On Police Violence, Protest Solidarity, and Amending the Policing Bill

This interview is the second in a 4-part investigative series covering: Mask Up and the need for safety in protesting, the Kill the Bill movement and its importance, personal accounts of protesting over lockdown, and the history of protests and the protests movements of today. I hope to shed light on why so many protest movements have started in recent years, to discover why they matter to so many people and help to emphasize the messages behind each group.

In Part 2 of this investigative series I am taking a closer look at one of the newest protest movements to form: Kill the Bill. What exactly is the Bill, and should it be killed? The Bill under question is the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, or ‘Policing Bill’, which is over 300 pages long…  so you can be forgiven for not giving it a read! 

Police in front of Houses of Parliament
Police in front of Houses of Parliament. Photograph by Hannah Brown

Many people take issue with this Bill because it will afford the police more power to limit protests based on location, nuisance and noise. Furthermore, it gives officers new “stop, search and seizure powers to prevent serious disruption caused by protests”

There are many other, slightly more worrying proposals contained within the Policing Bill though. It seeks to criminalize trespassing based on ‘reasonable suspicion’ that an offence has, or will be committed, and also grants the power to seize vehicles including cars and caravans. This is a direct threat to the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller way of life and right to roam, and can result in the seizure of their homes and possessions. 

“The Police Bill is the single biggest threat to the traditional way of life of Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers in our lifetime”. – Sherrie Smith, co-chair of GRT Drive 2 Survive campaign against Police Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. 

The Policing Bill, sponsored by the Home Office and Priti Patel, Secretary of State for the Home Department, passed through the House of Commons with 365 Ayes to 265 Noes (a 100 vote majority) on 5th July and is now in it’s 2nd reading at the House of Lords. Track Progress. (Conservative vote: 356 Aye, Labour vote: 195 No)

In the second part of my interview with Hansaka Seneviratne, we discussed how public perceptions of protest movements have changed over the last year and a bit.  Protests have now been viewed through the lens of the pandemic, and also through the eye-opening moments of George Floyd’s death, and, closer to home, Sarah Everard’s vigil in Brighton – where many, including Han, witnessed first hand what the police had the power to do. We went on to discuss the Policing Bill and what that means for protests and the GTS way of life. 

Woman at Protest
Photographed by Hannah Brown

How do you think public perception of protests has changed because of the pandemic? 

I think initially people had very mixed feelings about the protests going ahead during lockdown. Lots of people were just worried about Covid and thought that it might cause a second wave. 

[Studies have shown that protests had no significant impact on covid cases, the Fall 2020 second wave was most likely caused by the easing of restrictions and re-opening schools]

There was also a lot of solidarity and encouragement, but very short lived. Really it’s just been unpredictable – one week the protest is hot and popular and everyone is going for it, but then very quickly it will peter out. 

George Floyd’s death, I think, initially was the catalyst that pushed more people to talk about protests and political change in the mainstream. In Brighton specifically, things quietened down drastically from late August to early September, there was some talk of the new bill before and how the future might look for protests, but then the Sarah Everard vigil in March really changed things. The public witnessed first hand how aggressive the police were, so support for the Kill the Bill movement was really high.

Have you seen any incidents of Police violence while you have been out with Mask Up?

I was there that evening, Sarah Everard’s vigil, helping to get sanitizer out to everyone there laying flowers, and to assist with social distancing. In the beginning everyone was really socially distanced, following covid guidelines. Then the Police started coming in from the edges, lining the sides of the group and coming forward. Within 20 minutes everyone was completely bunched. I saw cops stepping on the flowers laid for Sarah’s vigil. A friend was speaking there at the time about Sussex Police violence and talking about holding them accountable, while in the same moment a line of police officers barged in specifically to arrest that speaker. The craziest thing was that we were right next to a group of 30/40 guys minding their own business, skating and smoking weed at that place by the church and not one police officer bothered them…. not 100 meters away girls were getting their faces pushed into the mud by those police officers, at the vigil for Sarah Everard, killed by PC Wayne Couzens

Palastine Solidarity Campaign
Photograph by Hannah Brown

What do you make of the recent bills that have been passed concerning protests?

< This is Han personally, not as a representative for Mask Up, who remain apolitical >

It’s a very very big step, a huge lunge really, into authoritarianism. To continue and extend the surveillance of people, like having undercover cops in clubs… Do we want that? I personally don’t want to see police in a club, especially as a POC who just wants to vibe with people!

But there’s something bigger that needs to be talked about with the bill. It does not just affect protests as they are happening. It will be most effective at stopping them before they even happen – and that is the aim here. People won’t risk going to a protest if they could get arrested just for the act of being present at a protest. 

And the effect on the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GTS) people.. It will completely erase their way of life. Frankly, it is going to kill people. The bill is far more disruptive to GRT communities and the effect will be unfathomable, world-ending. It will affect protestors, and be shit, and reduce our freedoms.. But for GRT communities, their whole culture, nomadic lived experience and the history of what they have had to endure will be erased and made illegal. 

The Kill the Bill movement is finally here, but I worry that it has come too late. Police violence and institutional racism is not a new thing.. If you put up a black square, surely you knew what that meant at the time? Grenfell happened 4 years ago, and yet no one has been arrested. 

I think we need to aim for more intersectionality in these protest movements, and the Bill could be the crux that will allow people to work together. Amending/not passing it would prevent police from getting even more power, this is something that could act as an absolute unifier for all protest movements – particularly Extinction Rebellion, BLM, Kill the Bill and Feminist groups like Sisters Uncut. BLM have been trying to hold the police accountable for a long time, and since Sarah Everard’s vigils, large feminist organisations/movements are asking the same questions. For anyone who put up a black square – climate change, just like Covid-19, disproportionately affects BAME people, so support XR too. There was so much momentum in the beginning – 10,000 for BLM in Brighton on 13th June, but I haven’t seen those numbers here since. There is so much rage that should be happening.. I feel like these movements/groups could talk with each other more – I see the same faces at every protest – and I just want to see it grow. It seems like a no brainer to take the next big step all together anyway, we have many shared problems and a common cause against the Bill going through. I am personally rooting to see these things work. 

I think one issue with “Kill the Bill” is that the name is quite ambiguous. At protests, I’m not there to chant, I’m there to hand out masks, but I overhear a lot of things – and one I hear over and over is “Why do they want to kill the police?”. The name isn’t the best at facilitating discussion. 

Photograph by Hannah Brown

What protests are planned in the future for Brighton? How can you stay informed?

The Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill has gone through the House of Commons and is into the House of Lords. There have been some over the last few days, and there will continue to be in the run up to the voting. So definitely more Kill the Bill protests.  Very soon there will be more bills like this one being passed through the legal system, which will be met by further protests.

 For example the Health and Care Bill which among other things, would give more power to the Secretary of State over NHS direction and would allow for further NHS contracts to be awarded to private healthcare providers without considering competition from other bids.

I know lots of the people involved by now so we’re regularly informed about upcoming protests, and the other volunteers at Mask Up will always share what they hear with the group, but Instagram is usually the best place to find out what’s happening. Usually media people around Brighton will also share content alongside the activist groups… but @killthebill_brighton is good. All the other groups will have local social media too – @officialbrightonblm, @sistersuncutbrighton, @xr.brighton. There’s also @antinaziactionleague, a tounge-in-cheek anti-fascist group who call their followers the sodomizers, they are a really sound group of people who host and post about upcoming protests, they are good to follow. 

 > You can also follow Mask Up @maskupgroup on Instagram. If you would like to support Mask Up, by volunteering or donating, or would like to know more and check out their website: maskupgroup.org 

NEWS – BN1 Magazine