‘There is strength in numbers’: What happens to us if we can’t protest?
People across the UK are concerned about The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which, if passed, will affect the legality of and action taken around protesting.
The bill is a detailed piece of legislation, part of which focuses on protests and sets out to put more restrictions on how protesting can – or can’t – take place.
It has been criticised for the use of vague language in regards to how police can legally stop protest action, even if done as an individual, if it causes an ‘annoyance’.
When what counts as annoying is a subjective thing, the fear is that should this legislation be passed, just about any act of protest could silenced under that justification.
At the time of writing, the bill has passed its second reading, but it is not yet law – there is still time to prevent it from becoming law.
If this were to pass what would it do to us, not just politically, but as people?
Genna*, 25, who often attends protests and partakes in activism, says a life without the freedom to protest makes her ‘really worried’.
‘I’m dreading the outcome [of the bill], and the general feeling of British exceptionalism that makes us complacent even in the face of such an obvious erosion of our rights,’ Genna tells Metro.co.uk.
‘Direct action can take many forms, but if you are able to, attending a protest allows a more visual form of direct action – actually seeing us turn up in numbers, in droves makes a movement very difficult to ignore.
‘I think anyone fears standing up for something they believe in just in case they end up doing it alone.
‘When you’re part of a protest, you feel much more confident and braver, and there is strength in numbers.’
Protesting reminds us that we’re not alone in feeling discontent with social issues, even if the people immediately around us aren’t on the same wavelength.
Protests have allowed Genna to connect with likeminded people, and therefore feel more empowered in making a difference.
In our very recent collective memories of the BLM movement and the vigil for Sarah Everard, we’ve seen change happen as a result of people uniting through protest – people and institutions have been held accountable for their wrongs and important conversations have been ignited.
Collective energy is important for lasting change, as well as for inspiring and motivating our individual actions.
Clifford Stott, a professor of social psychology, says the impact of not being able to freely protest will ‘leave people feeling disempowered’.
He tells us: ‘The ability of people in society to express discontent and drive political change through collective action is a really important thing for everybody.
‘Peaceful public assembly historically is something that has produced really positive change.
‘The best example is the Suffragette movement – half of the population only have the right to vote because of the Suffragette movement. This new legislation would make many of the actions that the Suffragettes engaged in to produce that social change illegal.
‘Had these laws been in place at the time of the Suffragettes, it could well have delayed if not entirely prevented one of the most progressive political changes of the 20th century. That’s how people need to understand what’s going on here.’
As well as the hugely significant political changes that are borne out of protest action, being unable to come together in protest affects our ability to experience solidarity with others.
‘[Protest] is one of the most important components of building movements of solidarity,’ says Professor Stott.
‘The sense there are others around us who share our view of those injustices is a really powerful vehicle through which we can confront the dominant power groups.’
Stephen Reicher, a professor who studies conflict in crowd events, says that changing the right to legally protest won’t cull the urge people have to unite with others and to make their voices heard.
‘Creating a situation where you outlaw things which people feel they have a right to do is a recipe for tension and escalation,’ he says, adding that he believes it will drive further conflict.
‘The bill creates a situation where the police view the very act of assembly as illegitimate (and hence those who do assemble as oppositional) and protestors see the denial of assembly as illegitimate and are likely to congregate anyway,’ he tells us.
Professor Stott also thinks the implications of not being able to protest will – consciously or not – affect how we view those who continue to do so anyway, as they indirectly label themselves as ‘oppositional’ or even criminal.
‘People who get criminalised are often seen as “other”, so ordinary people when they see people doing things that are criminal tend to disassociate themselves because generally people are law abiding.
‘We’re breaking up the capacity to feel solidarity with these people because they’re branded criminals,’ he says.
Giving the example of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, a peaceful sit-in protest, he adds that even this could become illegal should the new bill pass.
Ironically, cutting down protest action that causes an ‘annoyance’, could actually lead to violence, says Lauren Duncan, PhD, who specialises in protest and activism psychology.
‘Peaceful collective protest provides people with an arena in which to express their feelings of discontent about a particular issue,’ Dr Duncan notes.
‘It is important because if there’s a way to express dissent peacefully, it is less likely that people will resort to violence.
‘If protest is outlawed there will be at least two effects. First, protest will be driven underground or organised even more on the internet.
‘In addition, I expect that casual activists (those who might incidentally get involved through friends) will be less likely to protest.
‘However, depending on the issue and how discontent people feel, some people will continue to protest collectively. Outlawing protest does not prevent protest.’
Restricting the rights may disenfranchise those who are less proactive in their activism from taking physical action, again affecting how people might start to see, think and feel about protesting.
Social media has a role to play in how protests are organised and even in how the word around this proposed bill has spread so quickly.
A recent study found that of the mainstream social media channels, Instagram and Twitter in particular help people feel a sense of solidary and togetherness – something that protesting also achieves.
Professor Stott says that protest today is ‘mediated a lot through social media’.
Genna, like many people, often uses social media as tool in this way to find out information on protests that she can be involved in.
It allows us to take action sooner and stay informed on collective issues.
Rustam Wahab, 19, set up UKFactCheckPolitics, a left-leaning informational account during the 2019 general election to focus on providing facts to people amid the spread of fake news and to engage young people in politics.
His post on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill has nearly a thousand comments as people are virtually united in their shared concern over their rights to protest.
He told us that being unable to protest ‘will just incentivise more people to march on the streets and on Parliament Square ironically for their right to protest’ and that he is particularly concerned about clauses 50, 54 and 56 in the bill.
Rustam also wonders why these measures are needed, given the current powers held by police to shut down crowded events like protests.
‘We’ve already seen from the vigil for Sarah Everard the police have enough power. We saw very upsetting, very concerning scenes,’ he says.
Genna and Rustam tell us they believe our government is ‘draconian’. Many others fear the what will happen next.
It’s clear this legislation will have significant social ramifications if passed.
*Name has been changed.
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