We are living in unprecedented times. The past two years have felt more dystopian than even Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker could have imagined. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to mutate its way into our lives. The climate crisis only increases its threat daily. Every week, there seems to be a new calamity to be faced—Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the most recent.
In the United Kingdom, we are facing a more local threat—issued by none other than our own government. First introduced in March 2021 by the Conservative Party, the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill (or PCSC Bill) will essentially criminalize protest and threaten the safety of already marginalized groups through the increase of police powers and introduction of harsher and longer sentences. The bill is currently stuck in the last stages of the parliamentary process as elected officials hash out the details.
“The bill was devised with climate protest as its focal point, and if passed in its current form, its effect will be to limit what communities are able to do in the continued drive to drag this government to create effective climate policy,” said Will Jackson, a lecturer in criminology at Liverpool John Moores University. “The vision of acceptable protest that this bill creates is one that is ineffective and causes no real problem for a government that is reluctant to effectively tackle the climate crisis.”
In the years leading up to the pandemic, protests were increasing across the country. Groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter had mobilized thousands of people onto the streets to target the government’s inaction on the climate crisis and police brutality. Throughout the pandemic, the U.K. government moved to slyly increase policing, surveillance, and other tools of social control—all under the guise of public protection.
“For the last decade, successive governments have been increasingly hostile toward protests,” said a spokesperson for Netpol, the U.K. network for police monitoring. “This has been matched by the way the police have interpreted ‘peaceful’ protests so that even minor breaches of the law are treated as invalidating the collective legitimacy of protesters’ demands, justifying even more aggressive tactics and more surveillance.”
The U.K. isn’t alone in its attempts to stifle dissent and attack democracy. U.S. legislators have proposed a total of 245 bills that restrict the right to peaceful assembly since 2017 alone. Recent bills in the U.S. have used the pandemic to deter participation in protest. One federal bill has proposed stripping pandemic aid from individuals convicted of “protest-related” crimes. Across other parts of the world, governments have increased their violence and human rights violations on protesters. Last year, 83 people in Colombia died during protests, including at least 27 civilians who were allegedly killed by police. In Hong Kong, police made 8,981 arrests between June 2019 and May 2020 in connection with protests. Among those arrested, 1,707 were younger than 18.
“The U.K. has long sought to build its global image on the basis of its perceived status as a bastion of human rights and democratic values,” Jackson said. “This no doubt provides cover and encouragement to governments around the world to place further limits on human rights in a way that can be presented as being in line with the U.K.’s approach.”
The PCSC bill proposes to grant officers greater ability to make arrests and call orders and increase the minimum sentencing for civil disobedience acts, such as blocking roads and damaging statues and monuments. The maximum penalty for the latter—like the toppling of a statue of Edward Colston, who trafficked enslaved people in the 17th century—would increase from three months to 10 years under the bill if made law.
“The bill is the single biggest threat to the traditional way of life of Romani Gypsies and Irish travelers in our lifetime.”
We’ve already witnessed the severe potential of this bill. In March 2021, riot police were deployed to break up Bristol protests against the PCSC bill. The use of force against protesters resulted in the injury and arrest of over 60 people in less than a week. In the year since, 15 protesters have been imprisoned with at least one facing a 14-year sentence. This is the current reality. Now, imagine what the bill could do if passed.
“The government is in the press right now calling Russia facist whilst they’re taking what little is left of our free speech and rights,” said Chantelle Lunt, former police officer turned activist who co-founded Kill the Bill, the national campaign against the PCSC Bill.
An amendment in the bill that criminalizes trespass, currently a civil offense in the U.K., will allow police officers to seize vehicles and homes, as well as impose fines and prison sentences of up to three months. For nomadic communities like Gypsies and Romani, this poses a very specific threat to their cultural heritage and lifestyle, which for generations has involved living in non-stationary homes or with no fixed abode. The bill comes as only further assault to the widespread discrimination the community already faces.
“Seeing the scale of this bill, they killed us with words,” said Marvina Newton, cofounder of Kill the Bill and Black Lives Matter Leeds who has been on the streets protesting the bill for over a year. “With how many pages of the document there was, it was clear the government wanted to keep us confused and separated.”
This legislation threatens the general public, but its impacts would be most acutely felt by those who already face discrimination from the state, such as people of color and working-class communities. In the U.K., police were nearly nine times as likely to stop and search Black people than white people from 2019 to 2020. People of color more generally in the U.K. were over four times more likely to experience this than white people. Lunt explained how her own experience in the police force as a Black woman gave her the ultimate insight into the corruption and prejudice rooted in the institution. She ultimately left the force as a result.
“I call it the blue wall of silence when you whistleblow on officers,” Lunt said. “It’s easier to be a misogynistic, racist man than a woman bringing attention to it.”
The past year of resistance to the bill has successfully scrapped some of the bill’s more discriminatory amendments. For example, the bill originally featured the ability for police officers to stop-and-search protesters “without suspicion,” per the BBC, which would have been catastrophic for communities of color based on the above statistics.
However, the fight is far from over. As political leaders go through a process of ping pong to hash out the details of the proposed legislation, many groups are still working tirelessly in opposition to it.
“Even if this bill goes through, we’re all going to work on making it ungovernable,” Newton said. “What we’re saying is if we notice an injustice is about to be done, then we have to come together and stand in radical solidarity. If they come for you today, they will come for me tomorrow.”
The Kill the Bill campaign Newton helped launch has also brought together many groups that might not have initially worked alongside each other. “Locally, we tie this bill into every action and protest we do because if this movement loses, then we all lose,” said Lunt, whose local Black Lives Matter group has been working closely with Gypsy, Romani, and traveler communities, one of the most historically oppressed groups in the U.K.
“The bill is the single biggest threat to the traditional way of life of Romani Gypsies and Irish travelers in our lifetime,” said Sherrie Smith, co-chair of Drive 2 Survive, a grassroots-led campaign to resist the racist provisions in the PCSC bill. “If passed, it will entirely eradicate nomadic life in the U.K.”
Solidarity and collaboration have been fundamental to the bill’s resistance. “It’s not about being allies,” Newton said. “It’s about being accomplices. Allies can clock in and out when it’s comfortable, but as accomplices, we’re fighting alongside each other even if you’re not experiencing what I am.”
One example where this can be seen practiced powerfully is through the work of Bristol Defendant Solidarity, a volunteer-run group organizing legal support for protesters who have been criminalized. For example, after the brutal attack on protesters in Bristol last year, the group stepped in with mutual aid and fundraising to build support for those standing against the proposed legislation.
The future of democracy in the U.K. may look bleak. As does democracy everywhere these days. However, those fighting for justice are determined to prevail—not only for their freedoms but for the freedoms and rights of generations to come.
“I’m fighting today so my children don’t have to fight tomorrow,” Newton said. “If I get taken away, I hope that the people I’m fighting for now will continue to fight in the same way.”
Editor's note: Talia Woodin is an organizer and freelance photographer/filmmaker that's been involved in numerous campaigns and groups in climate, environmental, and social justice movements—including (but not limited to) Extinction Rebellion Youth, StopHS2, Fridays For Future, Kill the Bill, and more.