There are currently a lot of people saying that protesting right now, or protests that are partly violent or that encounter police violence is counterproductive.
There is absolutely no historical or social scientific basis for making such claims. Those who make them are pretty much always just expressing their own preferences.
I’ll make four points here.
1. Almost all successful protest anywhere in the world have some kind of violent element or confrontations with the police.
Just looking at this country, we can look to the Poll Tax, the Suffragettes or even the BLM protests last year. There are of course also many such movements that end in defeat, like Orgreave. But the reasons for success or defeat are much broader and more complex than whether there has been confrontation with police.
2. The confrontational part is always only one small part of the whole movement, but it is one that receives attention and can put the issue in people’s minds.
That is true for the current moment too. Loads of people are doing things actively to oppose this Bill on and off the streets. Very few of those have been involved in direct confrontations with police but those are the instances that tend to make local and national news. That confrontation/direct action element is then a key part, but just a part of the whole movement/campaign.
3. People who make claims about counterproductive tactics often point to the fact that protests are unpopular. But all protest is unpopular amongst the majority of the public.
Still, much protest is successful. Majority support is not a means to success. Instead, what is important is dedicated engagement and support by many people, but not a majority. Importantly, there are huge chunks of the population that do not support the protests themselves but have started considering this Bill and thinking that it probably is a bad idea. The goal of protestors is this not to become popular, but for their cause to gain support. And that is happening already. It was pressure on Labour following the Sisters Uncut vigil for Sarah Everard and police repression that led to Labour coming out against the Bill.
4. One of the main problems with this Bill is that it’s actually unenforceable.
No state or police force can control protests to the extent that the Bill aims to do. The current protests in Bristol, which may spread to other cities, show how impossible it is to police protest in such a way. Bear in mind that the Bill would render most protest illegal and have severe punishments for lawbreaking protest. That would push the organisation of protest underground, making it more volatile and less coherent. That is actually exactly what is happening right now under Covid restrictions. Thus, continuing these protests become a kind of direct action to show what the future will look like under this Bill.
And one last point on Bristol: mayor Marvin Rees says that Bristol is a pointless site because Bristol MPs are already voting against the Bill.
But if Bristol is a catalyst for protests around the country, showing how unenforceable this Bill is, then that will ultimately cause problem for the government.
Of course, we don’t know that that will happen. It may or it may not. But neither the Mayor of Bristol nor the shadow chancellor know that either. So what they are saying should not be taken with any more credibility than what Joe Bloggs has to say about it.
None of this is decided. There is no clear and obvious way to success or failure. All is to play for, on the streets and in the Houses of Parliament. ■
Dr Oscar Berglund
Dr Oscar Berglund is a lecturer in international public and social policy at the University of Bristol’s School for Policy Studies. You can find him on twitter @berglund_Oscar
Over the last few weeks protests against the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill have hit the headlines, particularly protests in Bristol, where police have acted violently and lied about the extent of injuries inflicted upon them by the protesters.
Online the hashtag #KillTheBill has been used extensively, leading to a debate about the ambiguous language. I've seen people pleading with protesters not to use such a phrase because it could be misunderstood as referring to the police.
I've seen people delighting in the ambiguity. I've seen police officers in high positions lamenting the fact that police officers they know have died in the course of their 'duties' and appealing for a different use of language. One high up officer described being a police officer as a difficult job, as if being part of the oppressive state is actually work. It isn't a job; it's a role. It comes with dangers because oppression will naturally pit you against the people.
Of course, the British like a good pun. We also have a rich history of dark humour. The fact that people are protesting about a Bill going through parliament and 'bill' is slang for cops is a rich opportunity for punnage, irony and dark humour. Dark humour invites people to judge the joke and either choose to laugh or be offended. Choose wisely as there is a flip side to this coin. Your choice will be noted by those around you and in turn you will be judged for your sense of humour.
The first protest I attended was in London, at the back end of 1994. The Criminal Justice Bill sought stricter rules around raves, even restricting the number of beats per minute a track of music could go up to before a party was shut down. The establishment were worried about the impact on young minds, particularly as people seemed to attend these events and then consume drugs. Imagine. The Conservative government couldn't tolerate the fun being had. So they legislated to stop the right to party.
In 1994, the Bill going through parliament would also curtail trespass rights, just like the current one. I remember the placards on the protest I attended. "Kill The Bill" was the phrase most commonly used. There was also disorder. A large London protest saw people attempt to scale the gates at Downing Street. The protest I attended was not allowed to go past the Prime minister's residence. I remember getting close and seeing for the first time in my life a row of riot police at the ready.
So, let's be clear. Everyone using the hashtag is aware of the connotations. A minority of hardcore protesters might even take it literally and delight in the killing of cops. Most though are using it to highlight the problems with the police and the problems of the bill passing through parliament. They are linked and the slogan works to link them. It's dark humour, get over it.
I don't see any valid limit to protest. While we are not totally free, all protest is legitimate. I do not advocate all forms of protest, however. It really depends on circumstance and it's not my decision; protests sway democratically in their tactics. What form a protest will take is for those present to decide, but often it is dictated by the policing of the event. When the police turn up for violence, the protest ends inevitably with violence. Any legislation restricting protest is wrong in principle. The police have enough powers already. They not should be given more. #KillTheBill ■
Jon Bigger, Anarchist Writer.
Originally hosted on Jon's Journal.