Hundreds of protesters gathered on St.Peter’s Square in Manchester on May Day, following the quickly established tradition of Saturday demonstrations after the controversial police, crime, sentencing and courts bill was proposed in mid-March. The slogan “kill the bill” united the protesting individuals and organisations angered by the bill’s measures to curb the right to protest peacefully, which many fear will severely limit our human right of freedom of expression.
Protesters also voiced their support for International Labour Day, during a time when workers’ rights are increasingly threatened by a cocktail of privatisation, gig economy contracts and safety issues at work such as lack of PPE for health care workers during the Covid pandemic.
Campaigner *Helen, 57, who had skipped another event to be able to come to this demonstration, said. “The police powers bill is the greatest blow to democracy that’s happened in my lifetime. It’s really serious. We have to protest this. I had an event today but I couldn’t go because I had to come to this protest, it’s that important as a worker and a socialist.”
Alongside the fears that the proposed bill will place significant restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly for all citizens in the UK there are also concerns that it could have detrimental outcomes on already stigmatised and vulnerable communities.
The police, crime and sentencing bill and the Home Office approach towards the Gypsy and Traveller communities has been criticised for not solving the issue of unauthorised encampments, and the lack of housing and inadequate facilities these communities have to deal with. The proposed legislation’s trespassing provisions have been accused of risking further criminalisation and marginalisation of communities who are being punished for their way of living.
The first person to take up the microphone on the impromptu speakers corner opposite the tram stop in St Peter’s Square was Lolo, who spoke in support of the Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities, highlighting systematic abuse which she said emanated from central and local governments alike, and went to say:
“This cannot just be a bucket-list protest for people to come with their signs and their mates to say that they have done something good. This is a consistent effort of disengaging with a racist system.
“Imagine what it’s like for the hundreds of thousands of travellers living across this country with our people dying every damn day and when we live on sites when you call an ambulance the police come in first. We live on sites where the local people call you scum, call you pikey, complain about you like an infestation…
“If I’m just here speaking it’s not enough. It can’t just be me. I can’t just be the one palatable Gypsy, there are six million Romani people across Europe. We are the largest ethnic minority community across Europe…”
Lolo spoke about her grandmother who she says died because of racialised neglect, and community members who had been lost to racial violence in the UK, which she linked to the suffering of the Gypsy and Romani people in the Holocaust. She urged people to stay strong, to engage and show solidarity.
“Our roadside communities right now are petrified because they can have all of their things taken with a drop of a hat. Imagine that. Your home, your things, your stuff, taken because you are living roadside even though councils consistently owe you the bare minimum of sites. This is ethnic cleansing. This is no time to be stood around, shrugging our shoulders. Engage with your communities! Engage with us because we are systematically amazing people, we are awesome. We are so strong and so resistant.” Lolo told the crowd.
A speaker who preferred to remain anonymous read out a statement on behalf of the Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM), explaining why she believes the so-called Nordic model, which criminalises the buying of sex, does not work. Her speech was prompted by a suggestion in March by the Labour MP Diana Johnson to add provisions to the bill that would target the buyer of sex. The spokeswoman for SWARM said:
“Sex workers are already disproportionately affected by police violence. Because under current legislation our workplaces are criminalised. For many of us, the biggest experiences of violence that we have in the sex industry have been at the hands of the police. They take away our earnings, take away our work places and force us to work alone and in isolation.
“The biggest driver of sex work has never been demand, it has always been poverty. The Nordic model reduces the number of our clients which makes it more difficult to turn down those who make us feel unsafe. It also makes it more difficult to enforce boundaries such as condom use. It makes us more likely to work in unsafe areas to escape law enforcement and statistically speaking it makes us more likely to be murdered by our clients.
“This is also a labour rights issue. If our workspaces are criminalised, we cannot organise them. If we have to keep our profession hidden out of fear of legal repression, no collective action is possible to improve working conditions.”
Led by a samba band, the protest marched from St Peter’s Square around Manchester Arndale and along Market Street, past Piccadilly Gardens, stopping at the Oxford Road-Portland Street junction for a few minutes before gathering in front of the Central Library.
Alongside anti-racism action and protection of women’s rights, the importance of labour rights rang out at the protest on International Labour Day. Many of the protesters were there to show solidarity for the right to decent and safe working conditions and to honour Manchester’s tradition of protest and direct action.
Fabian, 20, carrying a large banner at the demonstration with his two friends, spoke of his desire for better working conditions, saying:
“Going back to the 1800s there has been this idea that workers deserve more than just reforms, they deserve more than just rights at work, they deserve to actually revolutionise the entire way working is set up.
“A lot of people are here for the bill and I’m here for that but I’m also here to try push it to a radical direction. It’s about something bigger, especially today on May the First.”
Police presence was low at the start of the protest except for two Community Liaison Officers in blue bibs and two Police Evidence Gatherers with orange arm bands filming the protesters. More than 50 police officers arrived around 6.25pm after around 40 minutes of protesters blocking the tram tracks as they stood and chanted between and on the tram tracks directly in front of Central Library. Some protesters ran away or were chased through the square towards the town hall as the police quickly formed two lines around the tram tracks to stop them from being blocked. Some protesters verbally confronted the officer line while other protesters and officers continued on Mosley Street to the direction of Piccadilly Gardens. Green & Black Cross report that there were no arrests in Manchester due to this protest on Saturday.
The bill passed second reading onto Committee stage by 359 votes in favour- all by Conservative MPs – and 263 against by Labour and other MPs. Now, at the Public Bill Committee stage, MPs propose amendments. Among the many amendments is a proposal by Conservative MP Tracey Crouch and requested by Medway Council to enable a local authority to recover costs from those who set up illegal encampments. Labour MP Dr Rupa Huq pointed out at Second Reading that “this monster of a Bill includes the word ‘women’ zero times in 295 pages, yet statutes, war memorials and monuments are mentioned multiple times.”
While the Committee must report back to the House of Commons by 24 June, no date for the third reading has been published yet.
William from Manchester taking part in the march on Saturday, said.“This is the first protest I’ve ever been to. As a trans queer person a lot of my rights are from people campaigning, and this Bill is basically blocking the right to protest. It’s blocking access for people like me getting rights.
“It’s a domino effect. The government targets the vulnerable, the people they think won’t get that much defence. And then they start targeting more and more disadvantaged communities. If we let them start that chain of dominos, it’s going to be very difficult for us to stop it from falling further.”
The diversity and intersectionality of the comments from protesters highlighted a palatable fear and anger that hardly anyone is safe from the impact the proposed bill will have, and a belief that constant, loud action is needed to gather momentum to prevent it from becoming law.
* All demonstrators commenting in this article did not wish to give their surnames due to the nature of the protest.
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All in article photos: Noora Mykkanen.
Feature image: Steve Leggett.