A closing space for civil society? A report on a roundtable discussion on the criminalisation of dissent in Britain (and beyond), by Francesca Kilpatrick
On 1 March 2019, the Centre for Spatial, Environmental, and Cultural Politics (SECP) at the University of Brighton, financially supported by the British Society of Criminology, hosted a seminar and roundtable discussion entitled Criminalising Dissent: A Closing Space for Civil Society. The event was organised by Roxana Cavalcanti, Raphael Schlembach, Deanna Dadusc and myself.
The conference gathered lawyers specialising in protest law, activists and academics to consider the growing trend of the criminalisation of protest and activism, and the relationship between protest and criminal justice. This trend has been researched extensively in North America and Europe, but the research capacity in the UK is more limited. This area is particularly deserving of renewed attention since the past decade saw the UN Special Rapporteur for the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association identify a ‘closing space for civil society’ in the UK, with specific concerns raised about counter-extremism strategies, surveillance of political activists, policing of protests and the Trade Union Act.
Event attendees heard about the ongoing undercover policing inquiry, the police role in defining acceptable dissent in the anti-fracking protests, and the legislation battles surrounding the Stansted 15 trial.
Lydia Dagostino, Director of Kellys Solicitors in Brighton and an experienced civil liberties lawyer, led the first discussion. Her talk on the undercover policing inquiry set out the current status of the almost 10-year investigation into police spying activities on over 1,000 groups, some of which are still unknown, including grieving families for justice, trade unions and activist collectives. She detailed the public dissatisfaction with the legal proceedings, and the resistance of the police to public scrutiny. This transitioned into a discussion on the constructed narratives of the inquiry; ‘good’ core participants (grieving families) versus ‘bad’ core participants (direct action protestors), and the police as victims of the inquiry suffering more than those spied upon.
Valerie Aston (University of East Anglia) and Will Jackson (Liverpool John Moores University) led a spirited second discussion on police responses to anti-fracking protests. Their research, some of it in collaboration with the Network for Police Monitoring, to track anti-fracking policing revealed that academic work suggesting an increase in human-rights based policing behaviour does not universally reflect protestors’ experiences. They discussed how anti-fracking protest is constructed as violent and criminal, with large arrest numbers being cited as proof of police necessity, when closer examination reveals most arrests were for non-violent behaviour. They also outlined various police methods of defining and punishing ‘unacceptable’ protest, including involving counterterrorist forces, as well as restraining orders on acquittal even for not-guilty verdicts.
Following and building upon discussion of these concerning developments, Graeme Hayes (Aston University) led a third session on the Stansted 15 trial and the new ways legislation is being used against activists. He explained how the Aviation and Maritime Security Act (AMSA) 1990 introduced after the Lockerbie bombing was used to construct airports as sites of democratic exception, as being airside without authorisation was argued to be inherently risky and endangering life by taking up police resources. He also discussed attempted use of a ‘necessity defence’ by the Stansted 15 as a depoliticised defence, and raised the question of how to critique wider practices and structures.
This provoked a wider discussion on the implications of certain legal defences, for example the ‘frack-free three’ successful use of a ‘good character defence’. Issues over Extinction Rebellion’s use of the ‘necessity’ guilty plea were also raised in relation to the youth climate strikes, as the child legal system is designed to be escaped via a not-guilty plea.
The afternoon sessions began with a workshop, with small groups of 2-4 identifying emergent themes and questions, which were then collated into displays that informed a wider group discussion. Emergent themes included:
- Legitimacy in protest and policing
- Constructing the activist as ‘good’ or ‘bad’
- Surveillance/monitoring and data collection on protestors
- The legal process as a disruption or punishment
- Construction of protest as inherently violent
- Use of counterterrorist forces
- New use/abuse/misuse of existing laws and defences
- Case law designed for crime being used for activism
These themes provoked discussion surrounding the political roles of the police and the diffusion and hybridisation of police functions throughout the state; disabled activists referred to the DWP, youth activists and mothers with children referred to social services, the NHS as a border force in data collection and so on. Finally, it was concluded that police-academic partnerships make it difficult to write and teach critically about police behaviour without restrictive collaboration.
The final session of the conference addressed outcomes and potential for further collaboration between attendees.
Finally, the event’s collection of abstracts and short articles was highlighted as particularly useful.
All of the discussions throughout the day highlighted the need for combined expertise in addressing this important trend in contemporary criminal justice and protest behaviour. We hope all attendees found the promise of further collaboration to answer these questions as exciting as we did.
Francesca Kilpatrick is a PhD student at Brighton University, looking at the securitisation trend in UK climate change policy and how this impacts climate activism and protests.