Backlash Over U.K. Police Violence Puts Focus on Protest Law
(Bloomberg) -- A backlash against police over using heavy-handed tactics to break up a peaceful vigil in support a murdered woman in London is focusing attention on a new law that aims to clamp down on the right to protest.
Legislation due before the House of Commons on Monday will feed into the controversy over the death of 33-year-old marketing executive Sarah Everard, who disappeared on March 3 while walking home at night through a park in south London. An off-duty police officer was eventually charged with her abduction and murder, adding to the tensions.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Home Secretary Priti Patel both called Sunday for an independent investigation of the Metropolitan Police’s handling of the vigil, which turned violent when police tried to disburse the crowd for violating social distancing rules at a time when the U.K. remains in lockdown. The peaceful gathering to raise awareness about crimes against women quickly turned chaotic, with images of male officers pinning down female protesters circulating widely in the press on on social media.
Khan met with senior police officials on Sunday, but said in a tweet that he “was not satisfied with the explanation they have provided.”
“I do want to draw a very firm distinction between the peaceful vigil that yesterday was intended to be and some of the very, very disruptive protests that we’ve seen in recent years where we’ve seen people gluing themselves to buildings and gates and stopping members of the public from going about their business,” Home Office Minister Victoria Atkins said Sunday on the British Broadcasting Corp.’s Andrew Marr show. “The bill tomorrow is very much focused on the later category.”
On Sunday, people continued to stream into a park in the Clapham neighborhood of London, leaving flowers at a bandstand that was the focal point of the Saturday gathering. Protesters also gathered Sunday outside of Scotland Yard, the headquarters of the police force.
The new legislation would restrict the use of noise at public gatherings and impose new controls for those assembling around the parliament building. It also includes measures that would strengthen protection for women against sexual offenses and would force those convicted of rape to serve more of their sentence in jail.
Ministers moved to restrict protests after demonstrations by Black Lives Matter and the environmental group Extinction Rebellion in previous years snarled traffic and disrupted commuter trains. In more recent months, police have been asked to break up other gatherings banned to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
“Enforcement action was necessary” at the event on Saturday because “hundreds of people were packed tightly together, posing a very real risk of easily transmitting Covid-19,” Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball said in a statement. “A small minority of people began chanting at officers, pushing and throwing items.”
Lawmakers in the Labour opposition said they’d oppose the policing bill.
“The policing of the vigil for Sarah Everard last night was unacceptable,” David Lammy, the Labour member of parliament who leads on justice matters, said on Twitter. “This is no time for the government to impose disproportionate controls on the right to protest.”
Brian Paddick, a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords and former deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, faulted officers for banning the demonstration on Clapham Common.
“If you ban a vigil like this, you are going to attract more people,” Paddick told the BBC. That “resulted in people who were looking to cause trouble” turning up to the event. “That could have been prevented if police had negotiated” with the organizers.
The Home Office’s Atkins said the government asked the Law Commission for advice on how to widen hate-crime legislation to add protection for women. She said the panel is looking at wording that could make misogyny a crime, something Labour is pushing for.
“The experiences that women have expressed have been absolutely shocking,” Atkins said separately on Sky News. “I genuinely believe this could be a moment of change.”
She said more rules were needed on protests to “ensure that democracy can continue” to function during mass gatherings. “There have been occasion where access to parliament has been made very difficult,” Atkins told Marr.
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