Resist the crackdown on demonstrations

The police are using powers appropriated during the Covid-19 emergency period in an attempt to crackdown on protests.

Police Trafalgar square
XR Citizen’s Assembly, Trafalgar Square, London 5 September 2020. Photo: Steve Eason

Police forces in the UK are launching a fresh crackdown on political protest, sending threatening letters to organisers and arresting and assaulting activists at a range of political demonstrations.

A variety of activist organisations are known to have been sent threatening letters by police in the closing weeks of August and the first week of September.

Cops protect the Murdoch press

Extinction Rebellion (XR) held a programme of activities over the August bank holiday weekend and then began its latest Rebellion on 1 September, with protests and occupations planned in various locations, and the largest centred at Parliament Square. At the time of writing over 600 arrests had been made in London alone, with those arrested including at least one participant in their 90s.

Police also stepped in to break several blockades around the country of printing and distribution centres for right-wing newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. XR had blocked the locations to protest the climate denialism propagated by Murdoch’s news empire. Thirteen activists were arrested

Ahead of the action, police wrote to XR organisers suggesting that they risked arrest and a fine of up to £10,000 if they went ahead with organising protests. Similar letters have been sent to other protest organisers across the country. The letter appears to be referring to two pieces of legislation: emergency legislation brought in early on in the pandemic, which prohibits any gatherings (with the bar set at gathering more than 30 people, as of July); and new powers brought in in August, allowing for a fine of up to £10,000 for organisers of illegal events. The latter was billed as a means of tackling illegal raves.

As XR’s legal team have pointed out, the police letter is fraudulent and misleading on its own terms, because the legislation in question specifically exempts events organised by ‘political bodies’ from its restrictions. The letter heavily insinuates the opposite, and mentions other genres of event which are exempt (such as business and charity events), while avoiding mentioning that political protests are also exempt.

Trans rights demo cancelled

The police did succeed in using similar fear tactics to force the cancellation of a trans rights demo called by Trans Rights Collective UK. On 3 September, the group was told by the police that there would be no risk of arrests or fines for attendees of a trans rights demo planned for Saturday morning; one day later, the Met abruptly reversed this assurance, suddenly contacting the organisers and threatening them with arrest if the demo went ahead. The intimidation tactics succeeded in pushing the organisers into cancelling the demo.

Anti-racist activist pushes back

The anti-racist community group Communities Against Violence were likewise sent a threatening letter by the Met in the last days of August, in a bid to shut down a protest over institutional racism on 30 August. The letter sent went as far as to assert that the recipient ‘may have already committed an offence… by promoting the event.’ Organiser Ken Hinds successfully pushed back against the intimidation with legal help, leading to the police dropping the threat of arrest and acknowledging that the campaign is a ‘political body’ and thus exempt from the restriction. The march went ahead.

Palestine activists assaulted

On Saturday 5 September huge numbers of police mobilised to repress protesters from Palestine Action, who were outside the London premises of Elbit Systems, an Israeli arms firm that deals extensively in weapons tested on Palestinian civilians. Over 14 police cars and vans turned up for a demonstration of around 50 people. Officers threatened protestors with arrest for flouting social distancing laws, but regularly came within two metres of the protestors in order to issue these threats. Four protesters were victims of violent arrest, and have since been released, pending investigation. Note: the video below, published by Palestine Action and showing one of these violent arrests, is disturbing.

Resist the crackdown

It’s clear that police are making a determined and organised attempt to crush protests and lock down the wide-ranging de facto powers that they appropriated during the Covid-19 emergency period. Moreover, they are trying to normalise the violent suppression of dissent even beyond the expanded legal powers given to them in the Johnson government’s coronavirus legislation.

It’s also notable that the push to suppress protests is being carried out under legislation supposedly designed to prevent the spread of Covid-19. This is taking place under the auspices of a UK government that is currently working to actively promote a premature reopening of the economy: encouraging bosses to fire anyone who will not return to unsafe workplaces; bribing millions of people to go out to restaurants by offering half-price meals; spending lavishly on PR campaigns to create the (wholly false) impression that the threat of Covid-19 is now over. The lockdown has ended, but the crackdown goes on and on.

In other words, this is not a matter of overzealous by the state attempts to suppress Covid-19; rather, Covid-19 is being used as a purely cynical cover story for a violent crackdown on political dissent of many different shades. There should be no assumption that the police will at any point surrender the draconian powers that they are currently laying claim to; already, they are trying to push their repression beyond the powers legislated for. However, the last few months have also illustrated that the police can be faced down, when activists refuse to be cowed. Police continually attacked the massive Black Lives Matter demonstrations, but sheer weight of numbers made them powerless to stop the protests. On a smaller scale, organisers who pushed back against the Met’s bullying campaign over the last two weeks were able to go ahead with their plans. By contrast, other protests were cancelled where coordinators, isolated and lacking in legal advice, or solidarity from other activists, were understandably intimidated by the Met’s strong-arm tactics.

To reassert the right to protest, we will need to stand in broad solidarity across our various political causes and backgrounds, and lend each other the strength, skills and encouragement to stand up to state repression.

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