Resisting the new 'direct action bill'

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The proposed Police, Crimes, Sentencing and Courts Bill marks a further escalation by the British state against political dissent by its own citizens.

The bill itself contains a series of draconian proposals designed- in no doubt- to deter activists away from protest.

The bill itself contains a series of draconian proposals designed - in no doubt - to deter activists away from protest. These proposals include possible ten-year custodial sentences for creating a public nuisance or for vandalising a statue; a £5000 fine for using a megaphone near parliament; a £2500 pound fine or a three-month sentence for living in a protest camp; and even one-year in jail for a single person protest.

Given the severity of the proposed sentencing guidelines outlined in the bill its hard not to interpret these measures as a further attempt by central government to reverse, silence and quell the vibrant social movements that have erupted across Britain's streets in the last few years; from Extinction Rebellion to Black Lives Matter, to the recent mobilisation of women and their allies against patriarchal and state violence.

How the laws and guidelines presented in the bill will be implemented is, as yet, anyone’s guess. However, if recent history is anything to go by its certain these laws will be tested as soon as they are implemented.

Justice

When I first became politically active in the mid to late 1990s, the then Tory government- under home secretary Michael Howard -were proposing the criminal justice and public order bill of 1994. Ostensibly this new piece of legislation was justified as a necessary response to the growth of the ‘free party’ and ‘rave’ scene, whose activity squatting warehouses, ‘reclaiming’ public land and challenging private property had provided the right-wing press with a series of sensationalist and reactionary headlines in the preceding years.

While the rave scene had certainly proven itself to be a thorn in the side of Britain’s ruling landowners -and a concern to those with financial interests in maintaining commercial night life, it can be in no doubt that the bill’s intended targets went far beyond dance crazed teenagers, targeting -as it did- a burgeoning and ‘self-organised’ direct-action culture that had dominated political protest in the latter half of the 1980s. 

The bill itself contains a series of draconian proposals designed- in no doubt- to deter activists away from protest.

After all, it was the mass direct action and non-payment of the poll tax that had finally bought Margaret Thatcher’s tenure of the Tory party to a close.

The criminal Justice and public order bill contained a series of direct challenges, not just to the rave scene but also to those engaged in political and cultural dissent.

Part five of the bill dealt with ‘collective trespass and nuisance on land’, including sections about raves and further sections dealing with ‘disruptive trespass, squatting and unauthorised camping’ that proposed the criminalisation of what had previously been civil offences.

Destructive

This effected many forms of protest, including those opposing blood sports and the growing anti-roads movement which was then successfully pushing back against the Tory’s irresponsible and environmentally destructive road building scheme.

Part five of the bill also revoked the duty that had been imposed on local councils by the caravans’ sites act of 1968 to provide sites for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller use.

As such, opposition to the bill bought together a broad coalition of groups- made up of ravers, squatters, sound systems, environmentalists, trade unionists, civil liberty organisations, new age travellers, football fans, ramblers, the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities as well as the anti-roads movement- everyone the bill was seen to target.

As the weeks drew closer to the bill being passed into law, the country witnessed a succession of direct actions and mass street protests aimed at halting its passing. Most notably a huge demonstration in London on the 9th of October attended by 100,000 people that ended up in a riot in Hyde Park that continued on into the evening.

Despite these mass moments of dissent, the bill became an act on the 3rd of November 1994 on its third reading in parliament. However, direct action didn’t stop with the passing of the bill into law, and the movements it was aimed at criminalising have broadly carried on, albeit now forced to think through new and more creative ways to outwit legislation.

Coalition

Ultimately the forces that were bought together through their opposition to the criminal justice and public order bill of 1994 provided the groundwork for the later alter-globalisation movement of the late 1990s/early 2000s. A movement that would go onto shape the contours of radical politics over the course of the subsequent decade.

Given the scale of the crises facing us, its imperative that direct action and protest continue. As such, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill must be resisted by all who are struggling for social and environmental justice.

Despite the differences held by many of the groups this proposed legislation aims to silence, it is only by acting in unison that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court bill can be effectively resisted. Recent demonstrations opposing the bill have been promising in this regard.

Even if activists fail in the task of halting this bill from becoming law- as we failed to in the 1990s- by establishing a functioning coalition of organisations opposed to the bill- the social movements for social and environmental justice can begin to create the trust, friendships and networks necessary to both sustain and strengthen the course of radical and progressive politics over the coming decade.

Whichever way you look at it, a coalition is a win-win, not just for the present, but for all our futures.

This Author

Seth Wheeler is co-editor (multimedia) at The Ecologist. He is the contributing editor of In and Against the State, to be published by Pluto Books

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