Criminalising the right to annoy comes under scrutiny in this East London Humanist opinion piece for the Barking and Dagenham Post (14.4.21)
The Government’s ‘anti-protest’ bill should worry everyone who values democracy and civil liberty.
Take section 59. It allows the police to arrest anyone simply for allegedly causing ‘serious annoyance.’ Arrest alone is a powerful tool for stifling dissent. And the sentence on conviction is up to 10 years imprisonment, more than many defendants receive for rape.
The Government says the new law is necessary to protect those ‘harmed’ by protest. They give Extinction Rebellion protests as an example. But surely a democracy should accommodate a right to robustly highlight inaction over life-threatening climate change, even if it causes temporary inconvenience or annoyance? Would silent vigils put the issue at the top of the agenda where it belongs? Many rights, such as women’s right to vote, were only won after years of protest which, under the Government’s definition, ‘harmed’ opponents by seriously annoying them.
While these sweeping powers may be aimed at climate protesters today, they could be used against anyone tomorrow. We should recall that in 2014 our then mayor, Boris Johnson, purchased German water cannon for use on London’s streets, perhaps an early sign of an authoritarian streak. The then Home Secretary, Theresa May went on to ban their use in England and Wales, and they had to be sold for scrap. What would current Home Secretary Priti Patel have done?
It took centuries to win our liberties. The rolling back of freedoms during Covid shows how easily and quickly they can be removed.
Chair, East London Humanist Group