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12 March 2021

It was a terrible mistake not to safeguard the right to protest during lockdown

The Met Police’s absurd response to the planned Reclaim These Streets vigil shows why basic rights should have been protected. 

By Stephen Bush

What is the Met playing at? London’s police force is threatening to fine the organisers of Reclaim These Streets, a vigil to remember all women lost to violence, should the event go ahead on Saturday (13 March).

The heavy-handed approach is particularly ill-judged, given the questions that the Metropolitan Police is facing over whether it properly investigated a claim of indecent exposure involving the suspect in the alleged murder of Sarah Everard.

The campaign has received legal advice saying that the event is, in any case, within the bounds of the coronavirus laws. But it is yet another reminder that not having an opt-out for protest within those laws, as the state of Israel does and the Conservative MP Charles Walker has repeatedly called for here at home, was and is a serious error.

There will, understandably and rightly, be a great deal of focus today and over the next few weeks about the delayed first lockdown, the consensus among the government’s scientific advisers that Brits would simply crack after a few weeks stuck indoors, and about the fact that a harder, faster lockdown would have saved many lives. 

But it’s also true that powers to stifle dissent are a lot easier to take away than they are to take back, and that the history of the British state, and others, is that if you give an inch they take a mile. Yes, it was a mistake to lock down so late. But it was also a mistake not to do more to safeguard one of the most basic and important rights in any democracy: the right to protest. 

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[see also: Sarah Everard’s disappearance is a horrifying reminder that women live in fear of violence]