Lindsey German on today’s new laws, some recent victories and the Shrewsbury 24
It’s not often that a demonstration leads the 10pm BBC News. But last Sunday it did as scenes of police vans burning and windows smashed in Bristol brought the usual predictable condemnations of violence from across the political spectrum – including from the black mayor of the city, Marvin Rees. The demonstration – to protest at the police bill going through parliament which will make demonstrating more difficult and subject to increased criminalisation – was the first of three to take place in Bristol over this week, and all have been subject to vicious attacks by the police.
The headlines repeated police lies about injuries, of broken bones and one policeman with a punctured lung, which later in the week the police admitted had not happened. But by then the image of violent protesters and police under attack was central to the narrative. The vicious treatment of kettled protesters hardly got a mention.
Despite this, protests in Bristol have been joined by many elsewhere over recent weeks. Video footage and eyewitness reports – not least by a Daily Mirror journalist who was attacked by police – have succeeded in beginning to challenge this police and media hostility to demonstrators. But we will need to do much more to defeat this bill and the politics behind it.
This draconian new law if passed will give a free hand to police to prevent demonstrations at whim and will give the worst Home Secretary in living memory, Priti Patel, the power to decree which demonstrations are and are not acceptable. The law and police actions are ones which would be denounced if criminalising protest in Hong Kong, but they represent government policies of growing authoritarianism which are become increasingly commonplace in western democracies. We only have to look across the Channel at Macron’s France and the brutal police attacks on the gilets jaunes to see that.
The criminalising of protest and protesters is the response of neoliberal capitalism to growing inequality, its inability to deal with the very serious discontents arising from climate change, racism and sexism, and its growing fear that working people are beginning to challenge the priorities of capital.
In recent weeks here we have seen a vicious police attack on a peaceful vigil for Sarah Everard (her alleged murderer a serving Metropolitan police officer), a parliamentary majority for the second reading of the police bill, and now a growing wave of protests at the bill met with arrests and violence by the police. They are using the lockdown regulations (changed between the first lockdown and now to make protest much harder) to justify the riot shields and batons, and they want the new law because they sense the growing discontent in British society. The government is concerned that there will be far more protests at the end of lockdown and is doing its best to deter that from happening.
I was very disappointed that so many on the left joined in the disapproval of the first Bristol protest and condemned the violence. I certainly won’t add to that condemnation. This is partly because I find some of the hypocrisy galling from a government and media which justifies violence every day – against those on benefits, or asylum seekers for example, and which spends billions every year on weapons and wars. But it is also because from long and bitter experience I am aware of the many lies told about demos and violence.
One of the most violent demonstrations I have been on was in Red Lion Square in 1974, where a young student Kevin Gately was killed as the police protected the fascists trying to meet in Conway Hall. Many anti-fascist demos have seen the same dynamic: Lewisham, Southall where Blair Peach was killed by police, Welling. The mass poll tax demo was attacked by police. The huge demo in Genoa against the G8, where a young demonstrator Carlo Guiliani was killed, was treated like a military operation by the police.
Very often it is police tactics that lead to violence – and nearly always the initial police story is to blame this violence on protesters. It is only later that the truth emerges. Which is why it is so important that the left defends the demonstrators and with them the right to protest. There is – whatever the police like to argue – a right to peaceful protest in this country. It has been won by generations fighting for this right, repeatedly asserting it against repressive policing, and demanding that the truth about these demos is told.
The new repressive policing is a dangerous development as even some former police are saying. The shameful response of Labour will only aid those trying to introduce these powers. Although the party now opposes the bill in parliament its original plan was to abstain - only the outrage at the Sarah Everard protests forced a change of mind. Labour is an opposition which is scared of its own shadow hence its pale imitation of Tory policies and its desperation to be seen as flag waving and law abiding, whatever the cost.
The bill has to be opposed by a mass movement both against the bill and in defence of protestors. Mass protest is key here which means getting hundreds of thousands out on the streets over the coming months and building events which can challenge the bill and government attacks on working class people. It must involve the trade union movement, the campaigns, grassroots activists, working together to roll back this attack. That starts with showing solidarity to all those who have been protesting in recent weeks and refusing to accept the attempts to criminalise them.
Deny, demonise, delay, defer
I was delighted the convictions of the Shrewsbury 24 were overturned last week. This was a totally political prosecution by a vicious Tory government scared of working-class militancy. There were many protests in their support in the early 1970s, but they still ended up in prison at great cost personally. Why do we have to wait nearly 50 years for justice, though? When people talk about British democracy we should remember the decades until wrongs have been righted and the causes which have been fought for so long, many not even living to see the results. Bloody Sunday in Derry, Hillsborough, Orgreave, all the miscarriages of justice of Irish prisoners and those killed in police custody. Deny, demonise, delay, defer are the watchwords of the British establishment – and it’s only because of the tenacity of campaigners that the truth ever comes out.
A change is gonna come
There have been some blows against the low wage insecure jobs which are the reality for many British workers in recent weeks. The Uber court victory has meant the company will now treat its drivers as workers, which gives them certain rights. Deliveroo couriers are threatening strike action as the company goes public this week – with investors already wary about buying shares because of its treatment of workers. And Asda women supermarket workers have made a big step towards equal pay after the Supreme Court ruled that they can use male warehouse workers as a comparator. This has implications for low paid supermarket workers everywhere. All the cases are straws in the wind – something is changing in the working-class movement and some of those with the worst conditions are fighting back. Time to bring all the different issues together.
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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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