Activists have taken to the streets across the country in ‘Kill the Bill’ protests, calling on the House of Lords to reject the Policing, Crimes, Sentencing and Courts Bill that would restrict non-violent protests.
Protests took place in cities including London, Bristol, Coventry, Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Plymouth on Saturday.
The action came ahead of a crucial vote on the bill by peers on Monday.
Protesters describe it as a draconian crackdown on the right to assembly, free speech and other civil liberties.
In London, several hundred people marched from Holborn to Westminster, chanting “kill the bill” and carrying signs that read “defend the right to protest” and “we will not be silenced”.
A wide range of social, racial and environmental justice groups, including Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion, joined the rally, demanding that their peers stop the bill from becoming law.
Labor counterpart Baroness Chakrabarti told a crowd in Parliament Square that the legislation’s anti-protest provisions ‘represent the biggest attack on peaceful dissent in living memory’.
She said: “This authoritarian right-wing government used to encourage pro-Brexit protests and statue defenders when it suited them.
“This government talks about freedom of expression and complains about the cancellation of culture.
“It speaks of a good play on China and Russia and all the other places in the world where fundamental rights are under attack.
“But free speech is a two-way street.
“And you know what? The ultimate cancel culture, it doesn’t come with a tweet — it comes with a police baton and jail time for nonviolent dissent.
Former Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn has warned the laws will “cripple” the public.
He said: “If the right to protest is restricted, if you have to ask permission from the police to do anything, well, where does that lead?
“This leads to every protest becoming a conflict about having the protest, rather than the subject of the protest.
“It disempowers all of us, puts us all on our backs and puts us all in a totally defensive mode.
“So we end up advocating for things all the time instead of demanding things.”
He added: “This feeling of helplessness is designed to have a depressive effect, especially on young people.”
Hundreds of psychiatrists and clinical psychologists have also expressed concern about the bill’s impact on young people’s mental health, writing in an open letter that restricting their right to non-violent protest “will further erode the trust of young people.” youth in politicians and their belief that their voices are heard, respected and matter”.
“We can think of no better measures to disempower and socially isolate young people,” the more than 350 signatories wrote in the letter, posted online.
The bill would expose protesters to long prison terms and heavy fines for actions that cause ‘serious annoyance’, which could be done simply by making noise, and for anyone found guilty of ‘desecration’ of a statue.
This would broaden stop and search powers, and new laws prohibiting unauthorized residing in land with a vehicle would effectively criminalize gypsy, Roma and Traveler communities.
Amendments added to the Bill by the Government in the House of Lords in November make the obstruction of major transport works a criminal offense and would give police the power to ban named individuals from demonstrating or even use the Internet to encourage others to do so.
Ben Hancock, 70, from London, told the PA news agency: ‘The measures are really completely draconian, basically the rights will be taken away from anyone to demonstrate.
“I mean, effectively, we’re going to be reduced to a Russian-like state.”
Sue, 62, who would only give her first name and who had traveled to the Extinction Rebellion protest from Godalming, Surrey, said: ‘I believe some of the provisions of this bill will limit dramatically the kind of things we’re able to do to protest.
Tied to another protester, she added: “So we won’t be able, for example, to be together like that holding hands, or even bonding.
“There are many, many things we will not be able to do and really, the protests will be a thing of the past.
“And so many freedoms that we have in this country were won through protest.
“Not just because people are silent about it and people in power decide they will give people freedoms, but because people have come out into the streets and made noise and protested.
“And I still want to be able to do that, I want my kids to be able to do that.”
Terry Matthews, 69, from south London, said: ‘I think we are facing a really vitriolic attack on our rights to protest and our freedoms to show our dissatisfaction with the status of the government and the country.
“And that’s a really dangerous step to try to take.”
Home Secretary Priti Patel has argued the laws should curb disruptive protest actions by groups such as Insulate Britain, which have stuck to motorways, but critics say its impact would be far greater.