I fear the end of the mass protest

Simon Pearson asks if the left can't come together to fight the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill, is that it for mass protest?


George Monbiot’s recent opinion piece in The Guardian (‘Jailed for 51 weeks for protesting? Britain is becoming a police state by stealth’) should have been a wake-up call. A Tory bill so malicious in intent, it should have been the cause that brought the Left together.

The act of protesting, individually or en masse, is sacred, carried in the DNA of every radical political group in the country. This is an anti-protest bill. It has not been put together to facilitate rightful dissent: it is designed to stop it, forever.

Monbiot writes that the Tory amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill are ‘tyrannical’, the kind of thing ‘you might expect in Russia or Egypt’. This, it would seem, is the overall direction of travel – not by stealth, but writ large.

This Tory Government doesn’t care about public opinion. It is the establishment, the capitalists, and their own reactionary mass base that matter. XR stopping newspapers leaving the printing presses, Amazon vans departing the fulfilment centres, or Insulate Britain blocking up the arteries of commerce? Then the law must be changed to stop it.

It doesn’t matter that those newspapers pollute the political discourse with half-truths, or the environmental damage caused by the stream of never-ending products flowing from those fulfilment centres. The status quo must never be challenged.  

The only time things have changed for the betterment of the working class is when they have forced it, made things so uncomfortable for the political class they were left with no choice but to enact change. As the late David Graeber said, ‘Power never gave up anything voluntarily.’

I don’t want to romanticise the Chartist movement, or anti-poll tax protestors, or today’s climate activists as facilitators of change. People identify a wrong and through mass protest do what they have to do until that wrong is put right. Nothing romantic about that: it’s political agency.

Graeber said about the Occupy Movement and its predecessors, it was ‘as if their entire sense of what was politically possible had transformed overnight’. The ‘politically possible’ was discovered through solidarity and protest, the true power of the masses.

It would seem we are prepared to slip back to a time when, just like after the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, where fear of imprisonment hung over the heads of radicals and protest was curtailed so the powerful could rest easy in their beds. I was expecting the new Labour Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper to say something in today’s Guardian piece about the bill, but alas no. The Guardian may describe Cooper’s promotion as ‘eye-catching’; I would suggest more eye-raising. The Labour leadership seems intent on continuing the narrative of ‘we can be tougher on crime than the Tories’.

If we want a red-green revolution, to shout ‘Black Live’s Matter’, to end misogyny and oppression, to start to address the climate emergency, then we must be able to protest. It must be spikey, uncomfortable for those in power; it must stop the wheels of capital turning; because if it can’t do those things, it loses its power.

Protest is the school of the revolutionary, a place where ideas are shared, and moments can become movements. It is because protests work that they want to stop them. The Conservative government hates the power of the masses. That is why they destroyed trade unions’ ability to picket, and they want to make sure a Tory government is never faced down by the likes of anti-poll tax protestors.

We have only a short while left to stop this regressive bill. If we fail to coalesce around this issue, then everything falls by the wayside. Monbiot was surprised that millions were not already on the street protesting. If the bill passes, the cost of stopping wars, climate change, racism, and violence against women could be a prison sentence.

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Simon Pearson is on the Editorial Board of the Anti*Capitalist Resistance and is a Midlands-based political activist.

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