May Day Kill the Bill Edinburgh
This International Workers Day, protestors in Edinburgh took part in one of many protests across the UK in support of the #killthebill movement. Sparked nationally by Sisters Uncut, this movement has seen the collaboration of trade unions, community activists, and members of the public demanding that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 be dropped.
In Edinburgh, the protest featured speeches by representatives from Reclaim These Streets, International Women’s Strike Edinburgh, Misneachd, Living Rent, the May Day Committee, UCU, Racism Unmasked, the Staff-Student Solidarity Network, and Black Lives Matter, as well as music performed by Rhythms of Resistance. Between them, these groups detailed the importance of the rights this bill would threaten; speakers made it clear that heavier policing does not translate to protection or liberation for women, who have won many of their rights through protest. They noted the correlation between protests against racist violence, often carried out at the hands of the state, and the subsequent crackdown on protest. Laura from BLM noted that:
“The black community, thanks to long-established and systemic inequalities, have experienced greater losses from COVID, yet when we stand here to talk about our experiences of racism, the Government criminalises our right to protest, and, with their ludicrous Sewell Report, attempts to gaslight us [by saying] that institutional racism doesn’t exist.”
The Black Lives Matter protests last summer highlighted the case of Sheku Bayu, who died in police custody after being physically attacked by Police Scotland in Kirkcaldy in 2015, in what is an all-too-familiar story of police violence against Black people globally.
A number of speakers noted the complicity of police in upholding the crueler measures of austerity as well as enforcing evictions, both during the COVID-19 crisis and in historic cases, and failing to hold the powerful accountable for their abuses of power. Likewise, they highlighted the importance of protest in securing labour rights, and the crucial role it would play in the fight for climate justice. The message across speeches made clear that passing this bill would further entrench inequalities while criminalising any meaningful resistance or methods through which to demand justice.
Part of the motivation for the protest was solidarity with those in England and Wales who are being threatened with this legislature; it includes trespass laws that target GRTs, it criminalises protests that cause ‘serious disruption’, and introduces a maximum 10-year sentence for causing a ‘public nuisance’. The police would be the arbiters of what is acceptable protest, effectively making it impossible for activists and community organisers to voice dissent in any impactful way. Underlying the protest was the recognition of ties between Scottish residents and those across the rest of the UK, as well as our shared stakes in dismantling oppressive systems of power that transcend borders. Many of the speakers were keen to point out how similar measures could come to Scotland — and that capital funding for the police in Scotland continues to increase year on year, up by £9 billion since 2013.
The protest also gave space to testimonies resisting the myth of Scottish exceptionalism, which encompasses the idea that policing in Scotland is more restrained and reasonable than policing in England and Wales. The reliance on this myth serves to paper over the very troubling abuses of police power and police violence inflicted on marginalised communities.
Speakers at the protest from International Women’s Strike Edinburgh read a list of women murdered by the Police and Scottish Prison System, stretching back to the 1950s. The weight of the list could be felt as the speakers finished reading, with a moment of silence observed by the crowd. There is an ongoing campaign informed by allegations of undercover policing in Scotland including “blacklisted construction workers, miners from the 1984/85 strike, union activists, environmental campaigners such as Tilly Gifford, and women […] who were deceived into long-term sexual relationships.”
A recent article in Open Democracy by Adam Ramsay details the sustained contempt and violence police in Scotland directed at Gypsy/Roma/Travellers (GTR). The Policing Bill’s criminalisation of GTR communities is an extension of the discrimination already faced by these groups in Scotland, with the leader of the Scottish Conservatives recently stating that if he was Prime Minister for a day he would like to see ‘tougher enforcement against Gypsy Travellers.’ Scotland is no expectation when it comes to discriminatory policing and events like this serve as a caution against complacency.
At Saturday’s protest, police were seen circling the Meadows in riot vans, as well as patrolling around or near the Pavillion, with multiple stationary cards visible. Police Liaison Officers interviewed multiple stewards, legal observers, and attendees. Since the ReclaimEdi protest for Sarah Everard – the organisers of which we interviewed previously – police presence in the Meadows and other public spaces has increased notably. This increased surveillance disproportionately affects the working class: many people have been locked inside for more than a year, and deserve full use of public outdoor space and utilities without criminalisation. The organisers of the protest noted how, over the pandemic, ‘we’ve seen an increased police presence in all communities and a range of social issues being used as excuses for more and more severe policing. We know that policing is never the answer, and we will resist increased police powers and the proliferation of the carceral state.’
As a country contemplating another independence referendum and imagining what kind of a society we want to be post-independence, we should not only resist the expansion of police powers, but seriously reconsider the role of policing in Scotland. Too often, policing is used as a blunt force with which to silence the discontent that arises as a result of discrimination, inequality, poverty, and state neglect. Policing is used as a substitute for the long term systems of care we need to compassionately and successfully support those facing addiction, abuse, and mental illness. In forging a different future, we must begin to build better ways of caring for and protecting each other.