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Protest and Policing in the Time of the Pandemic

Freedom of expression and assembly are core features of democracy. During the COVID-19 pandemic, restrictions to these civic rights have been widely justified to prevent the spread of serious infectious disease. At the same time, the #BlackLivesMatter movement responded dynamically to police violence, whilst further significant protests in the UK in 2020 included major protest events of Extinction Rebellion and anti-lockdown protests. The UK Government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 (PCSC) has, in response, sought to place further restrictions on the right to protest, resulting in further protests. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland is experiencing a return to violent protest.  

On 20 May 2021, the Centre for Democratic Futures organised a panel that brought together a group of experts who discussed continuity and change, as well as the future of protest, how it is policed and how protest responds to policing.

The first speaker was Graeme Hayes, who is Reader in Political Sociology at Aston University, UK whose research focuses on environmental social movements, civil disobedience, and the criminal trials of activists. His most recent book is Breaking Laws: Violence and Civil Disobedience in Protest (Amsterdam UP, 2019). Hayes emphasized that narrowing the space of protest is part of a wider politics of democratic enclosure – both of austerity, and of the conservative project of defining voices and bodies that do not fit. Where this is done in the name of liberalism, liberals find it hard to respond.  He pointed out that who gets to speak and under what conditions is always about power. Referring to David Mead, Hayes put the recent PCSC in historical context starting with the Public Order Act 1936, which responded to fascist activism, and demonstrated that the PCSC is a part of a trend of ever decreasing protest rights (with the exception of the Human Rights Act). He emphasized that the retreat of the state does not just include economic, but also political and civic austerity.  

His presentation was followed by Finn Mackay who is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of the West of England in Bristol and has been involved in feminist activism for over twenty years, since living at a Women's Peace Camp in the 1990s. She is the author of  Radical Feminism: Activism in Movement and the forthcoming book Female Masculinities and the Gender Wars: The Politics of Sex. Mackay spoke about her research on Reclaim the Night from 1970s to the resurgence in the 2000s. She contrasted the professionalisation of feminist activism, which includes the support of the state for women’s shelters, with “DIY” activism of the 1990s and noted that the COVID-19 regulations resulted in a return to earlier forms of protest methods due to necessity rather than strategic considerations. Mackay discussed the increase of private spaces and what it means for protest as well as the police response from Reclaim These Streets after the murder of Sarah Everard.

She was followed by Margit Mayer who is Senior Fellow at the Center for Metropolitan Studies at Technical University Berlin and an expert in contemporary urban politics, urban theory, (welfare) state restructuring, social movements, and migrant organizing. Her many publications include Urban Uprisings: Challenging Neoliberal Urbanism in Europe (2016). Mayer’s contribution drew on recent publications on progressive movements in the U.S. She focused particularly on the Black Lives Matter movement in the US in 2020 which was shaped by the death of George Floyd and the election. Mayer described this as “peculiar historical situation” and noted three discontinuities with previous anti-racist movements: 1) heterogeneity and intersectionality of the Black Lives Matter protests, 2) new demands which combine mobilization for racial and social justice, ecological demands, calls to defund carceral institutions, 3) the direct response of the political and the corporate worlds, including police reforms and funding for Afro-American organizations and causes. She noted that police reforms limited to procedural justice do not prevent police brutality and that philanthrocapitalism tends to undermine the Black Lives Matter movement by causing fragmentation.

The last speaker was Brian Moss, who is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Southampton and drew on his experience working in research roles within oversight and non-profit bodies in Ireland and Belgium, and as a probation officer. Moss compared policing of protest across the British Isles and the policing jurisdictions of Scotland, NI, England and Wales and Ireland before and during Covid. He argued that the English and Welsh policing approach generates the most fraught responses (as distinct from reactions). He highlighted the role of digital surveillance for protest and policing which has the effect of moving protest away from being a sporadic or spontaneous event and hoped for improvement in risk assessment on the use of force.

Unfortunately, the fifth speaker, Nisha Kapoor had to withdraw from the panel on short notice and sent her apologies.

The presentations of the four speakers were followed by a lively debate which addressed that racialised policing and repression are context specific as well as the relationship between online and offline activism. Furthermore, the role of the police was discussed extensively as well as the need to fund reformed, holistic social services for communities, given that police are not trained to respond to people suffering in mental distress for example, but often spend a significant amount of their time being called out to do so.

Protest and Policing, 20th May 2021

Discussion about continuity and change, as well as the future of protest, how it is policed and how protest responds to policing

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