Sarah Everard: Public Awakes to the Need for Freedom of Assembly

Freedom of assembly is a fundamental human right which should not be infringed under any circumstance. The idea that a government could implement laws that restrict a variety of civil liberties and include a provision prohibiting the public from protesting those same laws is so farcically authoritarian I never thought I would see it occur in the western world. However, those who have exercised their right to freedom of assembly in recent times have been dubbed Covidiots, conspiracy theorists, and far-right extremists. Police have broken up these protests and forcibly arrested those who refused to comply. The public were, for the most part, fine with the behavior of the police when they were breaking up Anti-Lockdown protests, Patriotic protests against the destruction of statues, and even Extinction Rebellion protests. But the tide of public opinion has turned since police broke up the vigil to Sarah Everard, who was abducted and killed by Wayne Couzens, a Met Police officer. The vigil had been banned by police, and the event organizers had cautioned people not to attend. Prior to the vigil, on Friday, a Guardian headline asked: “Is the Sarah Everard vigil ban part of creeping curbs on the right to protest?” The answer is no, there has been nothing “creeping” about it, these curbs came in like freight-train almost a year ago, the Guardian has only caught up because the curbs have now affected a protest it cares about.

Anti-lockdown protest, Regent Street, London, 28 November 2020 © Joshua Windsor

Few seem to believe that universal human rights should be universal. Only when their rights are infringed do they cry foul. Such is the case with the Sarah Everard vigil. The vigil had been banned. The organizers and police cautioned the public not to come. When people decided to come, the police on the scene asked attendees to social distance and wear masks. When the protesters failed to comply, the police ordered them to leave. When they didn’t leave, the police were compelled to enforce the law by arresting women who refused to comply. This is the same graduated response the police have used at every protest over the last year. The same graduated response that resulted in hundreds of arrests at BLM protests, at Anti-Lockdown protests, and at Extinction Rebellion protests during the Covid-19 pandemic. It is not the response that the police should take to protests, even during the pandemic, but the police have at least been consistent in their enforcement.

Extinction Rebellion demonstration, Parliament Square, London, 1 September 2020 © Joshua Windsor

Voltaire famously said, “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. This must be the our mentality when it comes to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, because if you don’t stand up for the rights of those with whom you disagree, you risk losing those rights yourself. It is not enough to complain when BLM protests and Extinction Rebellion protests are broken up, we must also complain when Anti-Lockdown protests and far-right protests are broken up, so long as they were non-violent. As foolish or abhorrent as you may think their beliefs are, universal rights must be defended universally. This principle has slipped through the cracks in recent years, as so-called “hate speech” has become a target for the same left-leaning groups who spent the guts of the twentieth century fighting censorship and the criminalization of speech by conservative institutions. In modern times, people have supported censorship and the criminalization of hate speech feeling safe in the belief that it will never come for them. But it will come. Hate speech is such an inexact term that it can be interpreted in a variety of ways, even true statements can be determined to be hate speech. If you give the power of interpretation over to the government, you won’t like its results.

Million Mask March, London, 5 November 2020 © Joshua Windsor

The public outcry against the police handling of the Sarah Everard vigil has come at an opportune moment. The Conservatives have introduced a new crime bill that is a significant threat to freedom of assembly. The “Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill” will effectively give the Home Secretary the arbitrary decision-making power to decide, by regulation, which protests will be allowed to go ahead and which will not. The Home Secretary may prohibit a protest if she deems that “the noise generated by persons taking part in the procession may have a relevant impact on persons in the vicinity of the procession” or if a protest would pose “serious disruption to the activities of an organisation which are carried on in the vicinity of a public procession, or serious disruption to the life of the community”. Either of these conditions applies to almost every protest that is held, and indeed the purpose and power of a protest is in its ability to disrupt. London Mayor, Sadiq Khan expressed disappointment that the Sarah Everard vigil was not handled “sensitively” by the police, but frankly the subject of a protest should have no bearing on the police’s handling of that protest. That is not to say that what the police did was right, but rather that the police handling of all protests over the last year has been wrong. I was glad to hear Boris Johnson and Priti Patel defending Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick against calls for her resignation, because the fault lies with Johnson and Patel, whose government implemented Covid laws and whose Home Office enforces them, not with Cressida Dick.

Civil Liberties groups and the Labour Party have come out in opposition to these provisions of the new crime bill, but the Conservative majority could still pass it easily. “Kill the Bill” demonstrations may help to pressure the government to amend the proposed legislation. With protests from either side of the political spectrum under threat from this new bill, public pressure may well sway the eventual contents of the bill. Contact your Tory MP (here) to express your opposition to this attack on freedom of assembly. Freedom of assembly is a universal human right, and must be defended universally, or it will be threatened universally.

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