Tiananmen-on-Thames: Priti Patel creates her own Forbidden City

Meme by Sadie Parker

The Vote Leave government must have thought it was being so clever, abusing its position to slip draconian, Putinesque provisions into the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. Part 3 on ‘Public Order’ targets all the protests and protestors that the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, in particular despises: Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter and Stop Brexit (now anti-Tory corruption) man, Steve Bray.

Never mind that parliament has a duty to treat each member of the British community as an equal, and it is therefore anti-constitutional to bring the full force of the state to bear against specific individuals out of petty spite. With an 80-seat majority (now 75) at the time of the passage of the bill, there was little chance of defeat, despite even some Tory MPs being ‘uncomfortable’ with the extent of the assault on our civil liberties the Bill represented.

No matter what we personally think of the targeted protestors, Patel’s treatment of them concerns us all, because at its root is an attack on the right to dissent. For this is a government that goes out of its way to avoid scrutiny, to silence dissent and to cancel opposing views.

That might not matter to you right now, but you never know what twists and turns your life may take. And one day you may find yourself wanting to draw attention to a worthy cause but finding yourself unable to do so because your right of peaceful protest has been severely curtailed, or even extinguished.

Take back control, they said, but Brexit didn’t give the electorate any more control. We still only get to vote for our MPs once in every five years, and it’s devilishly difficult to get rid of them if they’re corrupt, or even just rubbish at their job.

Protest is the only way the powerless can make themselves heard by the powerful. It is in all of our interest, therefore, to show solidarity with each other and fight for the principle of protest.

Of course, Priti Patel denied that she had specific protestors in her sights. Clause 79, dubbed the Steve Bray clause after the persistent protestor, brought action by individuals into the scope of protest for the first time.

It gives senior police the power to impose any conditions they see fit on a one-person protest to avoid disruption or impact, if they believe the noise that person is making may result in ‘serious disruption’ to the activities of an organisation carried on in the vicinity of the protest.

However, it is Priti Patel who defines what ‘serious disruption’ entails via a statutory instrument (SI). Since SIs receive minimal, if any, parliamentary scrutiny, this effectively gives the Home Secretary licence to do whatever she wants. She appears to define ‘serious disruption’ as ‘mild annoyance’.

Single protestors who knowingly refuse to comply with police orders can be fined up to £2,500, while someone who incites the one-person protest not to comply could be jailed for up to 51 weeks.

Looking on the bright side of this appalling provision, constitutional expert AC Grayling tweeted as the Bill passed through parliament:

“It’s a great honour to Steve Bray, and an unmistakable sign of the weakness, pettiness, illiberality and unintelligence of this Brexiter ‘government’, that it seeks to pass a Bill that singles him out.

“He has humiliated and stung them and they want to shut him up; he should be knighted.” 

The law came into effect on 28 June 2022. As if to give the lie to Patel’s previous assertions that the law was not specifically targeting Steve Bray, police immediately swooped in and confiscated his loud speakers, issuing him with a summons.

There weren’t just one or two police officers, but as many as 20 at one point. Were all the criminals away on holiday that day? How and why were they devoting so much manpower to such a harmless incident?

What was interesting was that the police did not rely on the infamous clause 79. Perhaps they have realized after all this time that Steve Bray is not, in fact, a one-man act. There’s a whole team behind him, and he is rarely alone, being usually accompanied by core team members, regular protestors or drop-ins.

Also, as Adam Bienkov’s clip of Steve and his crew proved (inadvertently), it is unlikely parliament can hear very much of the protest, as traffic drowns it out.

Instead, Priti Patel has designated a massive “controlled area” around parliament, extending to Downing Street, where people may no longer protest without licence, and especially not use loud-hailers or speakers.

It is a little Forbidden City at the heart of our democracy, where she holds sway and calls the shots. Welcome to Tiananmen-on-Thames.

To begin with, Tory MPs and prominent Brexiters were crowing over the silencing of Steve Bray. As Bray struggled to protect his property from police, one officer was heard to say that the new law ‘superseded his human rights’. Chilling.

Then something remarkable happened. After the loss of his speakers, Andrea Leadsom put out a defamatory tweet equating noisy protest with violence.

People became so enraged by the Met’s heavy-handedness and Leadsom’s mendacity, that they started contributing in droves to the crowdfunder that finances Bray’s protest. After 99 weeks, it stood at £54,000, but in the next 36 hours it ticked up to more than three times that amount. There were jokes that Bray could now gazump Wilf Johnson’s Chequers treehouse (£150,000).

Over 9,500 individuals have now donated, and not just from the UK. People who love our country the world over and who are distraught to see what is happening here under Boris Johnson’s ‘leadership’ have joined in. Donations will cover not just new equipment, but also legal fees for anticipated court cases.

In the build-up to Prime Minister’s Questions, Bray and his crew were back to protesting outside parliament as usual, with Somerled Mackay’s version of the old Bay City Rollers’ hit, Bye Bye Boris, blaring away on the speakers.

The police appeared to be staying away, showing just how unworkable Patel’s draconian anti-protest regime is in practice.

Inside the Commons, Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner remarked how odd it was that Tory MPs were ‘braying’ and trying to drown her out, while outside they had set the police on a protestor for being noisy. 

This is a PR disaster for Patel. The entire incident has achieved massive cut-through and drawn attention to just how far from British values her new policing law takes us.

If people didn’t know who Steve Bray was before, they do now. He has been given public backing by MPs and peers, political commentators, and celebrities from all walks of life.

On social media people are joking that if you need police to respond to a crime, the best way to achieve it is to carry a loud speaker around: 20 cops will surround you immediately! Others advised Steve to play Abba tunes, because the Met appear to be deaf to those (referring to Carrie Johnson’s uninvestigated illegal Abba party in the Downing Street flat during lockdown).

Even those who are not particularly keen on Bray have given him their grudging support. Plus, there are articles not just in the UK press, but in the foreign press too.

It is not over yet. Both Boris Johnson and Priti Patel are petty and known to bear epic grudges. They will come down hard on Bray and try to destroy him, once the sunlight of publicity has faded.

Yet the strength of the public response gives hope. It shows there are a lot of people out there concerned about the direction this government has taken.

There will come a time when the silent majority will need to take to the streets and make themselves heard, as they did over the illegal prorogation of parliament. Get ready, because that time may be sooner than you think.

In the meantime, write to your MP to let them know what you think about Patel’s new anti-protest measures, and if you’d like to support Steve Bray’s continuing protest, you may do so here.