Inconsistent policing of protests reveals government weakness

17 September 2020

Carys Moseley looks at how various protest groups have been policed during coronavirus restrictions.

Since the Coronavirus Act 2020 was passed by Parliament, police and government handling of different public protests has thrown up moral and legal challenges. Now is a good time to review what has come to pass.

History of coronavirus guidance on mass gatherings

The first guidance restricting large gatherings in England was published on 16 March 2020. This told people to avoid mass gatherings. Then on 11 May new guidance was published. This told people to avoid crowds, reduce the number of people with whom they were in contact and maintain social distancing with people from outside their own household.

On 24 June the guidance was again modified in anticipation of changes from 4 July onwards. From that day onwards the guidance on gatherings would be as follows:

“It will be against the law to gather in groups larger than 30 people, except for a limited set of circumstances to be set out in law. Police will have the power to break up groups larger than 30, apart from these exceptions.”

On 23 August a new criminal offence was created to punish people organising or facilitating illegal gatherings of more than 30 people. They could receive a fine of up to £10,000. Finally on 14 September the ‘rule of six’ was introduced. New guidance now says that people are not allowed to meet more than six people outside your home unless you live with them. There are numerous exceptions, e.g. youth groups and also protests (as long as the latter are organised with Covid-19 secure guidance). Also excepted are support groups and organised sport or exercise classes.

Early anti-lockdown protests

Most of the early protests were against the lockdown. The first protest was held at Shrewsbury College on 21 April 2020. Then on 25 April, Piers Corbyn (brother of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn) led a protest against lockdown in Glastonbury. He claimed the police had not dispersed the group and that 100 people attended. The police told the press that they had encouraged the group to follow guidance. In Basingstoke on 27 April, protesters also claimed that the police had not stopped them. Journalists got hold of police officers to check with them what had happened. Police claimed they had spoken to the protesters.

On 1 May, ten mothers protested in a park whilst observing social distancing. No arrests were made. Piers Corbyn was issued a fixed penalty notice on 10 May. Protests were scheduled across many cities for 16 May. Police warned that anti-lockdown sentiments could be linked to or exploited by far-right extremists. On 14 May the Guardian reported that the police would break up the planned protests if they had to.

Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion has deliberately courted controversy and flirted with law-breaking from the outset. It found clever ways of getting round the lockdown rules. On 30 May it arranged a ‘solo protest’ in the streets of Sheffield. By designating spots on the pavement for individuals two meters apart, it could claim that this was ‘not a gathering’! On the same day several were arrested for a silent protest in London, for breaking the guidance. Also during May, Extinction Rebellion held several protests in Cambridge. Their youth group sprayed graffiti onto university buildings. The main group created ‘new’ cycle lanes without local authority permission, whilst claiming to do so to aid social distancing. In other words, their attitude was based on deliberately breaking rules whilst pretending to uphold existing ones.

Extinction Rebellion had already attracted criticism from experienced policymakers and MPs last year. This was due to their tactics leading to Westminster being blocked off, resulting in people unable to get to work on time. The recent blockade of the printing presses for several major newspapers tipped things over the edge. The Prime Minister and others characterised this as an attack on free speech and the free press. The Home Secretary decried it as an attack on capitalism and the free press. Now there are rumours that Extinction Rebellion could be designated a criminal organisation. This would almost certainly see its members treated as domestic extremists by the police. It is interesting that a ‘jihadi bride’ who married an ISIS fighter in Syria in 2014 will appear in court as an Extinction Rebellion protester. Finally it was only two weeks ago that 680 protesters were arrested over the 10 days of Extinction Rebellion’s protests in London.

Black Lives Matter

On 31 May there were protests by Black Lives Matter activists and supporters in London, Cardiff and Manchester following the death of George Floyd in the USA. Thousands of people protested in London. Then followed weeks of protests in towns and cities across the UK. On 8 June Priti Patel the Home Secretary said that 137,500 people had protested thus far. She also said that the protests were illegal, and urged people not to attend future BLM protests. The coronavirus was given as the major reason, followed by likelihood of violence. Clearly this seemed to have little or no effect as the protests continued. Indeed footage emerged of protesters chasing police down Whitehall. Shockingly, police officers held their hands up in the air as if to indicate surrender.

Specialist policy analysis shows that BLM is an organisation clearly linked to historic violent extremist movements in the USA, namely the Black Panthers and Weather Underground, whose members trained BLM activists. One of its influential leaders has openly said that it patterns itself after the Nation of Islam. Given what is known about the movement, and how its advent in the UK effectively imports American culture wars, it is extraordinary that several news sites went as far as advertising upcoming local BLM protests. In doing so these news sites were encouraging and facilitating breaking government guidance on gatherings.

£10,000 fine for anti-lockdown protests

On 23 August the government created a new criminal offence for organising illegal gatherings. These were due to kick in on 28 August ahead of Bank Holiday weekend. People facilitating or organising unlawful gatherings of more than 30 people could face a £10,000 fine. Then on Saturday 29 August Piers Corbyn was slapped with just such a fine for helping organise an anti-lockdown protest in central London. This had the unfortunate result of catapulting him to fame and over-personalising the issue. It also had the effect of associating criticism of coronavirus and lockdown policies with his cranky denial of the very existence of the coronavirus. This was hardly helped by the prominence of New Age conspiracy theorist David Icke in the protest.

At first glance a Fixed Penalty Notice of £10,000 makes little sense given that previously fines were high enough (£3,200) but nowhere near this high. Perhaps it is not an accident that it was given to Mr Corbyn given that he had already been handed a fine in May, and heavily criticised for organising protests for months. Given his wealthy background there would be far less public sympathy for him than for others similarly penalised. This brings us to the deeper problem: a disproportionate fine of this kind sets a very bad precedent. It is wildly inconsistent with the treatment of previous protesters. Moreover when we look over protests since March, inconsistency and reaction appear to be problems. Welcome to the brave new world of coronavirus moralism.

Revolutionary legislation and government by guidance

How did this state of affairs come about? The answer is that the Coronavirus Act 2020 was a revolutionary piece of legislation. It upended countless clauses from existing legislation on health, social care and the handling of death, to name but three fields. It did so to remove important checks and balances in staffing which were safeguards for the dignity of the most vulnerable. Rules like the need for two doctors’ signatures for sectioning to psychiatric hospitals were suspended.

Into the vacuum has come endless permutations of regulations and guidance. As the former is secondary legislation it passes with minimal parliamentary scrutiny. As the latter is written by civil servants, it requires none at all. This means that the only legitimate way that citizens or politicians can challenge policies deemed to be unreasonable or unjust is through the courts. This leaves a vacuum where those who believe they are above the law and whose attitudes verge on the anti-social can style themselves as protesting for freedom. Now that the government has allowed protests to continue, it has given the signal that the law never mattered in the first place.

Will policing be strengthened or undermined?

The government has clearly abdicated moral responsibility, and this has trickled down – not by accident – to the police. However there’s more to this than just the snappy headlines about protests and gatherings. True to its general election commitment, this government has passed legislation to implement a police covenant to protect the police. It is also recruiting thousands of police officers. This week the government has also announced the creation of Secure Marshals to help local authorities in England ensure social distancing in towns and city centres. The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government told the Independent that Marshals will have the following powers:

“directing pedestrians, providing information, cleaning touchpoints, preventing mixing between groups and being a point of contact for information on government guidelines”.

They will be able to alert the police if people break social distancing guidance but not issue fines.

We have to ask whether the system of Secure Marshals will improve or worsen the situation. Will protesters heed marshals’ directions or not? Or will they try to manipulate them? Will some people volunteer to be marshals in the hope of gaming the system and sabotaging police activity in their areas?

Culture wars over extremism

It is obvious that nearly all protests breached the guidance relevant at the time. It is not hard to see the culture wars over extremism under the surface. For example some far-right extremists such as Jayda Fransen of Britain First have been linked to some anti-lockdown protests. Sara Khan the Commissioner for Countering Extremism expressed concern that conspiracy theories about the coronavirus have been spreading on social media – some being anti-semitic. However, arguably the police’s credibility in handling extremism has been seriously compromised by its inconsistency over time.

The Commission for Countering Extremism has long said that it wants a new Counter-Extremism Strategy to focus on ‘hateful extremism’. However, the lockdown and the illegal protests have complicated the picture of extremism. The government does not seem to want to look at whether the protests have been based on philosophies that are hostile to moral visions of society, such as Christian-based ones, that have historically been central.

The need for a Christian witness

The government would do well to look inward and learn lessons from its inconsistent and cowardly approach to illegal protests before it publishes a new Counter-Extremism Strategy tackling ‘hateful extremism’. There is plenty to investigate in the protest groups in terms of attitudes to democracy, abiding by the rule of law, tolerance of others and entryism. In all of this there is a crying need for a Christian witness regarding law and order. The police was founded by Robert Peel, who was a Christian. This was at the height of evangelical influence in public life. Police impartiality was absolutely central to Peel’s vision. Equality before the law is a basic Christian principle, rooted in the truth that we are all created in God’s image. Without this faith, the notion of equality sooner or later gets dismissed as a pious fiction, or twisted into something else.

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