reported this week that ‘Hospitals will have to start cutting services unless the NHS gets £8bn of extra funding within days, health service leaders are warning ministers.’ The taxpayer is bearing a multi-billion-pound burden to have the state criminalise dissent at the same time that our leaders behave like a gang of thugs. Such open hypocrisy and corruption are beneath us as citizens and residents of the United Kingdom.
Underfunding of the NHS is not only acute but chronic, a crisis the likes of which we’ve not seen in our lifetimes. Councils have had their budgets slashed dramatically since the Conservatives came to power in 2010. At the same time, the Tories have shifted the burden of funding services like social care onto the backs of local government. Sure Start and youth centres have closed; libraries are on the brink of collapse; welfare entitlements that support parents, children and young people have been squeezed or cut altogether. As a result, disadvantaged communities suffer disproportionately, leading to a lack of social cohesion—which leads, of course, to antisocial behaviour and crime. The police are effectively deployed to contain the blowback from this government’s own antisocial and criminal behaviour expressed as policy, legislation and the awarding of lucrative government contracts.
Those of us fortunate enough to be in work find that wages stagnate as the cost of living skyrockets. This means that citizens and residents work harder for longer, only to be paid less in real terms than ever before, while giving an ever-increasing chunk of this dwindling income to a government who allocate tax revenue not to reinvigorating our society by providing a guarantee that everyone starts on a level playing field, but instead to a police force that cannot even protect women and femme-presenting people from rape and murder, nor people of colour from violence.
And it is not primarily a question of money; the issues of policing in this country are not reducible to underfunding of the force itself. The recent tragic murder of Sarah Everard has thrown the existing rot at the heart of policing into stark relief. A climate of impunity exists within the police, and with good reason. As Ash Sarkar recently pointed out,
Just 3% of rape complaints result in a criminal charge. Rape convictions have fallen to a record low in England and Wales, with half the suspects in cases where a rape had been alleged being convicted of rape or another crime compared to three years ago. What’s more, almost 700 cases of alleged domestic abuse involving police officers and staff were reported during the three years to April 2018. The data, with around three-quarters of forces reporting, showed that police accused of domestic abuse are a third less likely to be convicted than are the general public – and fewer than a quarter of complaints resulted in disciplinary action.
Any bill that seeks to expand the purview of police and empower them to interpret the law more freely, especially against politically engaged citizens and residents, will of necessity expand and empower the elements of police who feel that they are above the law.
Liberty have described the Commons vote on this bill as ‘a dark stain on our democracy.’ Campaigners from Liberty and Sister Uncut as well as countless others have warned that this bill threatens to erode the right to protest, leaving us voiceless in the face of events such as the recent murder of Sarah Everard. The police’s behaviour at the vigils held in her memory demonstrate clearly and succinctly these dangers, including the impunity described above, which is why the police need reigning in—not further powers to brutalise and terrorise citizens and residents who bravely put themselves in harm's way to ensure that justice prevails. The police have demonstrated time and again the reasonableness of Black Lives Matter and others’ calls to ‘Defund the Police.’
The bill continues the unconscionable definition of well-intentioned activism as “domestic extremism” but with a new name—it refers to citizens and residents taking direct action as “aggravated activists.” Mitigating the language does nothing to allay the fears of those of us who’ve experienced the execution of this kind of “justice.” This bill also effectively criminalises activism which can be as broadly and vaguely defined as causing “serious annoyance” or “serious inconvenience.” As the very nature of protest is to be disruptive, this incursion into a fundamental right of expression is simply intolerable and unacceptable.
The bill also gives the Home Secretary Priti Patel authority to define what acts of protest constitute ‘serious disruption to the community,’ and to take punitive action accordingly. But I ask you, what could be more seriously disruptive to communities than the violence and negligence of government and police forces I have enumerated here? And without citizens’ and residents’ right to directly intervene through mass action, what power will we have left to resist and hold them to account?
The government’s own factsheet on the bill states that ‘In recent years we have seen a significant change in protest tactics which have led to disproportionate amounts of disruption.’ It is evident that the government would consider ‘proportionate’ only those acts of protest that have no serious chance of succeeding. The state and police forces forfeit the right to decide what constitutes ‘proportionate’ dissent when at the same time they have been proven to commit heinous criminal acts under the so-called SpyCops program, which went to absurd lengths to infiltrate harmless and anodyne groups like Greenpeace, including allowing undercover police to have children with their targets. In fact, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill must be understood in concert with the SpyCops bill, allowing the state to surveil and even commit crimes against its own citizens and residents. In other words, the legitimacy of these bills is predicated on the circular logic that the state is justified in committing crimes to ensure that regular people don’t organise en masse to prevent them from doing so.
I’m urging you to speak out against this bill and align with MPs from any and all parties who are willing to stand up to this unthinkable attack on the rights of citizens and residents to use direct action to effect change. With the long list of issues that face the country today—ecocidal capitalism, corruption and the criminal neglect of public services—the need for public engagement in democracy, direct and unfettered by a government that has failed to prevent the deaths of over 125,000 of its citizens from a virus, has never been more pressing.