“This Bill threatens what we do peacefully because we believe in something.”
Seasoned activists, people from a wide range of pressure groups, and individuals from all walks of life came together in Exeter on 15 January to show their resistance to the Bill with Priti Patel’s fingerprints all over it: the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill.
The event had been publicised by the Green Party but members of many other organisations were there, and the two hundred or so people at the rally heard spontaneous speeches from members of local groups as varied as Devon for Europe, the Socialist Workers’ Party, Extinction Rebellion, Amnesty International, Devon Rape Crisis, Refugee Support, Reclaim the Streets, Animal Rights, ASLEF (the train drivers’ union), the National Education Union, LGBTQ+ groups … so many people who care about human and workers’ rights, about the future for young people, about education, equality and respect, about climate change and biodiversity – so much which the government seems not to care about.
[Video by Jackie O’Connell]
One speaker said,
“My entire life was spent being conventional – I’d never joined a protest of any kind”, but when Brexit threatened the future of the UK and its young people, joining Devon for Europe and marching peacefully through London with a million other people “changed my life, totally, at the age of 64.”
He said, “it’s a fundamental right to express your view” and he was at the rally that day because he believed we should all be able to raise our voices in protest outside Parliament without being criminalised. “This government”, he said, “is taking away our rights, all the time.”
“If this Bill goes through, I will have no voice.”
Encouragingly, a number of young speakers addressed the crowd; one young woman said,
“I’m 15 – I can’t even vote, so the only way I can express my opinion to the government is through protesting.”
Another young woman said her great-grandmother had not been entitled to vote, but that the women in each succeeding generation of her family had attached huge importance to being able to vote because of the successful campaign by the ‘suffragettes’. She said that without those protests, women might still be disenfranchised, that any future UK government could decide again to stop women from voting, and that if the right to peaceful protest is taken away under the PCSC Bill, women might end up in prison all over again if they resist.
One part of society which could be severely affected by measures in the PCSC Bill is the travelling community: a traveller told the rally that her way of life is about to be criminalised. She said,
“I chose the traveller lifestyle because I can have a very low impact on the environment”, and she went on: “we live by a really strict moral code: do no harm, leave no trace, try to leave the world around you better for the next generation, help those around you. I will not be told by people who do not share those beliefs that I am a criminal for living the way I live.”
[Video by Jackie O’Donnell]
One speaker said this Bill could pave the way for future home secretaries to attempt even worse than Patel has done, to suppress dissent amongst those of us who want to oppose government policy. This sounds a bit extreme, until you remember that Dominic Raab wants to ‘reform’ the Human Rights Act by “preventing abuses of the system and adding a healthy dose of common sense” (words not usually associated with Raab); and that the government which prorogued Parliament now wants to curb the powers of judges like those who declared the prorogation illegal. It seems Boris Johnson’s government thinks it can do away with anything it doesn’t like.
Some speakers warned us about the threats contained in other government proposals going through Parliament alongside the PCSC Bill:
- the Elections Bill – which would mean anyone wishing to vote had to have photo ID (it’s widely acknowledged this would have more impact on people from poorer or ethnically diverse communities and would put them off voting);
- the Nationality and Borders Bill, which includes the new power to remove UK citizenship without notice, (although Patel even wants to include making it legal to push back migrants’ boats attempting to cross the Channel); and
- the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which would make it even more difficult for ordinary people to access the courts to review actions by government, and would enable politicians to overturn any judge-led decision with which they disagreed.
Everyone at the Exeter protest, no matter what their political affiliation – if any – was of one mind on the importance of the freedom we have (for the time being, anyway), to protest peacefully. One speaker asked us if we would defend this freedom; there was a resounding “Yes!”: and when he then asked if we would also defend the right of those who did not share our views to protest peacefully, there was another resounding “Yes!”.
And that’s what this rally was all about: no matter what our standpoint, we should all be able to make our voices heard in legal, peaceful protest.
The PCSC Bill is in its final stages in the House of Lords and some speakers urged us to visit digitalrebellion.uk and contact members of the Lords, asking them to vote down the Bill.
[Video by Jackie O’Connell]
One Devon for Europe member, and writer for West Country Voices, Canon Robin Murch, was collecting signatures amongst the crowd for a petition urging the Bishop of Exeter (who has a seat in the Lords) to vote against the Bill.
Green Party peers Baroness Jenny Jones and Baroness Natalie Bennett have spoken against the Bill in the House, and in Sadie Parker’s Democracy in danger article for West Country Voices, Baroness Jones reminded readers that the national Labour Party and its leader Keir Starmer will decide how Labour peers vote, so we need also to lobby @KeirStarmer and @UKLabour.
The campaign to prevent this Bill becoming law is continuing and there is going to be another ‘co-ordinated’ rally in Exeter on Saturday, 19 February. There will be events elsewhere, so please support them if you can.
Like many other freedoms we have taken for granted, the right to peaceful protest must be protected and exercised. Use it or lose it!
Join in the conversation on Thursday 20 Jan at 20:00, when our panel (Peter Jukes, Molly Scott Cato, Naomi Smith and Richard Murphy) will help us to navigate the issues around the threats to our democracy. Tickets are free and can be accessed here.