The Public Order Act (POA) 2023 is another extreme limitation of, and general attack on, the civil liberties of protesters who want to stay within the legally acceptable rules while expressing their displeasure over any aspect of government policy or who are trying to fight against a bellicose hostile employer. The truth that has not yet sunk into the psyche of much of even the advanced sections of the British working class is that trying to obey the rules invented by the class enemy that you are essentially finding yourself up against is akin to entering a boxing ring against an opponent with both hands tied behind your back. If you should move your hands to either protect yourself or, heavens forbid, to strike back, the cry of foul goes up from the massed ranks of your opponent’s supporters, ie, the police, the judiciary, the assorted levels of media personages and the government itself, assisted by its loyal opposition of course!
So, what are the main points of the new POA that we need to note?
We cannot resist quoting the following description from Chapter 15 of the POA 2023;- “An Act to make provision for new offences relating to public order; to make provision about stop and search powers; to make provision about the exercise of police functions relating to public order; to make provision about proceedings by the Secretary of State relating to protest-related activities; to make provision about serious disruption prevention orders; and for connected purposes. Be it enacted by the King’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same.”
In plain English, if you protest in an effective way than you will be deemed to be breaking the law and the full weight of not only the state machine and bourgeois media but the massed ranks of the Labour Party and the leaderships of virtually all the trade unions will be against you, even while they are claiming to be on your side (as long as you obey the law)!
The newest clauses to the POA concentrate upon actions such as ‘locking on’, ie, persons attaching themselves to other persons or to objects, buildings, trees etc, that might prevent police moving them easily. Not only is ‘locking on’ an offence in law now but ‘going equipped for locking on’ is also illegal! What, you may ask, is ‘going equipped for locking on’? Quite simply it is being outside of your home and having about your person or in a bag that you are carrying a padlock, a chain, rope, glue, a piece of plastic piping! But how, you may ask again, will the police know if you have a lone padlock in your pocket! The answer is simple, the stop and search laws from that 2003 version of the POA have been tightened to the point where a policeman can stop you and search you without the slightest even most spurious claim of a suspicion that you may be carrying one of any number of everyday items that could later be used to break any number of laws. Stop and search for no reason whatsoever is now just a fact of everyday life and will become even more so as the class contradictions sharpen – as they surely must, given the economic chaos to which the contradictions of the capitalist system have given rise.
Another of the great threats to our society and one which is likely to cause major distress to others is ‘tunnelling!’ Digging a tunnel, carrying equipment to dig a tunnel, being in a tunnel (even if you have not made the tunnel) are all heinous crimes and, like the much-feared locking on, can get those practisng this dark art, upon summary conviction, heavy fines and/or up to six months imprisonment. The tunnel doesn’t even have to be a tunnel to get you into legal hot water: according to the section on tunnelling “an excavation which is created with the intention that it will become or connect with a tunnel is to be treated as a tunnel, whether or not any tunnel with which it is intended to connect has already been created.” In fact ‘the tunnel’ can be the slightest alteration to an existing natural or artificial underground feature and does not even have to be big enough for a human to pass into or through it! Incidentally, being in a tunnel can be classed as causing an obstruction! Who are you obstructing? We can only imagine that the answer to that is other people who want to crawl through the afore-mentioned tunnel but, they themselves would then be breaking the law surely? Ignoring the absurdity of these laws a moment, we must point out that these actions could get you a three year prison term!
If a person’s act interferes with the use or operation of key national infrastructure, if it prevents the infrastructure from being used or operated to any extent for any of its intended purposes, that person is breaking the law. “Key national infrastructure” means — (a) road transport infrastructure, (b) rail infrastructure, (c) air transport infrastructure, (d) harbour infrastructure, (e) downstream oil infrastructure, (f) downstream gas infrastructure, (g) onshore oil and gas exploration and production infrastructure, (h) onshore electricity generation infrastructure, or (i) newspaper printing infrastructure. In short, there will be no action that restricts the getting of profits, no action that stops scab labour breaking a strike and no action that seeks to limit the moving of weapons of mass destruction around our streets, towns and cities or across the seas/skies to be used against other peoples and countries. As with other points, the intention to interfere with the use or operation of key national infrastructure is also illegal! A policeman can interpret whether or not you intend to interfere but holding a placard saying ‘Close the 23rd runway’ outside an airport or a leaflet advising people to stop arms being sent to the fascist government of Ukraine would probably easily qualify a person to be deemed to be intending to break the law which is itself now breaking the law!
Where persons in leading positions within protest groups or even whole organisations are suspected by the relevant chief officer of police of intending to hold a protest which that police officer believes may in turn lead to laws being broken, an application for a serious disruption prevention (SDP) order can be made by that chief officer of police to keep those persons and/or organisation out of the relevant area on pain of arrest and a court appearance which may lead to a significant term of imprisonment. The police may also arrest such people before a demonstration as a preventative measure, releasing them after the protest is over. The SDP Order can be varied to take in demonstrations etc in other places, it can be extended in time again and again and the legislation is so full of little caveats to make challenges to the SDP Orders extremely unlikely to succeed.
There is nothing new about legislation to prevent successful strikes and protests, the examples are there throughout our social and industrial history. Following the great class battles of the miners’ strike 84-85 and the Wapping dispute of 1986, we had the POA of 1986 to “create new offences relating to public order; to control public processions and assemblies.” That POA established that “where 12 or more persons who are present together use or threaten unlawful violence for a common purpose and the conduct of them (taken together) is such as would cause a person of reasonable firmness present at the scene to fear for his personal safety, each of the persons using unlawful violence for the common purpose is guilty of riot.” It did not even need all twelve persons to threaten unlawful violence, it is enough for one person to utter something or look in a certain manner that could be considered threatening by that one “person of reasonable firmness” for riotous behaviour to be declared and the twelve persons to be liable for a ten year jail sentence! Violent disorder under the 1986 POA is basically the same scenario but with three to eleven persons present together!
Looking at the latest extensions to the POA, adding them to the last Police Act which allows many state bodies, including the police, to break any law of this country if it is deemed to be ‘for the greater good’ (i.e., for the good of the 0.1% who rule over us), bringing in draconian prison sentences for even the mildest of crimes such as being considered to be a noise nuisance while on a demonstration, then adding the ‘Nationality and Borders Act’ which is all about widening the racial fault lines that have always existed to some extent in the British working class and which have crippled its effectiveness in fighting for its own interests, we can see the degree to which not only our hands but our minds are being bound up and our eyes blinded and ears made deaf to common sense truths. We are being battered by legislation that will make us cringing cowards, unwilling to stand up for ourselves, our families and communities, our fellow workers of whatever race and colour both in this country and abroad against the imperialist leeches who in sucking our labour value dry also suck the life out of us and our children! But stand up we must in large and united number! And then we need to progress further, to learn that just standing up, even illegally, in spite of the advice of the lick-spittle leaders of Labour and the TUC traitors, as much as it would be welcomed as a positive step, is not going to be enough on its own. Our class needs to put its faith in the science of Marxism-Leninism and to strive for the social revolution that will overturn our society and set us on the path to a life of honour, strength, knowledge and pride and eventually peace for every working-class man and woman as they learn to rule their environment and their economy for the benefit of us all. We really do have a world to win!