While Archant published clickbait headlines in the EDP and Norwich Evening News that chose to spotlight the pink chalk ‘vandalism’ of a war memorial, Saturday’s Kill the Bill protest in Norwich city centre was in fact a peaceful display of solidarity, and an empowering antidote to the violence that protesters elsewhere in the country have been subjected to. In Bristol, boards reading ‘People Over Property‘ now surround the former plinth of the Edward Colston statue, and act as a visual reminder of both the police and the media establishment’s skewed priorities when it comes to covering protests. Chalk gets washed away with a spell of wet weather. Authoritarian bills don’t.
At 1pm on the day of the protest, people started to gather at City Hall to listen to various speakers. The crowd was reassuringly socially distanced, and, to my relief, everyone seemed to be wearing masks. Passers by were stopping to listen, dogs were behaving on their leads, and signs reading ‘Protect Peaceful Protest’ bobbed tentatively above people’s heads. It was indeed the picture of a ‘perfect’ peaceful protest.
One of the reasons we were there, however, was to defend our right to protest – especially at those ‘imperfect’ ones (you know, the ones that are actually effective…). We were there to protest the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill, a new bill which proposes to give police increased powers to clamp down on what Tory legislators call ‘highly disruptive protests.’
As we all stood outside City Hall, I reminisced on other protests I’d attended here over the years, and the number of people I’d watched stand on those same steps and speak out in the name of justice. Since its opening in 1938 – just 20 years after women were granted the right to vote in the UK – City Hall has lived through an era of hard-fought social and political change: from the struggle for gay rights, abortion rights and trans rights, to environmental and anti-war campaigns. The building itself has also been the object of direct action, such as on March the 6th 1990 when hundreds of people stormed the Hall during a council meeting in which the local poll tax levy was to be agreed. It’s seen decades of struggle, hosted hundreds of speakers on its steps, and bore first-hand witness to the transformative power of dissenting crowds.
I was hauled back into the present by another impassioned voice on the megaphone – this time a member of the Traveller community – and I was reminded of just how many different groups will be adversely affected by this bill. One of the earlier speakers, Jan, spoke to me about why she was there: “I’m interested in the impact of this bill on protest, but also its criminalisation of trespass” she explained, “This will affect groups particularly under attack from cops already… Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities, the homeless community, those taking direct action like hunt sabs and environmental protestors at HS2 Rebellion camps.” These groups are at risk, because the PCSC Bill also intends to criminalise trespass if said ‘trespasser’ is on land they don’t own, with one or more vehicles and an intent to reside.
For the GRT community this bill will serve to criminalise their very existence. A friend and fellow protestor told me how the criminalization of trespass would affect them personally: “My partner and I live in a vehicle, either on the roadside or on common land, so this bill is going to directly impact our way of life, and will essentially criminalise us for living a low impact, off-grid lifestyle.” She went on to tell me how this concern burdens others in her community: “I’m close with a lot of traveller families who now fear for their lives too.” she explained, “This is undeniably social cleansing… I still can’t believe this bill could potentially be passed in the year 2021.”
At around 2pm, we started marching. There were now about 300 of us, weaving our way down past the market and into The Lanes. As banners reading ’This Land is Our Land’ and ‘People = Power’ bobbed up and down, and chants of ‘No Justice No Peace!’ floated along the narrow cobbled streets, we turned onto Castle Meadow, and I was again imbued with a strong nostalgia for struggles past.
Looking up at Norwich Castle, perched on the grassy mound which now houses Castle Mall shopping centre, its hard to believe that on the 7th of December 1549, Robert Kett was hanged from those very walls. Kett was the leader of a peasants rebellion, revolting against the enclosures of the time. Local landowners were fencing off the land, stripping commoners of their common rights, and leaving people with nowhere to graze their animals. For six and a half weeks, Kett and his followers (numbering in their thousands) set up camp and occupied Mousehold Heath. Although they managed to seize the city and hold it for just over a week, the rebellion was soon quashed, 3,000 rebels were killed, and Kett was found guilty for treason.
Almost 500 years on, and this bill is an attempt to reaffirm the very same myth used to justify enclosures in the 16th century: that the land is not ours. By denying GRT communities their spatial lifeline – verges, roadsides, and shrinking pockets of common land – and regulating the use of public space for protest, the PCSC Bill is just another wave of enclosure, shrinking our spaces of existence, expression, and dissent.
The march moved on, past the Castle and along St Stephen’s street where we then reached the inner ring-road roundabout and were encouraged to sit down. As the circle of tarmac filled up with seated protestors, renewed chants of ‘Whose streets? OUR STREETS!’ reverberated in all four directions. After 20 minutes or so, we got up, and marched to the next roundabout. Chanting continued as traffic was redirected, and the buzz of people power electrified the air.
Having come full-circle, we marched back towards City Hall and sat down outside the police station. The increased police powers proposed in the bill have been met with widespread disgust, an aversion compounded by the shameless display of police violence at the vigil of Sarah Everard as well as at the Kill the Bill protests in Bristol. These events have only reinforced people’s understanding of the police as an inherently violent, racist and patriarchal institution, and calls for abolition have been further bolstered. As Jan later remarked, “I think all protest is fine. And of course cops aren’t fine! Look at Bristol, the only violence came from cops, so it’s important to recognise we will never get real solutions via the state or the cops whose job it is to uphold it.”
A resolute distrust in police and politicians to protect our rights seemed to be a common feeling among protestors, as well as a shared concern for the dismantling of grassroots collective agency. One protestor remarked: “this bill attacks our right to come together, not just to protest but also to grieve and celebrate each other.” Another young demonstrator feared for the future: “the rights to assembly and protest are fundamental in today’s society and taking them away is a terrifying prospect.”
This bill is indeed a terrifying prospect, and cause for great concern. But, as Jan added: “I’ve been so heartened to see people all over England refusing to take this without a show of dissent.” Saturday’s protest was an invigorating display of solidarity with the rest of country. Norfolk has a long history of rebellion and dissent, as well as a rich history of revelry, rave culture, creativity and collectivity. This wasn’t the city’s first protest demanding collective rights to our land and our streets, and it most certainly won’t be its last.
Featured image credit: Ann Nicholls
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