from the quiet,-you dept
The British government is looking to literally silence dissent. Protests are a fact of life. There hasn’t been a government yet that’s been able to avoid them. But governments still do all they can to prevent them from reaching critical mass. In Hong Kong, the Chinese government has turned protesting into a national security crime with life sentences. In the United States, legislators are still trying to find ways to shut people up without violating their long-protected right to be verbally and demonstratively angry at their government.
Over in the UK, the government wants people to shut up. So, the Home Office has crafted a bill that would do exactly that: criminalize the “noise” protesters make. The bill would amend the 1986’s Public Order Act to make it a crime to do the one thing demonstrations and protests are supposed to do: draw the public’s attention. Here’s Ian Dunt, writing for Politics.co.uk.
On Tuesday, the Home Office published the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill. It covers a wide range of areas, from sentencing to digital information. But it has a specific section on the policing of protests. And the function of this section is simple: It aims to silence them.
This isn’t a metaphorical silencing. It’s a literal silencing. The 1986 law forbids protests that threaten serious damage or disruption. These amendments add “noise” to the list of aspects that allow the government to intervene or shut down demonstrations.
If the noise of the protest “may result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation” – for instance by distracting employees in a nearby office, then the police can impose restrictions. It goes without saying that this applies to almost any protest at all around parliament, the whole purpose of which is to get the attention of politicians. It can therefore cause “serious disruption” of an organisation.
It also applies to passers-by. If the noise of the protest could have “a relevant impact on persons in the vicinity of the procession”, the police can impose restrictions. The standard for this threshold is very low indeed: If the police believe that just one person nearby could be caused “serious unease, alarm or distress”, they can impose restrictions.
Unease and alarm are often byproducts of even peaceful protests. It’s something commonly suffered by those targeted by the targets of demonstrations. Their unease is the point, because without it, it’s pretty hard to compel change.
With this amendment, anyone could complain about the “noise” made by protesters and prompt a law enforcement response. Law enforcement can also use any imagined level of noise as impetus for shutting down protests under the presumption that stopping a protest before it gets “too” loud is just proactive police work.
It’s SHUT UP: the law. The entire point of protests is to draw attention to and disrupt the status quo. This bill makes it illegal to hold an effective protest. And that appears to be the way the Home Office wants it. As Dunt points out, Home Secretary Priti Patel has been openly critical of many different protests, calling Extinction Rebellion protesters “eco-terrorists” and saying Black Lives Matter protests are not “the right way” to protest.
This is a gag order on dissent. Every government would love to have one. And it looks like the UK may be the next to criminalize complaints by the public it’s apparently failing to serve properly.