Activists who have used direct action to draw attention to attacks on disabled people’s rights say plans to give the police yet more new powers to shut down demonstrations show the government is weak and “running scared”.
The powers would allow police in England and Wales to shut down a demonstration without waiting for any disruption.
They would also allow the police to consider the disruption caused by a series of protests by the same group when deciding what action to take, rather than treating each protest as a standalone incident.
The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, announced this week that the government was adding the new powers as amendments to its public order bill, which has already passed through the Commons and is approaching its final stages in the Lords.
Grassroots groups like Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) have used direct action as a key tool over the last decade in bringing the public’s attention to government policy they consider unfair, discriminatory, or even lethal.
Those protests have often caused disruption to parliament, to traffic and to public transport.
But many of the demonstrations have secured vital publicity for the disability rights and anti-cuts agendas.
The public order bill already includes new criminal offences of interfering with key national infrastructure and “locking-on” (a protester locking themselves to an object, person or land).
The Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (DAN) and the Campaign for Accessible Transport began using such tactics in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
An action by DPAC, DAN and UK Uncut in London’s West End in January 2012 saw about 20 wheelchair-users lock themselves to a chain across Regent Street, in protest at the government’s welfare reform bill.
Such activity is now set to become a criminal offence.
Andy Greene, a member of DPAC’s national steering group, who has taken part in many direct actions over the last decade, said the amendments “reflect just how desperate this government has become”.
He said: “After more than a decade of austerity and the wholesale asset-stripping of public services, this government is now running scared of communities finding their voices.
“Disabled people, public service workers and communities have and will continue to defend living standards, public services and our right to protest.
“We know now that this government is weak and so do they.
“That’s why this whole raft of authoritarian legislation, including the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act; the Nationalities and Borders Act; the strikes bill; and this public order bill, are an attempt to both distract from this fear and copper-fasten the state’s abilities to punish anyone who even thinks about resisting.
“Pointing at statues and at migrants, disabled people and nurses at foodbanks isn’t much of a political strategy – but stoking culture wars has been what they are [about] for a long time now and this strategy isn’t going to change at any point soon.”
He said disabled people and others “must show solidarity and continue to defend ourselves and our communities” by “getting active in struggles and campaigns”, and “continuing to exercise the right to protest, which isn’t the gift of any government to give or to take away”.
Two DAN activists also spoke out this week to oppose the new powers.
Dennis Queen said DAN had fought for years “for the right to be part of society, as part of a wider social justice movement” and had used tactics of “non-violent civil disobedience”.
She told Disability News Service (DNS): “That meant yes, we locked onto things, and the whole point was to get in the way of service providers.
“While ‘public’ transport still excluded many people, we weren’t going to let business carry on as usual – that’s why it’s called direct action.
“We just kept trying to get on the bus (with handcuffs ready if we couldn’t).”
She said such direct action helped draw attention to a campaign the wider movement had been running for years and helped lead to more accessible public transport.
Queen said successive governments had been “gradually rolling back our right to protest” since the early 2000s.
She said: “Back then we first saw them able to try to lawfully stop our protests before they happened, when we hadn’t broken the law.
“They would then begin to turn up at our hotel to try to stop us getting out. We started leaving at 5am, even using decoys.
“Over the next years, the police even worked with the Department for Work and Pensions to make protesters too scared to protest if they are disabled and need any state welfare to survive.
“Since then, our successive governments have used every excuse to further erode our right to protest.
“It’s not acceptable. So many of our people are still struggling to survive. We’re campaigning because we have to.”
Fellow DAN activist Sue Elsegood told DNS that DAN had a “proud history of non-violent protest” and that its actions “were instrumental in creating a more accessible public transport system, for example, and the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995”.
She said that their protests “did cause some inconvenience to commuters when we blocked roads and chained ourselves to buses and trains”, but, as DAN explained on its actions, “disabled people are inconvenienced every day of our lives”.
She said: “Without the right to protest in the future we will be denying people a chance to challenge inequalities and potentially create pressure to improve society and our environment.
“The reality is we had very committed members of the disabled people’s rights movement having endless meetings to attempt to create change but until we took to the streets in protest, the politicians didn’t listen.
“Only when we created gridlock and occupied buildings did we achieve meaningful change.”
Fazilet Hadi, head of policy for Disability Rights UK, was also critical of the government’s announcement.
She said: “It wasn’t so very long ago that disabled people couldn’t access buildings or public transport.
“Organisations such as the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network literally won us rights and changes to legislation with direct action when the government of the day refused to listen to reasoned conversation.
“If these proposals were around then, they would have stopped disability rights from becoming a reality.
“A nanny state ‘for the greater good’ approach to peaceful disruptive protest feels like a slippery slope to totalitarianism.
“In a country which relishes its right to democracy, it is critical that public protest remains a vital part of that.
“To deny the right to protest in this way is to deny a voice to the 14 million disabled people in Britain who still face an uphill fight for rights, equity and to be recognised as having valid lives.”
Prime minister Rishi Sunak said this week, in announcing the amendments: “The right to protest is a fundamental principle of our democracy, but this is not absolute.
“A balance must be struck between the rights of individuals and the rights of the hard-working majority to go about their day-to-day business.
“We cannot have protests conducted by a small minority disrupting the lives of the ordinary public. It’s not acceptable and we’re going to bring it to an end.
“The police asked us for more clarity to crack down on these guerrilla tactics, and we have listened.”
But Martha Spurrier, director of Liberty, said the new proposals “should be seen for what they are: a desperate attempt to shut down any route for ordinary people to make their voices heard.
“Allowing the police to shut down protests before any disruption has taken place simply on the off-chance that it might sets a dangerous precedent, not to mention making the job of officers policing protests much more complex.”
Police chiefs such as the Metropolitan police’s Sir Mark Rowley had called for more “clarity” in weighing up the balance between the “right to protest and the rights of others to go about their daily lives free from serious disruption”.
He said he welcomed the government’s plans to introduce a legal definition of “serious disruption” and “reasonable excuse”.
Under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, the government has already introduced a new offence of public nuisance and has given the police powers to prevent “unjustifiably noisy protests”, as well as introducing a new criminal offence of wilfully obstructing a highway, with a prison sentence of up to six months.
That act was described by disabled activists as “without doubt one of the most authoritarian pieces of legislation to go before parliament” and “effectively a ban on the right to peaceful protest”.
Picture: A DPAC action that held up traffic outside parliament in April 2018
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