The police responded to the murder of Sarah Everard firstly by victim blaming and then by violently shutting down a peaceful vigil in her memory – something which is widely believed to have been ordered by Tory Home Secretary Priti Patel. As if this wasn’t enough, the government’s next bright idea was to launch ‘Project Vigilant’, putting plainclothes police officers into nightclubs to ‘protect women’. Undercover police officers do not have a good track record, such as the ones who infiltrated left-wing political groups, using the identities of dead children, forming relationships with women they were spying on and in one case even fathering a child.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill shows that Boris Johnson and the Tory party are being pushed in an authoritarian direction, primarily out of fear of working class rebellion. They have been taking a battering in opinion polls, after a temporary boost in support because of a feeling of ‘national unity’ amongst many in the face of coronavirus, because of their attempts to make the working class pay for the coronavirus crisis. Forced into U-turns over A-level results, schools reopening and many other issues, the government has now faced in the last week protests and mass anger over NHS pay and over the policing bill itself. Not to mention a number of strikes happening across the country over ‘fire & rehire’ practices. Rishi Sunak’s budget represented overall an attempt to postpone making us pay for the covid stimulus packages in the last year, and now they are preparing for future battles to come.
The main part of the bill is to give more powers to the government and the police to restrict protest. It probably wasn’t part of their plan to have this rushed through parliament at the same time as the police were shutting down vigils or handing out £10,000 fines to NHS workers for organising socially distanced protests under the guise of covid restrictions. However, it has highlighted exactly what is on the cards and is an urgent call to the trade union movement and campaigners against violence against women to organise now to defend the right to protest.
Weak Tory government
Priti Patel argued that this is part of the manifesto that the ‘British people’ voted for in 2019, pointing towards parts of the bill which would mean tougher sentences for rapists for example. But their manifesto didn’t promise to curtail the right to protest! In fact, as well as fear of future protests, it has been a response to the Black Lives Matter protests last year; one part of the bill refers to a maximum 10-year prison sentence for damaging a memorial. It mentions ‘memorial’ eight times but doesn’t mention women once!
Protests can be shut down if they are ‘noisy’ or ‘cause annoyance’, which describes any effective protest, including even ‘one-person protests’. And the police can dictate start and finish times for static protests. But more worrying is that the home secretary has the power to add any new reasons for restriction without parliament agreeing.
The police have been used to enforce coronavirus rules, but have come down hard, particularly on young people. The vast majority of people have abided by the restrictions, understanding the need to prevent the spreading of the virus. However, there are reports of police entering student accommodation with keys at night and without permission, handing out draconian fines of up to £800 in many cases. In Manchester, students have set up a campaign group called “Cops Off Campus” to organise against intrusive policing and racial profiling.
These are all signs of a worried, weak government, rather than a sign of strength. It’s not an accident that they are targeting young people, particularly women and Black people. Recent years have seen a radicalisation of a new generation of people who are simply not willing to put up with racism, sexism and environmental destruction. More than this, they are showing it by taking to the streets and in many cases facing down the police. They are a generation who know their rights, are willing to fight for their futures and in the main they are not Tory voters!
The Tories fear the confidence this will give the working class more generally to fight. In the past 10 years, working class struggle has been held back by the so-called leaders of the trade union movement. But the lack of strike action does not reflect the true mood of workers. The impact of the covid crisis – including mass job losses – will be a catalyst for action, even if the trade union leaders continue to act as a barrier. The vexation of NHS staff at the offer of a 1% pay rise can be turned into determination for the 15% pay rise they are calling for, with the potential for coordinated strike action across the health unions. Already the police in Manchester have attempted to disperse striking bus drivers from their picket lines, in an example of how the policing bill will be used against workers.
Many trade unions have warned about the policing bill, but it will take more than this to defeat it. Keir Starmer’s Labour Party was originally only going to abstain on the vote in parliament but were forced into voting against due to the mass anger after the police response at the vigil for Sarah Everard. They defend parts of the bill which promise ‘tougher sentences’ on perpetrators of violence against women.
No more power to the police
It would be welcomed by most women for there to be more serious action taken against those found guilty of rape, sexual abuse and domestic abuse. However, the bigger issue is how few perpetrators are ever charged. Despite an increase in the number of rapes reported, the number of prosecutions is at an historic low. This is usually down to the police not taking accusations seriously, not believing survivors or arguing that there is not enough evidence to prove it. But it has also been revealed that training for the Crown Prosecution Service included setting targets for only taking ‘easier’ cases to court.
The police force is institutionally sexist and racist. It was only in 1975 that women were able to do any job in the police and currently two-thirds of officers in England and Wales are male. This isn’t the only factor, we see that having a female Commissioner of the Met – Cressida Dick – and Home Secretary doesn’t protect women from police violence and harassment. Also, not all individual male police officers are sexist. However, it does help to explain a certain culture within the police force, for example five Hampshire police officers found to be referring to women as “whores” and “sluts” and two Met officers who took photos of themselves with the bodies of murdered Black women Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry. These attitudes exist towards female members of the public and female police officers alike. The Centre for Women’s Justice submitted a complaint of 666 reports over three years of domestic abuse carried out by police officers.
Stop and Search practices are still disproportionately used on Black people. The latest example of a Black man who has died potentially at the hands of the police is Mohamud Hassan, who died shortly after leaving police custody in Cardiff. The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) is investigating three officers but a woman was fined £500 for organising a protest against Hassan’s death. Every prosecution over a death in custody in the last 15 years has ended in an acquittal.
Democratic control of the police
But this isn’t just shocking for the deaths of Black men in police custody. Overall, out of the 641 police officers found to have committed gross misconduct in a five year period, just 54 were sacked. This is because the IOPC is far from independent and is basically the police investigating itself, with the underlying attitude that police officers are above the law and shouldn’t be held to account.
One of the most shocking is that the lawyers for deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan police, Sir Stephen House, have said that he is too busy to be cross-examined in a legal case on police infiltration into left-wing political groups! Busy perhaps defending the outrageous actions of the Met at Sarah Everard’s vigil.
The main role of the police on the basis of capitalism is to protect the system and private property, not working class people. We need democratic control over where police are deployed, how they carry out investigations, and over the hiring and firing of police officers. This could also be used to drive out sexist, racist, homphobic and transphobic police officers.
Investigations into police misconduct should be carried out by elected representatives from the families of victims, communtiies, campaign groups, trade unions, and other relevant organisations, including an open and democratic inquiry into the murder of Sarah Everard, and other murdered women such as Blessing Olusegan, which the police are currently refusing to investigate.
Defend the right to protest
There have been at least 9 cases in the last few months where police have used the excuse of covid regulations to shut down protests, from anti-HS2 protests to NHS protests. But this is part of a pattern of increased repression and monitoring of protests, including the use of drones to record people on protests.
The reason for the policing bill that is being cited by government ministers and those high up in the police is that protesting methods have changed, and so the law needs to change. What this really means is that after a number of years of low levels of struggle, protests are increasing in frequency and are becoming more militant and effective. This in itself shows how this new law can be defeated. In the face of repression, we need to build bigger and more effective protests – a glimpse of which we’ve already seen in Parliament Square in the last week.
The trade union movement needs to mobilise their 6 million members in a series of protests and strike action where necessary to organise mass resistance to these attacks on the right to protest. Rank and file trade union members should demand their leaders act. They did nothing effectively to stop the anti-trade union laws and can’t be allowed to sit back and allow the policing bill to pass without a fight.
Ultimately, the Tories are on the back foot. This bill can be defeated. The Labour Party is clearly not going to be a vehicle for struggle on this issue, let alone any other attacks being faced by working class and young people. All those willing to fight – in the trade unions, campaigns for women’s rights and safety, Black Lives Matter and climate strikers – should come together in conferences of resistance, to discuss and organise to defend the right to protest. This discussion will also need to involve building a political voice for these movements, with strong socialist demands for democratic rights and system change. Everyone who agrees with the need for a fundamental change in the way in which our society is organised, the need for socialism, should join Socialist Alternative in fighting for this.