Where we came from…
On Saturday 13th March women, feminists and comrades met at Clapham Common bandstand for a vigil. The events that unfolded that evening sparked the beginnings of a mass, national movement to kill the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill.
A few days prior, the intention of the vigil was to mourn the death of Sarah Everard. Snatched from the streets by a Met police officer – a representative of the institution constructed as our protectors – Sarah became the emblem of the vulnerability and precariarity women experience both on the streets and in their homes. But the actions of the Met Police turned what was a vigil into a protest and what was a protest into a movement.
In banning the vigil the Met Police said to women that night that not only can they not guarantee their officers won’t kidnap women from the streets, but they will also tell women when and how they can take public space. They will tell women when it’s acceptable to defend themselves. They told women when and how they were allowed to mourn, where they were allowed to congregate, how they could use their voices. They demanded women accept their authority without question.
At the time no one knew that what they meant was women must accept their dictates or face the violence of the state; but violence is unquestionably what they intended to mete out that evening. They waited until the sun went down, when the public’s eyes were off them, when the cameras could no longer catch focus, to use violence against the women mourning and protesting in Clapham Common at dusk, on the 13th March 2021.
Nobody – from the mourners and activists on the ground, to the police and political establishment – could have predicted the resilience of women to say “we will not be silenced” combined with the brazenness of the police to say “or else” would have created the political crisis it did. Nobody knew that out of that political crisis would emerge a burgeoning national movement against the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing bill. How did we get from Clapham Common to #KillTheBill?
Where we went…
Feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut announced it would be attending the vigil at Clapham Common when Reclaim These Streets, the organisation who initially called it, cancelled at the final hour; acquiescing under the pressure of threats and intimidation from the Met police. These feminist activists had, seemingly, learnt important lessons from BLM mobilisations called in summer of 2020: cancelling mass action doesn’t prevent people from turning up; it simply leaves those who do without leadership, vulnerable to the repressive violence of the state.
In response to the violence meted out by the Met police on women at Clapham Common, Sisters Uncut and several groups including Women’s Strike Assembly, BLMUK and others called a follow up demonstration outside of Scotland Yard on Sunday 14th March. It was here that the chant of “Kill the bill” found its voice in the nucleus of a movement.
Crowds of thousands of people who had marched from Scotland yard, found themselves outside of Parliament chanting “Kill the bill, Kill the bill, Kill the bill”; linking the violence at Clapham Common to the upcoming bill that would empower the police to do more, with more impunity, of the same that had been witnessed the night before.
Sisters Uncut and speakers at the protest recognised the opportunity to link the daily violence of policing – not just seen in Clapham Common, but seen every day in our communities – to the bill which was going through its second reading in parliament on the 15th and 16th March. An activist from the group said on Sunday 14th:
“Yesterday, women came to grieve and were brutalised by the colleagues of the man who may have killed Sarah Everard. This has illustrated why police cannot be granted even more powers – because they already abuse the ones they have.”Sisters Uncut – Sunday 14th March 2021
On the evening of the 14th March activists across the country moved quickly: United for Black Lives and Black Music Movement held a meeting with a strong alliance of organisations representing multiple campaigns across the country. Out of this meeting came more pressure, and more rage, as another demonstration was called on the streets of London on Monday 15th and a #KillTheBill statement condemning the bill was released, signed by 160 organisations and counting.
Sisters Uncut and other groups called further demonstrations on the 16th and 17th March: by this time the spirit of #KillTheBill had started to ripple across the country. The message, that police are already drunk on power and you do not give a violent, drunk man more drugs, began seeping into popular consciousness.
This week of street mobilisations, in memory of Sarah Everard and against the bill, culminated in a #KillTheBill public meeting called by Sisters Uncut on 18th March where speakers from the GRT and disability justice communities, as well as representatives from Black Lives Matter UK, Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement and No More Exclusions spoke about how the bill affects us all and why we all must fight it.
The mistake Priti Patel had made was attacking us all at once, the same mistake Thatcher made with the poll tax. The activists and organisations at the core of mobilising action that week, well versed in the dialect of struggle and vernacular of unity, saw this and knew there was only ever going to be one weapon that could build on this momentum and really kill the bill: solidarity.
From here action against the bill ballooned. Feminists from different organisations began meeting to discuss how they could take the movement forward. Actions were planned at almost a daily rate in urban city centres as well as rural towns, from North to South, across lines of identity and division. Groups who had never spoken to each other before began conversating regularly.
The uprising that took place after police violently attacked a #KillTheBill protest in Bristol ignited a national debate about violence, police tactics and self-defence. A debate that, perhaps surprisingly, built consensus across the movement about the primacy of state violence in conversations about protest ethics and the way calls for ‘peace’ are used to silence and delegitimise protest.
People across the country came together on the weekend of the 3rd April a for national, co-ordinated day of action which was once again met with police intimidation. They added mass arrests to their usual artillery of batons and beatings, with videos of police beating protestors flooding the internet. The Met police chose to double down on their strategy of violent containment and dispersal, reminiscent of counter-insurgency policing, whilst also giving an arrogant nod to their mates in Bristol.
There will no doubt be further mobilisations in the future; that we can be sure of. But action is one thing, winning is another. Our movement must begin to move with meaning: political purpose and strategic clarity will light our path to victory.
Where we go…?
That the bill seeks to criminalise and, essentially, illegalise protest is an attack on every person with feet to walk the streets of this dusty island. Every right and freedom we enjoy – from suffrage, to holiday and sick pay, from the ability to collectively bargain in the workplace, to the ability to hold so-called democratic representatives to account – comes from our congregation in protest on the streets.
Every attack on our communities – from evictions, to racist violence, from attacks on queer life to the inability to walk safely as a woman on the streets – has been met with resistance, met with protest. This bill is an assault on us all and an attack on us all must be met by resistance from us all. Unity and solidarity must be the clarion call of this movement.
The bill goes deeper by levying specific attacks on already oppressed communities: it will further criminalise Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) life. It will introduce further and harsher stop and search powers, which we know will be felt most ferociously by young, Black men and boys. It will criminalise the protest tactics that have been at the heart of disability and climate justice activism. Amendments put forward will drive sex workers further underground, making their work more unsafe and more deadly.
We have to bring back the slogan ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’: the movement of our feet and the cry of our voices cannot stop until the attacks on all communities are quelled. No sister, no young person, no comrade left behind. In political terms, this means killing the bill in its entirety. We cannot allow the state to assuage public rage by amending away the most wide reaching repressions (for example, the criminalisation of protest) in a bid to divide our movement, pick communities apart or pit communities against each other.
We also have to be clear: though this process began in parliament, it will end in the streets. With a Tory government intent on attacking our civil liberties and a Labour opposition sitting idly on the side lines chuckling into Union Jacks, we cannot focus our strategies and energies on influencing the process from within parliament. That hundreds of organisations, including large trade unions like RMT, UCU and CWU, have signed a statement promising civil disobedience in defiance of this oppressive bill is an indication of both the rage and determination the movement has in crushing it.
Although a lot of commendable work is no doubt happening within the chambers, this bill will be defeated on the streets. If the bill passes we cannot let this demobilise the movement. In fact, this will simply confirm what we already know: the state is an instrument of violence against and coercion of the people. You cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. Only the master will tell you such a strategy would be fruitful for ordinary folk.
The bill will be defeated by making it ungovernable and unenforceable in the streets. This means channelling our energies into the long, slow, slog of movement building and community organising, mass mobilisations and direct action: a diversity of tactics can and will defeat this bill.
It means solidarity, real solidarity. When thousands, hopefully hundreds of thousands, come out to protest the criminalisation of protest, like the flying pickets of Grunwick, those thousands must also come out to defend GRT communities from police and state violence. Those thousands must hit the streets for the Black men killed in police custody. It means moving as a unit and defending our own: no dichotomies between good and bad protestors, no battles between egos and manoeuvres for leadership.
We must also recognise that this bill is just one attack: they’ve come for us before and they’ll come for us again. We have to think deeply about the infrastructure we need to sustain community, activist and civil self-defence for the long term. How can we channel the energy on the streets back into building working class and community power: the very power, our power, the state has spent decades carefully, yet ruthlessly, destroying?
Our movement needs to ask and answer many more questions. But, for now, our focus must be unified and our mission singular. The government’s mistake was attacking us all at once, whether we move all at once against them is an open question we have yet to answer.