Everything Wrong with the UK Government Policing the Right to Dissent

With the tactics of dissenting groups ever-growing, Natalie Nzeyimana and Derica Shields share their insights on the Police & Crime Bill and why, in an increasingly authoritarian climate, people are still willing to risk protest

BY Natalie Nzeyimana AND Derica Shields in Opinion | 13 APR 21

Over the past four weeks, the UK has seen recurring nationwide demonstrations against the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, currently being debated in parliament. Commissioned by the Ministry of Justice, the Bill was devised in response to the unrest of 2020, which saw roads and public-transport networks blocked by environmental protest groups, such as Extinction Rebellion and Stop HS2, as well as many thousands gathered across hundreds of towns and cities in support of the racial-justice movement Black Lives Matter, sparking counterdemonstrations among far-right groups.

The new law, which will grant increased powers to police officers and the Home Office in restricting protests and prosecuting people for the common law offence of public nuisance, was announced just days before the London vigil for Sarah Everard – the young woman whose murder is suspected to have been committed by a senior Metropolitan Police officer who, days earlier, was reported for indecent exposure – which evolved into a demonstration organized by Sisters Uncut, a feminist group taking direct action against cuts to domestic violence services. The police’s heavy handling of these protests has led to widened mistrust and intensified scrutiny of officers’ conduct. Yet, in spite of the growth of the Kill the Bill movement, the new crime law has passed its first and second readings in the House of Commons. Now it’s being examined by a committee, before being taken to the House of Lords.

The tactics of dissenting groups are ever-growing, but their grievances remain the same. The very structure of the police and other public services inherently discriminates against certain communities. The Metropolitan Police’s methodical targeting of African-Caribbean Londoners, for instance, has precedents in colonial England’s slave patrols. As we navigate the many layers of this new legislation, Derica Shields and Natalie Nzeyimana share their thoughts on the current climate, where people are willing to risk protest under increasingly authoritarian circumstances.

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Protesters gather in Bristol on 3 April 2021 for the fifth Kill the Bill protest to oppose the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill. Courtesy: Getty

Mimi Chu: I thought we could start by unpacking the recent investigation by the Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services, which concluded that the officers at the vigil for Sarah Everard acted ‘lawfully, sensitively and proportionately’ in the face of ‘severe provocation’.

Natalie Nzeyimana: Would it be possible to shift the lens away from central government and start from the community? I’m concerned about giving too much credence and gravitas to bad-faith initiatives.

Derica Shields: I appreciate that reframing, Natalie. To be honest, I don’t keep time with the rhythm of the government’s press releases and reports, which I believe is deliberately destabilizing. I’ve been thinking about the relationship between protest and democracy. The refrain that protest is integral to democracy is evident both in from the anti-Bill protests and the government factsheet explaining the Bill. The effect of the latter is to pre-empt the argument of the former. But we know that the criminal justice system acts violently against protestors who are considered a threat to the state .

A less obvious connection, maybe, is the idea that ‘good’ protest can work to shore-up democracy. I’m thinking about the analysis of British national culture and lawfulness that Paul Gilroy offers in There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (1987), when he writes: ‘Crime in general and Black crime in particular disrupt the reverence for law which has been accepted by left and right alike as a fundamental component of Englishness.’

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Anti Immigration Bill and 1971 Anti Industrial Relations Act protest, Notting Hill Gate, London. Courtesy: © Chris Davies/Report IFL Archive/reportdigital.co.uk

MC: One concern I have is that the Bill fails to address the existing biases and interests of the institutions that hold power. The inspectorate that conducted the report into the behaviour of officers at the vigil for Sarah Everard wasn’t neutral. It had already expressed its support for the Bill, so the inquiry was skewed in favour of the police and the government. Even though these laws have received extensive public criticism, I’m not sure how much government scrutiny they’re being subjected to.

'This Bill fits into the broader acceleration of centralized control that we’ve seen since the beginning of the pandemic.' – Natalie Nzeyimana 

NN: It is really interesting to map how this Bill fits into the broader acceleration of centralized control that we’ve seen since the beginning of the pandemic. On one end of the spectrum, we are witnessing the quickest post-quango state centralization in living memory. On the other, individuals and communities are rallying to assert civil liberties and now have the collective incentive to say no in new ways. Is the Bill a response to a fear at the heart of government or is it a desire to establish a new normal where Britishness is even more sanitized than previous versions? I love your idea of ‘lawfulness’ grounding this definition, Derica, and I keep thinking about how this pandemic has given new legs to the conflation of legality with morality. The law keeps changing but societal ideas of what is or isn’t right can’t seem to keep up. What, then, is Britishness?

MC: You sum it up so succinctly. I’m interested in these new ways of saying no that you mention. What have you been turning to for foregrounding the desires of the community against the stringent, top-down, policies of the government?   

NN: Joy White’s Terraformed: Young Black Lives In The Inner City (2020) helped me navigate this insanity; throughout she asks how we can show up for the young people in our lives. Beyond that, Joy James’s work on captive maternals has saved me from adrenal fatigue. Also, the podcast Hope Is a DisciplineMariame Kaba on Dismantling the Carceral State (2018) is keeping me… hopeful.

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Joy White, Terraformed: Young Black Lives In The Inner City, 2020. Courtesy: Repeater Books

DS:  I’m thankful for the language around acceleration. The law keeps changing, but we seem to be attached to keeping up with it, rather than noting the acceleration you describe and trying to understand what effect that has. The measures in the Bill add momentum to projects that have been underway for a while. Plans for longer prison sentences contribute to the government’s aim to create – and fill – 18,000 new prison places this decade.

I am also thinking about the Bill as a response to mandatory coronavirus masks, which have been working in certain demonstrations to frustrate the ongoing surveillance project of post-protest policing. One of the first instances of this monitoring was Operation Withern, which used CCTV footage and trialled facial-recognition technology to find and prosecute thousands of people following the 2011 riots sparked by the police murder of Mark Duggan. Then, in June 2020, Black Lives Matter protestors in London were forced to remove their masks and be photographed by Metropolitan officers as a condition for their release from a police kettle. The Bill responds to the subsequent legal challenges to that police move in order to protect the state’s longstanding surveillance project. The consistency of the government’s project does mean that, as rapidly as the law changes, we can take time to historicize and to understand the effect of the acceleration.

'The law keeps changing, but we seem to be attached to keeping up with it, rather than noting the acceleration ... and trying to understand what effect that has.' – Derica Shields

NN: Yes! And the biggest threat to the government’s acceleration of these laws is pause. Despite the undercurrents of chaos, loss, anger, fear, exhaustion and disillusionment within these groups, there seems to be a greater will to collaborate and, I’d even go as far as to point to a flattening of identities to achieve a common goal. There seems to be an increased awareness of a plethora of grievances and societal inequalities. Compare the strength of the Kill the Bill movement – with people rallying across 25 cities in the country – to Extinction Rebellion’s failure to garner support from multiple minoritized communities. The Bill feels like a direct response to the failure of ‘divide and conquer’ as strategy.

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Sisters Uncut lay flowers on Parliament Square on the morning of 16 March 20201 to announce a demonstration there that evening. Courtesy: Sisters Uncut

DS: Although I find collective action more energizing than flattening of identities, I am similarly excited by this oppositional energy and the leaderless practices that form in the street. The less generative calls from recent protests – that police should ‘protect women not statues’ at the Sarah Everard demonstration for instance – have put me in mind of the fascists who guarded colonial statues over the summer, who have now been replaced by police officers.

NN: In 2018, Mariame Kaba made this great zine called White People Hate Protests, which chronicles the revisionist history around protesting in the US and how it intersects with whiteness. I felt extreme deja vu when I saw images of the Duchess of Cambridge attending the vigil for Sarah Everard. This Bill is one attempt to invert and revise the nature of protest in British law and to cement that revision in the collective British moral compass (a loosely formed amalgam of contradictions). At the same time, certain factions of the media are playing their role as part of a discombobulated fourth estate, effectively revising and sanitizing protest in the British imagination. So, the effect is that the apt frustrations of protestors are simultaneously diluted, rejected, gaslit and made royally relevant for the purposes of this newly centralized Englishness where everyone can protest – but no one ought to.

In their work, writers Derica Shields and Natalie Nzeyimana explore the multifaceted ways African-Caribbean communities in the UK have embodied hope – encompassing, but not limited to, the use of protest as a mode of asserting civil liberties and new imaginations of Blackness in Britain. By gathering collective resources, Shields and Nzeyimana seek to challenge past and present injustices and pave a way for abolitionist futurity.

Sisters Uncut is a feminist direct action group made up of nonbinary people and women who are protesting against the cuts to UK government services for domestic violence survivors. Find out more here.

Liberty is an advocacy group and membership organisation based in the UK, which campaigns to challenge injustice, protect civil liberties and promote human rights – through the courts, in Parliament and in the wider community. Find out more here.

Main image: A protester gestures in front of police officers during a Kill The Bill demonstration on 3 April, 2021 in Bristol, UK. Courtesy: Getty 


Natalie Nzeyimana is a researcher based in London, UK. She is writing a book on Grenfell.

Derica Shields is a writer and programmer from South London. She is currently developing a multi-format oral history project centring on black people’s accounts of the UK welfare state, and completing a book project on failure.