17 March 2021
Our right to protest has been radically curtailed by the Coronavirus Act and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is set to decimate what’s left.
Last week began with International Women’s Day, a day that broke into history in 1911 with women protesting lethal working conditions in garment factories. Since then it has become an event so preoccupied with individual empowerment, self-care, and buying things, and so far from its roots among working women, that you could be forgiven for thinking that women had long since overcome any structural disadvantage, and now simply suffer from a kind of collective low self-esteem.
Yet, by Mothering Sunday, we saw an energised and passionate feminist movement take over central London in a protest we Sisters Uncut – a British feminist direct action group – organised against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is being debated in Parliament on Monday.
In the days between International Women’s Day and Mother’s Day, a serving Metropolitan Police Officer was charged with the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old woman who went missing on 3 March in Clapham, London.
An outpouring of grief, rage, and recognition followed her death, but sharing our own stories on social media was not enough. We knew we needed to be together in person, to commemorate her death, and to witness each other’s collective pain and anger.
We planned to attend the vigil in Clapham. When official organisers called it off after police negotiations, Sisters Uncut were undeterred and we maintained plans to publicly gather to grieve. We don’t believe that the human right to assemble is something anyone needs to ask permission for, or anyone can take away.
Despite police pressure to call off the event, and announcements of curfews for women, thousands of people still came to Clapham Common in a spirit of collective mourning. After laying flowers and grieving for Sarah, women and non-binary people were met with calculated violence from the Metropolitan Police, the colleagues of the man charged with Sarah Everard’s murder.
Though the police response was shocking, it should have come as no surprise. We all have a right to gather in public, express ourselves and speak out against injustice. But the landscape for public protest in this country is increasingly bleak.
A woman was fined for allegedly organising a Black Lives Matter protest in Cardiff following the death of Mohamud Mohammed Hassan after he spent the night in police custody. A press photographer was arrested in Kent in January after documenting a protest decrying spaces where people seeking asylum are being held in alleged Covid-infested army barracks. The police fined a nurse in Manchester £10,000, earlier this month, following a small socially distanced protest against the meager one percent pay rise for NHS workers.
Our right to the freedom of assembly has already been radically curtailed by the Coronavirus Act and the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill tabled in parliament today is set to decimate what is left.
Along with this all-out assault on democratic protest, the bill proposes sweeping new stop and search powers; a move to criminalise Gypsy and Traveller communities by ramping up trespass laws; and a statutory duty on local authorities to stop knife crime that echoes the surveillance used in the PREVENT scheme.
Across these measures, it is racialised communities who will find their rights and freedoms brutally curtailed. And the draconian measures on protests will make challenging these powers all the more difficult.
The powers introduced by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will also empower police to decide where, when and how citizens are allowed to protest and have their voices heard by those in power. It will also increase penalties for those breaching police conditions on protests. The right to protest is essential for all people, and especially survivors of violence, to hold powerful institutions accountable.
Since the first International Women’s Day over a century ago, women in Britain have won essential rights, not least the rights to vote and access abortions. These rights were fought for, not given to us. Women won by defying angry fathers and violent husbands, by flouting social norms and breaking unjust laws, by coming together in mourning and rage, by reclaiming the streets together. At every turn, women have faced police brutality and repression.
In just the last couple of years, we have seen women take to the streets over and over again.
In the UK, Women’s Strike has organised massive demonstrations, with sex workers leading the fight against criminalisation. This summer, the specialist Black women’s domestic violence service, Sistah Space, joined forces with Black Lives Matter protests to prevent its eviction by Hackney Council.
In India in December, thousands of women occupied the Shaheen Bagh neighbourhood against the Islamophobic Citizenship Amendment Act. In Chile last year, the sound of thousands of women singing “the rapist is you!” rang out through the streets and across the internet. Women are defying state violence and repression around the world.
Protest is the right on which all others stand. Without protest, we cannot fight for our right to safe housing, legal representation, clean air, and water, education, healthcare, or to reproductive justice. Without protest, we cannot gather in a vigil for Sarah Everard or prevent future victims of gender-based violence. To lose the right to protest is to lose our freedom, and to lose our ability to imagine and enact a better world.
It is in the interest of every person, but especially every woman, that Parliament kills the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. If we do not, we have everything to lose.