Lindsey German on our protests, their state and the tragedy of Sarah Everard
This is the week the reputation of the Metropolitan Police went critical. On Tuesday night we heard the terrible news that one of the Met’s own serving officers from the elite, arms-trained, special diplomatic squad had been arrested for the alleged kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard. She was attacked while walking home at night in south London. Her body has been identified by her dental records.
None of this made the Met miss a beat. By Thursday they were denying women protesters the right to hold a vigil in her memory on Clapham Common and across the country. The ban was upheld by the courts and the organisers (wrongly in my view) called the vigils off. Despite this, thousands still turned up on Saturday night, as I did in East London, to protest at the murder and to show solidarity.
At Clapham Common protestors were faced with despicable attacks. The picture of a young woman, Patsy Stevenson, was on news media across the country on Saturday night after she was pinned to the ground by hefty male policemen and arrested for breaking lockdown regulations.
The Sarah Everard case struck a chord with millions of women. As I wrote elsewhere about the case, every woman I know has suffered some type of sexual assault or unwanted sexual behaviour at some point in their lives, and it brought home all the anxiety and fear, but also the sense of injustice that women have to go through this time and again.
The calls by Labour for more laws and longer sentences misses the point. We already have laws against violence and abuse, against rape and murder. But they happen, partly because the levels of enforcement are low (witness the appalling conviction rate for rape), but partly because they are symptomatic of a deeply rotten society where women are treated as commodities.
There are now quite rightly calls for the resignation of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick. Her boss, the proven bully and breaker of the ministerial code, Home Secretary Priti Patel should go too. Incidentally, has there ever been a more striking proof that women’s oppression is maintained by class, and not simply a matter of all women against all men, than the fact that these two ruling class women are hard at work protecting those who are violent to women and, simultaneously, attempting to severely curtail the right to free assembly.
The banning of the wave of vigils round Sarah Everard was a deliberate decision to criminalise protest under cover of the lockdown regulations at a time when police completely ignore most breaches of those regulations. London parks are full of people at weekends, many of them obviously breaking lockdown regulations through picnicking or gathering in larger groups.
It is not the only example. Last week a Manchester nurse, Karen Reissmann, was fined £10,000 for organising a small and socially distanced protest in the city centre to campaign against the government’s miserly proposed increase for nurses.
The best defence of protest is to keep protesting
Let’s not pretend these are accidental or isolated occurrences. This week sees the second reading for the Tory Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which is a malicious attempt by the Tories to curtail protest – as well as among other things a discriminatory attack on the Traveller community. The Bill is aimed particularly at curtailing demos like the XR protests last year but will deal with all sorts of others including single person protests outside parliament.
It will widen conditions police can place on static protests, broadening the range of circumstances in which police can impose conditions - including where noise causes a significant impact on those in the vicinity or serious disruption to the running of an organisation.
These clauses will be used to protect parliament and major companies from legitimate protests. The Home Secretary will decide how to judge them through regulations which don't have full parliamentary scrutiny. Breach of the police conditions won't just be if you 'knowingly failed to comply' but where the person 'knows or ought to have known' a condition has been imposed.
The truth is all demos aim at disruption and impact – that’s precisely what their point is and precisely what the Tories want to silence. There is no point in having a protest if it is parked somewhere in a corner, whispering its message. Demos are also profoundly democratic – the voice of the non-politicians, the ordinary people. They are sometimes co-opted by the rich and powerful who use the protests to further their own ends or to replace governments. But they are generally a voice of the voiceless.
The right to protest has never been handed down by our benevolent rulers but been won by direct action. This was true of the free speech movement in East London in the 1880s, of the right to protest against fascists marching through Jewish, Asian or black areas, mass trespass on private property, or demanding access to the London tube for use as air raid shelters during the Second World War.
I recall three issues when I have been involved in conflict with police and government over the right of the Stop the War Coalition to demonstrate. On was around the mass Feb 15th, 2003 demo against the Iraq war when we were initially denied the use of Hyde Park – because the demo would damage the grass - by the Blair government. The second was later that same year when George Bush came to London and the police wanted to close huge sections of central London including sections of the tube. In both cases the movement refused to accede and stood our ground. In both cases the police backed down. Later when Gordon Brown was prime minister police banned a much smaller demo on Afghanistan from marching down Whitehall. Tony Benn declared that he would march on it wearing his Second World War medals. He did – and the police allowed it.
You have to stand up to bans. The best way of defending the right to protest is to keep protesting. It’s particularly important over the next few months. The Tories and the police are doing this under the cover of lockdown because they know there is growing discontent as we’re seeing on a range of issues including more glimpses of industrial action. They fear a wave of protests and demonstrations once lockdown ends, and they are hoping to introduce these laws in order to further criminalise those taking action and to restrict the impact of resistance to them. The protests still going on show how vital it is that we don’t let them get away with it.
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As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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