From David Maughan Brown in York: At the end of the line?

The end of the line.

April 5th

Last week saw country-wide protests against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill currently making its way through the Committee Stage in Parliament that I wrote about on 19th March.   That’s the one that envisages a ten-year penalty for causing ‘serious annoyance or inconvenience’ during a protest, which has been described by lawyers as ‘an existential attack on the right to protest.’   The Bill hasn’t been passed yet, but even so it would appear to have given the Metropolitan Police the confidence to feel that they now have free rein where protests are concerned.  On Saturday night two legal observers from Black Protest Legal Support, who were observing a protest in London, were detained by the police who were, it is reported, perfectly happy to acknowledge their status as observers: ‘Both people arrested were acting as legal observers at the protest.’*

All through the last thirty-five years of apartheid in South Africa, starting in 1956, the Black Sash – described by Nelson Mandela on his eventual release from prison as ‘the conscience of white South Africa’– held protest stands and marches to protest against the vicious cruelties of apartheid.   Protest stands were held on Saturday mornings in Pietermaritzburg through the 1970s and 1980s during which the members of the Sash, wearing their black sashes to symbolise the death of the constitution, would stand on the pavement of the main street holding their placards, having to stand well apart from each other to avoid infringing one or another of apartheid’s draconian anti-protest laws, most notably the Riotous Assemblies Act.   Isolated as they were, the women were easy targets for Security Branch intimidation as well as for abuse from apartheid-supporting white passers-by, so two or three men, of which I was sometimes one, were always asked to monitor the protests.   The police knew who we were, and knew we were monitoring their behaviour at the protests, but no one was ever arrested merely for observing one of the protests.

A Black Sash stand before the Riotous Assemblies Act came into force

Saturday’s arrests of two observers followed the arrests of four others from the same organisation on March 16thwhich had already prompted Liberty to bring legal action against the Metropolitan Police.  Sam Grant, head of policy and campaigns at Liberty responded to Saturday’s arrests by saying: ‘Liberty is already taking legal action against the Met for previous unlawful arrests of legal observers. Continuing to arrest independent monitors is a scandalous attack on the right to protest, and demonstrates exactly why people are taking to the streets against the government’s plans to give the police even more powers.’  

The same week saw our Home Office issuing a press release in which our honourable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, is quoted, according to a Microsoft News report, as stating that modern slavery safeguards are being ‘rampantly abused’.  The press release, we are told, claims that there have been ‘major increases’ in ‘child rapists, people who threaten national security and failed asylum seekers […] taking advantage of modern slavery safeguards’ in order to prevent their removal and enable them to stay in the UK.**  No evidence of these ‘major increases’, let alone any evidence of an increase in failed asylum applications, is given.  A group of barristers is reported to have submitted a complaint to the Home Office accusing it of misleading the public on immigration issues in the UK in breach of the civil service code by, among other things, equating ‘child rapists’ with ‘failed asylum seekers’, and in the process of contravening core values in the civil service code: integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality.  No surprise there where Patel is concerned. 

The coordinator of the barristers’ complaint, Rudolph Spurling, said Patel’s gratuitous attacks against the asylum system were particularly concerning in view of the new immigration plan she launched a few days later.  He added: ‘Lumping in failed asylum seekers with “child rapists” and “people who pose a threat to our national security and serious criminals” was an egregious attempt to demonise people who’ve not been shown to pose any danger to the public. Furthermore, there was no attempt to justify the rhetoric with relevant statistics.’  One of the more striking features of the new immigration plan is its prioritising of the way in which asylum seekers arrive in the UK over the merit or otherwise of their claims for asylum.

Last week also saw a report in The Independent revealing that the Home Office is intending to carry on until September keeping to the same high-density concentration of asylum seekers at Napier Barracks in Kent that resulted in almost 200 people being infected with Covid-19 in January.***  This is in spite of a report by Kent and Medway Clinical Commissioning Group on 20 January that stated that there were ‘too many people housed in each block to allow adequate social distancing and to prevent the risk of spread of infection’, and in spite of, to quote May Bulman’s report, ‘an assessment of the site by the government’s immigration watchdog last month [which] found that opening multi-occupancy dormitory-style accommodation at Napier had not complied with official health and safety guidance and that a large-scale outbreak had been “virtually inevitable.”’  A representative of the Kent Refugee Action Network is quoted as saying that it is ‘horrific’ that vulnerable asylum seekers are being ‘packed into entirely inappropriate communal living situations against the advice of PHE [Public Health England].’  Given their vulnerability, it is almost certain that some of the asylum-seekers will have died as a result of contracting Covid at the Barracks.  I haven’t been able to establish how many, but it is all too painfully obvious that the Home Office wouldn’t care how many, and assumes that the rest of us won’t care either.

Outlaw the democratic right to protest; arrest those who are charged with monitoring police behaviour; demonise and ‘other’ particular groups in society who are too weak and vulnerable to resist; create a climate in which the general population doesn’t care what happens to those who are being demonised.  That is the line at the end of which, if people allow it to be built, the concentration camps lie in wait.**




From David Maughan Brown in York: Human rights?

Gagged and bound

March 19th

The past few days have been largely taken up with the preparation for, and time spent in, interviewing short-listed applicants for the University of York’s Centre for Applied Human Rights Protective Fellowship Scheme for human rights defenders ‘at risk’, and the selection process for another cohort of ‘Arctivist’ projects bringing artists and activists together from a range of different countries around the world to produce artistic responses to the Covid-19 pandemic and the different ways in which authoritarian governments have exploited the pandemic as an excuse for further repression.

Brazil, India, Turkey, Zimbabwe, Thailand, El Salvador, Uganda, Mexico, China, Belarus, Malawi, Indonesia….the list of repressive countries from where the arctivist bids come goes on and on, and the contextual accounts of the different ways in which the various states have been taking advantage of the pandemic to abuse their citizens makes for depressing reading.  The interviews with the sometimes visibly stressed human rights defenders are often harrowing: they are all, by definition, at risk – usually from the State, or surrogates who do the State’s extrajudicial killings on its behalf, but in one case from Islamist extremists. One wishes one could find the funding to bring them all to York to take courses in cyber- and other security, and to get them away from the dangers they face, if only for six months.   Six of the nine human rights defenders we interviewed were women, two from the Far East, two from Central and South America, one from the Middle East and one from North Africa, all doing really important work.  One, who had had to flee her own country to avoid being killed, leaving her two children behind with her parents and was desperate to find somewhere to go where she could be reunited with her children, had to be turned down for a Fellowship because she would have been an asylum-risk and could have put the university’s license to recruit international students at risk.  The UK State doesn’t like asylum seekers.

Throughout the arctivist selection meeting, and all six, hour-long, interviews this week, the image of a face-masked young woman forced down on the ground, being leant on and handcuffed by two male policemen, hovered uncomfortably at the back of my mind.   She had made the mistake of attending a vigil in memory of another young woman who had been kidnapped and murdered by a man, who just happened to be a policeman.   The woman in the photograph above had been thrown to the ground and handcuffed because the vigil was contravening the Covid-19 regulations. The courts had ruled that protests per se are not illegal, but this one was illegal because the police commanders had refused to meet the organisers to discuss how it might be possible to hold a vigil that didn’t contravene the Covid-19 regulations.

I also found myself wondering where – China? Brazil? – I would find the closest parallel to a repressive government that would like to make the maximum ten-year penalty for causing ‘serious annoyance or inconvenience’ during a protest more draconian than the usual penalty for rape.  The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that is currently being rushed through our Parliament has provoked more than 700 UK legal academics into writing a letter to Boris Johnson condemning the bill’s attack on the democratic right to protest and warning of ‘an alarming extension of state control over legal assembly’, and ‘an existential attack on the right to protest.’ *  Where else in the world, for that matter – Zimbabwe? Belarus? the Philippines? – would a government want to make provision for its authoritarian home secretary to bypass parliament in the process of arbitrarily altering the definition of behaviour for which people could be prosecuted?  As Dr Joanna Gilmore, the coordinator of the letter, put it: ‘It is a mark of concern not only about the bill’s fundamental attack on the right to protest peacefully – which is an absolute right in any democracy – but also about the speed at which this is being rushed through, in the context of a pandemic and without proper consultation.’   It isn’t only the authoritarian governments of third-world countries that are taking advantage of the pandemic to hurry through repressive anti-democratic legislation.   I very much doubt that if the 700 signatories had addressed their letter to Father Christmas it could have been any more of a waste of their time.

What the vigil was actually about is in danger of being lost in the resulting brouhaha.  The family and friends of Sarah Everard are grieving for a young woman snatched off our streets and murdered.  That has brought to the surface the fears of so many women as they go nervously about their daily lives, and it has focussed our national consciousness, however fleetingly, on what can be done to make women safer and enable them to feel safer.  As we think of Sarah Everard’s family and friends in their grief, we should spare a thought also for the family and friends of Claudia Lawrence, who worked at the University of York and was snatched from our streets on her way to work twelve years ago.   Yesterday was the anniversary of her disappearance.  Her father, Peter, who tried tirelessly to find out what had happened to his daughter, died last month without ever getting an answer to the question that had preoccupied him all through the last tortured years of his life.  One can only hope he has found peace at last.