Opinion

Protest is at the heart of democracy, the policing bill will silence millions

The policing bill will silence millions and threaten any hopes of a fairer society post-pandemic, says Union Chapel boss Michael Chandler

Protests like this, where Kurdish people voiced their opposition to the Turkish government and ISIS, could be banned under the new law. Image credit: Roger Blackwell/Flickr

Our communities need to be heard now more than ever. This last year has starkly highlighted how unequal and divided our society is, and things are sadly likely to get much harder for many in the months and years to come.

The traumatic mental health legacy of this pandemic is becoming apparent. Unemployment and financial hardship will increase, while funding for support services is likely to decrease. Ensuring our communities are heard and have the opportunity to speak up when they need to will be vital to ensure we rebuild a fairer, more equal society after this pandemic.

Democratic processes should allow people the opportunity to get their issues heard and to influence change, through campaigning, elected representatives, the opportunity to fairly vote and so on.

They should. However, we know that many feel alienated by these processes, institutions are biased against swathes in our society, processes can appear overly bureaucratic so many just don’t understand how to get involved in them. When these ‘processes’ fail, people must have the right to raise their voices, shout out, and demonstrate about the issues that need to be heard, that need to change freely and peacefully. The right to protest is and must be at the heart of any progressive and true democracy.

Without protest, many of the positive civil rights changes around the democratic world would not have happened. More recently, without the mass protests we’ve seen in the last two years, it is very possible that democratic governments, institutions large and small, and society at large would not be taking greater action on environmental and race-related issues.

Protests force issues onto an agenda, force society to debate and consider what needs to change. Protests are a fundamental part of creating mass movements; mass movements which then inform political decision-making. And through this, we see real tangible (and, sometimes, negative) social change.

Union Chapel knows well the importance of free speech, with a long proud history of nonconformism, it was founded by people considered radical activists 200 years ago. Nonconformists were pioneers of modern democratic government in which freedom of speech is foundational. They campaigned for the right to vote, to hold public office and for equal treatment under the law.  They were opposed but won through.

Today, Union Chapel is known most famously as a venue, but we are also a charity working to support and empower the hardest hit in our communities; and of course, a progressive nonconformist church continuing to champion social, racial, economic and climate justice. We regularly provide a safe space and a platform for events led by activists, workshops run by the likes of Extinction Rebellion, and groups representing our wider community.

We are actively reimagining being nonconformists in today’s world.  This is our direction and commitment to community, heritage and social justice post-pandemic. We are excited to host our own participatory democracy process through a Legislative Theatre project – training a group from our communities as Community Leaders, to share their experience, getting their voices heard by people in power, and informing real change through a Zoom performance and event they have devised about housing, mental health and sexism issues, later this month. These are their issues; this is very much their voice speaking to power.

But we will also need to ensure voices are heard, and when they are not then we must have the right to support movements for positive change through other means – which will mean protest. This is why we’ve signed an open letter against the Police Crime Bill, as the Union Chapel Project, and our friends at Union Chapel Church, alongside many of our peers.

The Bill aims to introduce draconian new police powers to decide where, when and how citizens are allowed to protest and have their voices heard by those in power; create new trespassing offences that would criminalise nomadic Gypsy and Traveller communities; and also have implications for people experiencing homelessness – people that are part of the Union Chapel community. It’s also being rushed through in a week, before we – MPs, civil society, our communities – have had the chance to fully understand its implications. These implications could be wide-ranging, oppressive, and detrimental for our democracy. The disturbing events of this last weekend, and our long history as people with an experience of exclusion, have shown exactly why a bill like this should be opposed.

Michael Chandler is CEO of Union Chapel

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