Defend the right to protest

Heather Hunt at a Kill the Bill protest in Sheffield. The banner reads "Defend the right to protest."
Heather Hunt

Picture the scene. On a rainy morning in London, an Extinction Rebellion protest is in full swing in Millbank, demanding the Government start to act now to prevent billions of worldwide deaths which will happen if we don’t drastically reduce our carbon emissions.  Hundreds of people are sitting in the road, chanting and singing. Sheffielder and former clinical psychologist Heather Hunt is walking around, trying to dry a banner, wet from the night before. She is there to support friends, not to block the road or be a nuisance. Unlike many who sat in the road, she has no intention of being arrested. She had been there 20 minutes when suddenly, without warning,  the strong arm of the law grabs her from behind, tells her she’s under arrest and marches her off to a nearby police van.  

Heather told me the story in South Street cafe. “I was arrested under Section 14 of the Public Order Act, whereby police need to ensure potential arrestees know the consequence of not moving. I did not hear any warning. I was shocked and angry at the injustice. After 14 hours in Brixton police station, I was discharged pending investigation, as were several other Sheffield arrestees. I was more shocked 5 months later when I was charged with Wilful Obstruction of the Highway. I felt that this was ridiculous, so I pleaded not guilty. The legal team from Extinction Rebellion were extremely helpful and supported me in developing my defence.  In June this year, I defended myself in London Magistrates court, cross-examining the police and putting up my defence.  But I was found guilty and got a massive fine and costs of £1,525.”

Heather then had to decide whether or not to appeal. “My first reflection was not! I had no personal motivation for going to appeal. There’s no heroic story about what I was arrested for and I’ve lost trust in the British Justice system. The XR legal team says I have a 50:50 chance of acquittal. If I lose I need £620 ready for court costs. Not very good odds. Anyway, it’s a long, tedious, lonely and stressful process. Then I reflected on  “love and courage.” Love for the earth and, in light of the draconian Police and Justice bill,  love for all the non-violent protestors courageously risking arrest and its consequences. Courage, I thought I could find if I was going through the appeal process in solidarity. So amazing and heartwarming, members of XR Sheffield agreed an appeal would be important for all protestors, present and future. From solitary to solidarity! I would be standing  up for justice and the right to protest for and with others.” 

If Heather is granted the right to appeal, she hopes the Ziegler ruling can apply to her case. 

 The Ziegler ruling comes from a  Court of Appeal case of four protestors charged with Wilful Obstruction of the Highway. They had locked on and blocked the road to an arms fair in London, in December 2017. They were protesting about weapons being sold to dictators and human rights abusers. The Crown Court judge hearing this case in July ruled that Article 10 and 11 of the Human Rights Act does include the right to protest on the highway if it is considered relevant and proportionate and that there is no automatic primacy of the rights of road users over protestors.

But the Government are pushing hard to make all protests illegal. George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian “The last-minute amendments crowbarred by the government into the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill are a blatant attempt to stifle protest, of the kind you might expect in Russia or Egypt. Priti Patel, the home secretary, shoved 18 extra pages into the bill after it had passed through the Commons, and after the second reading in the House of Lords. It looks like a deliberate ploy to avoid effective parliamentary scrutiny. Yet in most of the media, there’s a resounding silence.”

New clauses in the Bill mean that it would be illegal to block a road for any reason, and those found guilty face 51 weeks in prison. It doesn’t matter if you are locked on, sitting in the road or standing holding a banner, all could face 51 weeks in jail. 

Shockingly, the amendments contain powers to ban named people from protesting. You can be banned if you have previously committed “protest-related offences”. Due to the draconian measures in the rest of the bill, it will be difficult to attend a protest without committing an offence. You can be banned if you have attended or “contributed to” a protest that was “likely to result in serious disruption”. This could mean almost anything, including being noisy. If you post something on social media that encourages people to turn up, you could find yourself on the list. You can also be banned from associating with particular people or “using the internet to facilitate or encourage” a “protest-related offence”.

I wish Heather and all those fighting the Police Bill, whether in Parliament, in the courts or on the streets, every success in defending the right to protest and in defeating this Bill. 

Sign the Liberty petition here. 

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