THE crackdown on protesters against the coronation is a wake-up call to the dystopian reality of Britain’s repressive anti-protest laws.
Leader of the Republic campaign Graham Smith, who was arrested and held for 16 hours, is right to warn that “there is no longer a right to peaceful protest in the UK.”
Police chiefs who demur, saying that some protests went ahead and they had to factor in the “once-in-a-generation” nature of the coronation when assessing whether to shut them down, only underline that our right to protest now exists at their discretion.
Republic campaigners were arrested before their protest had even begun, while unloading Not My King placards from the back of a van.
This suggests that despite Republic having liaised with police months ahead, the Met decided on the arrests in advance.
Reneging on agreements with protest organisers is not a first for London’s police force, which faced similar accusations when it stopped demonstrators against the state visit by then US president Donald Trump from marching to Buckingham Palace in 2019.
But such decisions cannot be justified on the basis of maintaining order. Their likely effect is the opposite, since if liaising with the police merely makes it easier for them to stop you, protesters will avoid informing the authorities of their plans.
The rationale must instead be to protect the government from embarrassment in front of the cameras, or to intimidate activists into not protesting in the first place. Neither motive deserves the time of day from any democrat.
The huge police operation signposted Britain’s authoritarian line of march in several areas.
It involved the biggest live use of facial recognition technology yet — one which was used to identify at least one “troublemaker” from previous anti-royal protests, who was then released because he had not done anything.
States cannot be trusted with this technology, the use of which to automate oppression in occupied Palestine formed the basis of a detailed investigation by Amnesty International published last week. Amnesty’s call for a global ban on the use of facial recognition technology for surveillance purposes should be taken up across the left.
The presence of straps that would tie placard signs to sticks was used to justify arrests under the Public Order Act — given royal assent just prior to the coronation — ban on “locking on” or attaching yourself to buildings or the road.
Republic says that police “misconstrued” the purpose of straps that would be familiar to any officer who has ever policed a protest. Rather this underlines how flimsy evidence can be to suggest somebody is planning such a protest (which should in any case not be a criminal matter). The new law is a sweep-net allowing police to arrest demonstrators at a whim based on the possession of ordinary items.
The offence most protesters were seized under was conspiracy to cause a public nuisance — an even vaguer category introduced under the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Act, and again an invitation to the abuse of power.
Human Rights Watch’s UK director Yasmine Ahmed says these arrests are “something you would expect to see in Moscow, not London.”
Yet the assumption that authoritarian regimes are a foreign phenomenon is closer to propaganda than reality. It ignores the common features of an international authoritarian shift in a new era of great power rivalry — the arrests of anti-royal protesters last autumn for holding up blank sheets of paper echoed the arrests of anti-war protesters in Russia for the same “offence.”
In an age where a visiting Brazilian president calls us to account for the imprisonment of journalist Julian Assange and where police can arrest scores on the grounds that they intend to be a nuisance, the left must abandon such delusions.
Unless we confront the authoritarian and anti-democratic reality of British state power, our liberties will keep being taken from us.
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