The Dangerous Authoritarian Threat Posed by Priti Patel to Our Right to Protest and Dissent

Shame on Priti Patel: a placard at the protest outside New Scotland Yard on March 14, 2021 following the heavy-handed suppression of a peaceful vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common the evening before (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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So the war is on, then — of home secretary Priti Patel versus the people; Priti Patel, the authoritarian bigot, versus anyone who dares to disagree with her about anything; Priti Patel, a woman, and the child of Ugandan-Indian immigrants, who, nevertheless, embodies the worst aspects of an arrogant, intolerant, racist, sexist, planet-despoiling, rights-hating elite British patriarchy.

For anyone concerned about civil liberties in the UK, Priti Patel’s deeply troubling attitude to dissent seems to have fuelled yesterday’s heavy-handed response by the police to a peaceful vigil by women on Clapham Common mourning the brutal murder of Sarah Everard, allegedly by a serving police officer.

The sight of policemen using force to break up the vigil was an act of truly astonishing insensitivity, and while there are clearly questions to be asked of the officers involved — concerning their blatant ‘manhandling’ of grieving women, and claims that some officers deliberately trampled on flowers left by woman at the vigil, as well as the risibility of the Metropolitan Police’s own claims about them having to break up the vigil because of concerns about public safety in light of the ongoing Covid regulations — it seems most pertinent to look up the chain of command for an explanation of how and why such a heavy-handed and insensitive display of force took place — and that chain of command leads inexorably, via the Met Commissioner Cressida Dick, to Priti Patel.

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The Significance of the High Court Ruling That the Police’s London-Wide Ban on Extinction Rebellion Was “Unlawful”

Metropolitan Police officers and the Extinction Rebellion camp at Trafalgar Square, October 11, 2019 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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The news cycle seems so frenetic right now that stories barely get noticed before the media spotlight promiscuously turns to some other topic. A case in point, to my mind, is an important High Court ruling last week — that a decision taken by the Metropolitan Police last month, to impose a blanket ban across the whole of London prohibiting any assembly of more than two people linked to Extinction Rebellion’s ‘Autumn Uprising’, under section 14 of the Public Order Act of 1986, was “unlawful.”

The two High Court judges who issued the ruling — Mr. Justice Dingemans and Mr. Justice Chamberlain — said, as the Guardian described it, that “the Met had been wrong to define Extinction Rebellion’s two-week long ‘autumn uprising’ as a single public assembly on which it could impose the order.”

As Mr. Justice Dingemans stated in the ruling, “Separate gatherings, separated both in time and by many miles, even if coordinated under the umbrella of one body, are not a public assembly under the meaning of section 14(1) of the 1986 act.” He added, “The XR autumn uprising intended to be held from 14 to 19 October was not therefore a public assembly … therefore the decision to impose the condition was unlawful because there was no power to impose it.”

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Extinction Rebellion Challenges and Defies Outrageous London-Wide Ban on Public Assemblies

Extinction Rebellion supporters defy the Metropolitan Police’s outrageous London-wide ban on XR protests, congregating in significant numbers in Trafalgar Square, October 16, 2019 (Photo: Ben Gillespie).

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On Monday evening, in response to the start of the second week of actions in London by the environmental campaigning group Extinction Rebellion, as part of their International Rebellion in at least 60 cities worldwide, the Metropolitan Police issued an unprecedented order, under Section 14 of the 1986 Public Order Act, which allows them to impose restrictions on any “public assembly” (an assembly of two or more people in a public place), if they claim that it poses “serious disruption to the life of the community.”

The order on Monday night stated that “any assembly linked to the Extinction Rebellion ‘Autumn Uprising’ … must now cease their protests within London (MPS and City of London Police Areas)” by 9pm, and even before it was issued police began clearing protestors out of their camp in Trafalgar Square.

Lawyers, civil liberties groups and some MPs immediately responded with understandable outrage. Jolyon Maugham QC tweeted, “We believe the section 14 Order is invalid — that it amounts to a huge overreach of the statutory power — and likely reflects the enormous political pressure the Met is under”, adding, “It exposes the Met to all sorts of risks — of legal challenges to validity, of civil claims for wrongful arrest with aggravated damages and so on — merely because this Government cannot tolerate peaceful protest.”

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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