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Opinion

The Public Order Bill uses anti-terror tactics against peaceful protesters. We need to unite against it

Ministers that celebrate the Suffragettes now want to pass a law that goes further than Russia, writes Shami Chakrabarti

It’s easy to look at politics like soap opera or car crash reality TV. Some political journalists comment more and more like sports pundits or drama critics. Who has enough Tory MPs sewn up? Who has a grudge against who? Meanwhile serious threats to the rights and freedoms of ordinary people pass under the radar and barely make the news.

The Public Order Bill is a serious example. It is modelled on anti-terror law but aimed at crushing peaceful protest. All the warring Tory factions seem broadly united in wanting to force it through. Quite the irony that a government always banging on about “woke” cancel culture and free speech in universities wants to bang people up for up to a year for peaceful on-street dissent. Ministers that celebrate the historic Suffragettes and contemporary Hong Kong democracy campaigners now want to pass a law that Amnesty International and JUSTICE argue goes further than even Belarus and Russia. 

It contains a new crime of “locking on” as in attaching yourself or an object to another person, object or land if this would be “capable” of causing serious disruption to more than one person. Disruption need not actually be caused. Worse still is the thought crime of “being equipped” to lock on and related stop and search powers that do not even require that you have given cause for reasonable suspicion. 

So an unreformed police service – still under intense scrutiny after Sarah Everard’s kidnap, rape and murder and the brutal repression of the Clapham Common vigil in her memory – is to be given new blank cheque powers.

Officers finding bicycle chains, cameras or medical equipment in the rucksacks of peaceful citizens will be able to charge them with carrying these objects with the intention that they would be used “in connection with” locking on.

Once convicted of such a protest-related thought crime, a person could be made subject to protest banning order barring them from being in certain places, with certain people or from encouraging other people to “activities related to a protest” over the internet. Once more this power bears a chilling similarity to the anti-terror “control orders” of the past. Only this time, your sin is of being a peaceful dissenter not a suspected terrorist.

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Effective protest is nearly always a disruption; a nuisance – to those who disagree with the cause. Still it is a vital form of free speech and the ultimate two-way street. The energy company that digs or fracks in my neighbourhood causes a significant disruptive nuisance too. If they put up their prices, profits and bonuses, innocent people die. Still the Government blesses this activity by its friends whilst criminalising the vulnerable who protest against them. 

This isn’t just the hypocrisy of multi-millionaires telling ordinary people to tighten their belts and bite their tongues. It offends the ancient constitutional principle of equality before the law. It concentrates power in already powerful hands, crushes dissent, turns people against each other and wages permanent culture, class and even civil war. That’s why we need to unite against such a dangerous and divisive measure. If this law is allowed to pass many non-violent people will go to prison for protesting for the poor, the planet, peace and free speech itself.

Shami Chakrabarti is a Labour peer. She served as shadow attorney general from 2016 to 2020 and previously as the director of human rights charity Liberty.

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