The Right to Peaceful Protest: Sitting on the Right Side Of History

Activism & Leadership

The Right to Peaceful Protest: Sitting on the Right Side of History

Article with India Burgess on Friday 16th April 2021

The UK’s proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will curtail our basic right to peaceful protest. At this unprecedented time, will our leaders come out on the right side of history? Written by India Burgess, edited by Laura Burgess.


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Despite the pandemic, 2020 saw a wave of protests around the world.

In September 2020, the Indian government passed three farm acts which would enable market forces to replace protections on India’s farming sector. In response to the neoliberal legislation, Indian farmers and workers across the country have taken to the streets in protest and on strike. In November 2020, over 250 million workers took part in a general strike, the largest in human history. The number of people striking was four times the population of the entire United Kingdom.

The people who were and continue to be out on the streets have not done so not only to defend the rights of the producers of their country’s food. They were there to set a precedent in the face of the government potentially eroding the protections and rights of their own sectors. Using their right to peacefully protest, nearly 20% of India’s population took action to challenge the government’s decision.

This time last year saw the explosion of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests around the world, sparked by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police force. Hundreds of thousands of people took part in the BLM protests here in the UK, which saw the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol. In 2019, Extinction Rebellion (XR) used non-violent direct action to shut down areas of central London in April, October, and September. Calling on the government to commit to climate action and legislation, hundreds of XR activists were arrested by police in London and across the UK. The People’s Vote march which took place in October 2019 saw record numbers of protestors take to the streets against Brexit. These three sets of protests had markedly different goals and varying demographics: the People’s March was noted as being mostly attended by white middle-aged people; XR’s protests were predominated by young activists, and older (generally white) political veterans too; while the BLM events were considerably more diverse. It is in the context of this wave of protests that the Police Crime Bill has been proposed by the Tory government in February 2021.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which passed its second reading on 16th March, will introduce serious limitations on our right to protest. In addition to permitting extensive police interference into Gypsy and Roman Traveller communities, the Bill would restrict the noise levels that protests are permitted to reach due to their potentially negative impacts on nearby businesses. The terms in the bill are intentionally very broad, allowing for government and police intervention to prevent or interrupt protests for undefined and poorly understood reasons. This includes protests which may cause ‘serious unease, alarm, or distress’ to bystanders. The definitions of these terms can be determined by the Home Secretary at a later date. In essence, the bill gives the establishment the ability to shut down protests against unpopular government actions even when mass demonstrations are entirely peaceful. It is being rushed through parliament, without giving MPs sufficient time to properly scrutinise or understand the legislation. At the time of writing, the bill has stalled before the Committee Stage in the House of Commons – whereby a committee undertakes detailed examination of the legislation.

In essence, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill gives the establishment the ability to shut down protests against unpopular government actions even when mass demonstrations are entirely peaceful.#

The kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard at the hands of a MET police officer this month, and the vigils and protests calling out male violence committed against women have brought to light the existing state repression of the expression of discontent – in addition to the necessity of the right to express this discontent. A peaceful vigil to mourn the loss of Sarah Everard was polluted by police violence towards women. Anger at the bill turned out thousands of protestors in Bristol, London, and Manchester. Episodes of violence occurred between protestors and the police – those serving the institutions of government and systems of oppression which are threaded with sexism, racism, and classism.

I am not condoning violence committed against individual police officers. Yet these individuals, unless working to hold the entity they serve accountable for its pervasive oppression of the most marginalised in our society, are culpable. They are part of the problem, and stoke the flames of anger towards them when they mislead the media and public about broken bones at the hands of protesters. Demonising a handful of people is an attempt to make the general population discredit the protests. This is a shameful tactic, and should not be allowed to be successful. The voices of the people protesting must be heard, and their right to make their voices heard must be protected.

State repressions of popular protest can, sometimes, work. Pierskalla accounts how state repression could dissolve opposition and reaffirm government power. Conversely, repression of protests can simply embolden resistance. The population can become radicalised, violence and can escalate, and the government in power may collapse. Protests are answered either by compromise or repression. It is the UK government and media’s time now to decide which side they are on.

It is the UK government and media’s time now to decide which side they are on.#

Within the UK, violent and oppressive responses by the state and our police force to popular protests is by no means new. The 1997 Protection of Harassment Act has regularly been used to interrupt legal protests. Ambiguous terms from this and other legislation are already used to limit legitimate protests, such as ‘disorder’, ‘disruptive’, and ‘antisocial’. Parallels can also be drawn between the present media portrayals of the protests ongoing in Bristol and those in coverage of protests which occurred over a decade ago. The right to protest was called into question in the wake of protests against tuition fees and following the 2008 financial crash. Emphasis in the media was put on the criminal damage or violence of a minority to divert the public’s attention from the issues of injustice being protested against.

In the light of past instances of the oppression of peaceful protesters, our government and police force are currently standing to be situated on the wrong side of history in this debate. The media and political elite are portraying the protests against the bill as descending into riots. Violence against the police has rightfully been condemned, but has wrongfully eclipsed the overall mood and motivation of the protesters. The media is singling out episodes of violence, and giving attention only to these episodes and the reactions against them on social media and in public statements. By doing this, they are attempting – likely under the guidance of the State – to sway public opinion towards the condemnation of these protests and in favour of the bill.

We cannot accept this for three key reasons.

First, the protests have not been characterised by the intention of violence. My good friend Greg has attended two of the largest #killthebill protests, one in London and one in Bristol, to interview attendees. The clear message from his conversations was that people condemned the violence that had occurred at the protests and vigil, and were calling for both the police and protesters to remain peaceful. Numerous people Greg spoke to emphasised that they had come out to show that protests could be peaceful, to ‘counter the media and government narratives’ arguing otherwise. Depictions in the media and by politicians of the protests as violent mobs are inaccurate, and exacerbate the imagined culture war between violent protesters and the police. The events were characterised by concern for the protection of our population’s democratic rights. As one individual Greg spoke to said, the right to protest covers all aspects of policy. This means that the things in our lives dictated by politics, i.e. everything, can be changed by popular will, and can be influenced by mass protests.

Depictions in the media and by politicians of the protests as violent mobs are inaccurate, and exacerbate the imagined culture war between violent protesters and the police. The events were characterised by concern for the protection of our population’s democratic rights.#

Second, the bill is at the top of a slippery slope towards authoritarian, anti-democratic rule by our government. During the coronavirus pandemic, the Tory government have avoided being publicly held to account (bar a handful of headlines) for corruption and cronyism, the unnecessary death of thousands of UK residents, and the chronic underfunding and piecemeal privatisation of our national healthcare service. The hypocrisy is stark in the government’s outward claims to uphold liberal values of freedom and democracy whilst serving their own interests and blocking freedom of speech in the midst of the crisis (see this article on the motion to ban anti-capitalist materials from the curriculum).

Third, history has shown us that establishment critics of social justice movements attempt to lead unfounded, bigoted witch hunts. In 1986, James Colaiaco wrote about the paradox of Martin Luther King’s methods of nonviolent protest. He cites King’s critics as arguing that the Civil Rights’ leader’s campaigns relied on violence, and incited violent acts. However, it was not the individuals fighting for the rights of Black people in the United States who caused the violence. Peaceful demonstrators exercised their constitutional rights and were violently attacked by racists. The paradox in practice led to ‘Americans of conscience’ demanding government intervention, and the government being put under enough pressure to introduce remedial legislation.

There are two particularly important points which follow in Colaicao’s paper. One is that passivity can be interpreted to indicate contentedness with an existing condition. In the case of racism in the United States, and countless other instances of social injustice and violence around the world, this is simply not true. But having an avenue through which to express discontent is vital to ensure that there is public, media, and political awareness of the anger and suffering of certain groups in response to Establishment behaviour. The second point is that nonviolent mass demonstrations, frequently under King’s strategic guidance, achieved more in the way of Civil Rights wins between 1955 and 1965 than any other anti-racist strategy had over the previous century. The NAACP, founded in 1909, utilised lobbying, public education, and case-by-case court rulings to win Black rights in the United States. The importance of their wins should not be understated, but it was peaceful protest accompanied by the radicalism of groups such as the Black Panthers which induced the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.

Nonviolent mass demonstrations, frequently under King’s strategic guidance, achieved more in the way of Civil Rights wins between 1955 and 1965 than any other anti-racist strategy had over the previous century.#

These two arguments have particular relevance to the #killthebill and accompanying protests against men attacking women. First, that the ruling class will interpret passivity as a statement of acceptance of systems and acts of injustice. If the people cannot go out onto the streets in peaceful protest, one of our most effective methods of expressing a demand for better conditions will be lost. Already throughout the pandemic the government has failed on so many accounts, and has not been held accountable. One such example is the court ruling in February, which found that the government had acted illegally in its failure to publicise the details of tens of contracts awarded without competition during the pandemic. Further, the National Audit Office has found that companies with political connections have been ten times more likely to win pandemic-related contracts than other organisations. We cannot continue to accept our government failures, and we cannot afford to lose a vital avenue for expressing discontent.

The second is that behind the scenes, quiet attempts to change the status quo will only work slowly. If we want to see a transformation in our political, economic, social system, or shifts in our attitudes towards the environment, happiness, people of different races and cultures, refugees, and war, we cannot wait for lobbying and corporate court cases to see that change. Mass demonstrations, including the noise of chants and megaphones, are an effective and important way to invoke change.

Mass demonstrations, including the noise of chants and megaphones, are an effective and important way to invoke change.#

The latest protests organised by the #killthebill organisation on the first weekend of April, were not as effectively organised as possible according to Greg. Following speeches in London, the protest lacked direction and splintered into separate groups, losing a sense of purpose. Ensuring that our protest movements are united by clear goals, with specific policy demands, is vital for achieving popular change. Yet, if this bill passes, our ability to use protests to voice any opposition – effective or not – will be curtailed.

In short, if this bill is passed, we can be sure that this government is sitting firmly on the wrong side of history. Accompanied by measures limiting free speech in schools, and frequent episodes of government failures passing the public by, these are clear warning signs of moves towards a firmly capitalist authoritarianism. This is happening at the expense of the wellbeing of the vast majority of our population, and will serve to limit our ability to achieve positive change. The right to peaceful protest must be protected at all costs, and always considered in the context of the broader system of oppression that is rife in our societies and institutions.


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India Burgess #

India is an Analyst working in international public sector reform.

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