When I spoke to Tessa Marshall, a community campaigner, for a recent piece on the Policing Bill, she was keen to stress one point in particular.

“What I would say to people who don't think that this is going to affect them is; this is going to affect you,” she said.

“People need to realise that protesters are not just this whole group of crusty people who all live in eco-friendly houses, or something.

“When we act, it’s because we feel like we really can’t afford not to.

“What if something happens to your community?  If you have a busy road, and you need speed bumps, or a zebra crossing?”

The National Wales: Tessa's group is working to save Cardiff's northern meadows from development (Source: Tessa Marshall)Tessa's group is working to save Cardiff's northern meadows from development (Source: Tessa Marshall)

The idea that the Policing Bill will only impact the lives of a small, annoying section of the population, is something that has frustrated opposition to the Bill since it was announced in March.

Initially attracting a swell of support – particularly after the Met were pictured violently shutting down a vigil for Sarah Everard – the Kill The Bill movement started to falter almost immediately, when a demonstration in Bristol led to a police van being set on fire (incidentally, one of the protestors involved, 25-year-old Ryan Roberts, was sentenced to an eyewatering 14 years’ imprisonment just a week ago).

The National Wales: Police hold back protestors at the Bristol Kill The Bill protest in March. (Source: PA Wire)Police hold back protestors at the Bristol Kill The Bill protest in March. (Source: PA Wire)

The conversation suddenly – and tragically – became fixated on the question of whether property damage and public disorder in the course of a protest was okay.

The words “peaceful protest” were batted around, with scant consideration for how few historically “peaceful” protests actually remained that way, and what it was that caused them to turn.

Boris Johnson et al, undeniably excellent opportunists that they are, seized on this conflict and ran with it – folding Extinction Rebellion, their perennial bugbears, along with the poor sods at Insulate Britain, into the category of illegitimate, selfish and violent protestors, contrasting them to some imagined group of nice, rule-following “peaceful” protestors.

 

The trouble is, this Bill will profoundly impact your life even if you’re not someone who ever intends to chain themselves to a building or sit down in the road.

For a start, the language used in the proposed laws is so vague, so open to interpretation (and therefore, abuse) that it could be applied to a mindboggling range of situations – from a handful of striking workers standing on a picket line, to a single person collecting signatures for a petition.

READ MORE: Four iconic Welsh protests you might not have heard of

To be given a Serious Disruption Prevention Order (SDPO) – which could, amongst other things, ban you from certain areas of your town, from using the internet in certain contexts, and/or from associating with certain friends – the police would need only to demonstrate to a court that you were likely to have caused or contributed to “serious disruption” more than once within the past five years.

The National Wales: New amendments to the Policing Bill target the "locking on" tactics of groups like Extinction Rebellion, shown here as members block an Amazon distribution centre to demand the company pay taxes and fair wages for its workers (Source: PA Wire)New amendments to the Policing Bill target the "locking on" tactics of groups like Extinction Rebellion, shown here as members block an Amazon distribution centre to demand the company pay taxes and fair wages for its workers (Source: PA Wire)

Like a lot of terms and phrases used in the Bill – “distress”, “serious unease”, “alarm” – what actually constitutes serious disruption is never precisely defined, leaving anyone in this unfortunate situation vulnerable to whatever creative interpretation the authorities see fit.

(If you think this is pessimistic: At least twenty asylum seekers have been prosecuted as human traffickers since 2019, because the Home Office used drones to film them trying to steer the dinghies they were travelling in)

READ MORE: Landmark Cymdeithas yr Iaith protest announced

That this serious disruption needs only to impact two individuals, or a single organisation, is also alarming.

NHS workers across the country are currently considering industrial action, and it’s entirely possible we’ll see strikes in the new year.

Do we want to see nurses, porters, hospital cleaners, criminalised for asking for fair pay? Strikes, after all, are designed to cause a degree of disruption to achieve their aims.

The National Wales: Home Secretary Priti Patel announced yet further additions to the Policing Bill on 23rd December. Changes will be made to the recording of hate crimes in order to "protect free speech". (Source: PA Wire)Home Secretary Priti Patel announced yet further additions to the Policing Bill on 23rd December. Changes will be made to the recording of hate crimes in order to "protect free speech". (Source: PA Wire)

Then there’s the discretionary powers our beloved Home Secretary, Priti Patel, will get.

Looking at page 65 of the Policing Bill amendments, you see that the Secretary of State “may issue guidance” to the police on “identifying persons” that may be “appropriate” candidates for SDPOs.

READ MORE: Are the 'creeping tentacles' of the UK government threatening Welsh democracy?

I imagine what Westminster would say to this is that the Home Secretary would merely be helping to ensure that only the “correct people” get targeted.

This is hardly a comforting assurance, coming from a government that conceived of the Nationality and Borders, Overseas Operations and Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bills; laws that all harden the divide between those designated “unworthy” and everyone else.

The National Wales: The Prime Minister reportedly described Scottish devolution as a "disaster" (Source: PA Wire)The Prime Minister reportedly described Scottish devolution as a "disaster" (Source: PA Wire)

Consider this Bill alongside the growing (if tumultuous) Welsh independence movement, and the “muscular unionism” stance of Johnson et al.

The Prime Minister’s opinion on devolution is fairly well known – last year he reportedly told a meeting of Conservative MPs it was Tony Blair’s “biggest mistake” – and Westminster continues to legislate in devolved areas.

Taking these things together, it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that indy Wales campaigners could one day join the ranks of “illegitimate” protestors.

These are political powers, and they will be used politically.

The National Wales: Protests against Margaret Thatcher's poll tax policy contributed to her 1990 resignation. The poll tax was repealed in 1993. (Source: James Bourne)Protests against Margaret Thatcher's poll tax policy contributed to her 1990 resignation. The poll tax was repealed in 1993. (Source: James Bourne)

What I’m trying to articulate here is this: Everyone has something they care about deeply, whether that’s annibyniaeth, your child’s education, your local park, or the survival of the NHS.

If this Bill is passed (and it’s almost certain to), fighting for those things in any meaningful way will be a criminal act.

As Tessa put it – we’re losing the right to “ask for what we deserve”.

What’s the answer?

Well. History tells us that our best chance is, appropriately enough, protest. It’s how the UK rid itself of the poll tax, and of Section 28 (I’m sure there are many more examples I’m missing!).

Is the outcome guaranteed? Of course not.

But what other choice do we have?

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