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The Dangerous Authoritarian Threat Posed By Priti Patel To Our Right To Protest And Dissent – OpEd

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So the war is on, then — of home secretary Priti Patel versus the people; Priti Patel, the authoritarian bigot, versus anyone who dares to disagree with her about anything; Priti Patel, a woman, and the child of Ugandan-Indian immigrants, who, nevertheless, embodies the worst aspects of an arrogant, intolerant, racist, sexist, planet-despoiling, rights-hating elite British patriarchy.

For anyone concerned about civil liberties in the UK, Priti Patel’s deeply troubling attitude to dissent seems to have fuelled yesterday’s heavy-handed response by the police to a peaceful vigil by women on Clapham Common mourning the brutal murder of Sarah Everard, allegedly by a serving police officer.

The sight of policemen using force to break up the vigil was an act of truly astonishing insensitivity, and while there are clearly questions to be asked of the officers involved — concerning their blatant ‘manhandling’ of grieving women, and claims that some officers deliberately trampled on flowers left by woman at the vigil, as well as the risibility of the Metropolitan Police’s own claims about them having to break up the vigil because of concerns about public safety in light of the ongoing Covid regulations — it seems most pertinent to look up the chain of command for an explanation of how and why such a heavy-ha did and insensitive display of force took place — and that chain of command leads inexorably, via the Met Commissioner Cressida Dick, to Priti Patel.

As Lindsey Graham, the convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, tweeted last night, “I have negotiated with the Metropolitan Police for 20 years over Stop the War demos. They are very sensitive to what is and isn’t popular. They know the feeling over Sarah Everard is huge. So why the Clapham Common attack? Ordered from highest places. Looking at you Priti Patel.”

Priti Patel, the most shockingly authoritarian home secretary in living memory — in a role that notoriously radicalises those who take the job — has, to be blunt, now added women to a roll-call of what she perceives to be a threat to her notions of law and order — a roll-call that, to anyone paying attention to her shocking authoritarian pronouncement over the last few years, also includes the environmental campaigners of Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter protestors, Gypsies and travellers, and, lest we forget,”lefty lawyers”, or “activist lawyers.”

Moreover, the timing of yesterday’s assault is far from coincidental, as tomorrow the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 has its second reading in the House of Commons. This horrendous bill includes “a desire to curtail the kinds of protests we saw last summer with Black Lives Matter, on the one hand, and Extinction Rebellion, on the other”, and “new regulations about unauthorised encampments … aimed at the Traveller community”, as Kenyan Malik explains in an Observer article today, adding that Priti Patel ”has long expressed her distaste for the Black Lives Matter protests”, and also noting that “[t]he official policy paper on the new bill begins with quotes from Cressida Dick [about] how the Extinction Rebellion actions demonstrated the need for new laws ‘to deal with protests where people are not primarily violent or seriously disorderly’ but do cause disruption.”

Malik adds:

The 1986 Public Order Act already allows police to impose restrictions on a demonstration if they believe it could create “serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community”. The new bill extends these reasons for curbing protests: the police can curtail a demonstration if they believe “the noise” it makes is disrupting the “activities of an organisation” or has a “relevant impact on persons in the vicinity”. It does not matter how small or large a protest is. There is a specific section on “imposing conditions on one-person protests”.

A picket line outside a workplace, a demonstration at the Home Office, a sit-down in Parliament Square – all can be limited or banned if they are deemed to have an undue “impact” upon people. The whole point about demonstrations is to have an impact. A protest that does not disrupt in some way is not a protest. It is whispering in the corner.

Malik also explains, crucially, that “[t]he bill also allows the home secretary to define the meaning of ‘serious disruption’ by ‘regulation’. In other words, she has the right to change the reasons for curtailing protest as she wishes and to do so without parliamentary approval.”

The right to protest is fundamental to all notions of what separates liberal democracies from authoritarian regimes and dictatorships. As a pro-active component of freedom of speech, it can contain elements of disruption, or even of a threat to the status quo; otherwise, it is neutered. And while violence is never condoned, the law has long recognised that, when people with a grievance can claim that the authorities are refusing to listen to their concerns, and that no avenue of redress is open to them, they are allowed to protest, so long as that protest doesn’t involve violence. In 1999, for example, this happened in a ruling by the Law Lords — then the highest court in the land — when campaigners protesting for public access to Stonehenge — after 14 years in which a military-style exclusion zone had been declared every summer solstice — were arrested on the verge of the road by the monument. The Law Lords threw out the conviction, and public access to Stonehenge was subsequently restored.

Non-violent direct action, by its very nature, repudiates violence as a means of achieving a movement’s aims, but actively embraces disruptions a legitimate means to that end, and history teaches us that everything we value in liberal democracies has only come about through struggle — the end of serfdom, the end of slavery, the legal obstruction of executive tyranny, universal suffrage, universal education and healthcare, workers’ rights, environmental safeguards, unemployment benefits, pensions and crucial battles against sexual discrimination and racism.

Over the centuries, many of these struggles have involved significant bloodshed and violence — usually on the part of the authorities — but our notions of what constitutes a liberal democracy, the civil society we so often take for granted has largely survived because parts of the establishment — those with money, land and power — have recognised that a country based on universal rights is infinitely preferable to one of executive tyranny and the oppression of the population, by whatever means necessary.

Parts of the establishment have, however, always disliked this kind of progress, although they have tended to keep their grumbling behind closed doors. Patel, however — ironically, as the daughter of immigrants — represents the historic British establishment at its worst.

A bully, as well as a bigot, she should not be in office at all, and only is because the execrable Boris Johnson needed fanatical pro-Brexit ministers for his lamentable ‘Get Brexit Done’ cabinet of second-rate politicians following his election victory in December 2019; that collection of inadequates that then ended up manifestly ill-equipped to deal with the arrival of the Covid pandemic.

For Patel, the authoritarianism of the government’s Covid restrictions, and the lack of meaningful debate and opposition — provided by the temporary extinction of Parliament as a meaningful part of the democratic process, and by the general uselessness of Keir Starmer — has given her the illusion that her malignant dream of a UK in which all meaningful dissent is stopped, by police violence, if necessary, and it is incumbent on all of us who value the right to robustly challenge what is wrong through protest — and, when required, active disruption of the status quo — to resist.

See you on the streets!

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to his RSS feed (he can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see his definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, and, if you appreciate his work, feel free to make a donation.

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