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“10 years for protest, 5 years for rape”: Demonstrators protest a policing bill in England and Wales

The proposed law would put enormous power into police hands and potentially harm the ability to protest.

A crowd of protesters carrying signs march down a street, with a large poster reading “Kill The Bill” nearby.
Protesters in Bristol, England, march in a demonstration on April 3 in opposition to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

Thousands of demonstrators marched across Britain on Saturday in protest of a massive new policing bill that would create new restrictions on protest in England and Wales and impose hefty fines for not following police instructions.

The bill, officially known as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, was introduced in early March and has been met with widespread pushback in England and Wales since then. It also includes sentencing and court reforms, among other changes, but protesters are specifically incensed by proposed new police powers concerning protests.

If the bill passes, according to the BBC’s Dominic Casciani, police will have the authority to impose start and finish times on protests, as well as noise limits — even if it’s only one person protesting.

Additionally, Casciani writes, the bill would criminalize violating restrictions that protesters “‘ought’ to have known about, even if they have not received a direct order from an officer,” and “intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance.”

According to Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn, the party’s onetime leader, the bill “effectively criminalizes peaceful protest.”

“The right to protest is at the heart of a democratic society,” Corbyn said in a video Friday. “It’s part of who we are. And together, we’ll beat Boris Johnson’s dangerous proposal to ban protest.”

This weekend’s “kill the bill” marches aren’t the first. According to the Guardian, Bristol, in southwest England, has been the site of at least five protests over the last two weeks, including one that turned violent and saw at least two police vehicles set on fire earlier in March.

Nothing on the same scale has been reported so far on Saturday, but according to Sky News, at least 26 protesters have been arrested in London following a clash with police.

The United Kingdom is in the middle of its own debate on policing

As the New York Times explained late last month, the bill comes at a sensitive time in the United Kingdom. The abduction and murder of Sarah Everard in London last month, and the subsequent quelling of a vigil honoring Everard for violating Covid-19 restrictions, have both put a debate over the role of police in the UK front and center.

A London police officer, from the same police force that broke up the vigil, has been charged with Everard’s murder.

The country also saw its own Black Lives Matter movement last summer following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Protesters across the UK took to the streets to protest racism, inequality, and police brutality, and in Bristol, a crowd pulled down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston and threw it in the harbor.

In London, a statue of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill was also graffitied over the summer.

One provision in the policing bill currently before Parliament specifically increases the penalty for damaging such statues. According to the BBC, the measure “clarifies that damage to memorials could lead to up to 10 years in prison.”

In response to that provision and to Everard’s murder, “kill the bill” protesters have marched with signs reading “10 years for protest, 5 years for rape,” according to the Guardian. On Saturday, according to the AP, protesters chanted “Women scared everywhere, police and government do not care!”

Despite the protests, the bill has made headway in the UK Parliament with backing from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party. In mid-March, it cleared its first vote in the House of Commons, 359 votes to 263, and the measure was advanced to committee.

According to the New York Times, the Conservative government hoped to seize on outrage over Everard’s death to pass the bill, but recent opposition appears to have changed that. The committee process has reportedly been delayed until later in the year, reports the Times, as protests and criticism from the Labour opposition continue.

“The tragic death of Sarah Everard has instigated a national demand for action to tackle violence against women,” David Lammy, a Labour MP and shadow secretary of state for justice, said in March. “This is no time to be rushing through poorly thought-out measures to impose disproportionate controls on free expression and the right to protest.”