The devastating case of Sarah Everard has been incredibly distressing to take in for many people. The resonance of walking home at night in fear has lead to an outpour of women opening up about day-day misogyny. A vigil held over the weekend for people to pay their respect to Sarah, lead to the Metropolitan Police being under scrutiny for their incredibly poor and insensitive handling of the crowd. The Met Police must be held accountable for their actions, but we must also look at the government and the message that they are communicating, in light of a new restrictive protest policy.
The police’s handling of the Clapham Common vigil was completely unacceptable.
Of course, due to coronavirus restrictions there is a ban on large groups of people mixing. However, I think it is necessary to mention here that the vigil was organised under strict social distancing instructions, and attendees told to wear masks when coming together. In incredibly emotional situations, I would suggest, that it should be a human right to collectively gather (particularly through organised social distancing), just as people gathered for Black Lives Matter Protests last year. Nevertheless, the government and the police may maintain that it is still a lockdown and people are still instructed to stay at home.
What becomes much more problematic from the government, is that all this comes in the same week that MPs are set to approve legislation to reduce freedoms of protest. The controversial ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill’ is set to give the police more powers to tackle “non-violent” protests. The ex-chief constable of Greater Manchester Police has even said, that the public should be “really worried” about a new crackdown on protests – suggesting that the government are curbing rights which are “fundamental to our democracy”.
In terms of PR, reputation is everything and how a government communicates its position and policy is essential. We must ask, as we will soon begin to ease out of lockdown, why is the government choosing to continue to restrict our freedoms? Lockdown has certainly been a time of draconian laws, but we have all stayed at home to protect ourselves and each other from the virus.
This new policy is different.
I believe that in the context of this week’s events, this new bill is particularly damaging to the governments reputation. For me, this communicates the message that the government do not respect the public’s right to protest.
A protest is a human right, and one way that the public can communicate their voice and feelings about extremely emotional social issues. By diminishing this right, does the government not distance itself further away from us? Granting the police more power and citizens less, will surely threaten government and public relations.