LAST SUNDAY, about 40,000 protesters gathered in Trafalgar Square to demonstrate against the impending Criminal Justice Bill. There were 11 arrests, and a few people, including two police officers, were hurt. Things could have been much worse, however, given the conditions: it was a sweltering day; as ever, a moronic fringe element was spoiling for a fight; and the pre-rally march was routed along Downing Street, always a flashpoint. Above all, the event was fuelled by seething outrage at Michael Howard's perverse and draconian legislation.

The Criminal Justice Bill is the latest plank in the Home Secretary's determined campaign to politicise the police, by thrusting upon them powers that can be used to shape our lives and stifle dissent. It contains new and extended powers of stop-and-search and detention; new powers to take body samples for DNA testing; the abolition of the right to silence; and five clauses giving police further powers (in addition to those granted in 1991) to ban and curtail raves, even those held on private land.

The Bill extends the definition of trespass and makes it a criminal rather than civil issue. Heralded as a move to stamp out the dreaded squatter hordes (far better, of course, that they sleep on the streets), this is actually meant to curtail the individual's right to protest at sites like Twyford Down, or any other place where DoE or MoD policy runs into popular resistance. These clauses limit a person's right to peaceful public protest and demonstration. Similarly, they will prevent animal rights activists from sabotaging fox-hunts.

Why are the Tories so terrified of travellers? Are they scared their children might drop out and join them? Perhaps it is a deep-seated fear of John Major's. He, after all, had a weird childhood and ran away from the circus as a boy. Whatever, the Bill empowers police to stop and seize vehicles in any convoy of more than six, effectively outlawing the traveller lifestyle. These are the principle causes of outrage; but there is much more to this Bill, which is expected to receive Royal Assent in October, when the House of Commons reconvenes.

'Even the police are against this Bill,' says Camilla Berens, the editor of Pod, a magazine devoted to Britain's neo-tribal counter-culture. Ms Berens is also a member of Freedom Network, a nationwide coalition of pressure groups set up to oppose the Bill. The Police Federation has criticised the legislation, and Ms Berens claims at least one member of the Association of Chief Police Officers has visited a leading network member to explain, off the record, that the police have neither the time nor the inclination to implement the new laws. 'He said: 'As long as you keep it peaceful, we'll give you no trouble.' '

Maybe so, but what of those facing immediate threats - the young and radical, the homeless and unemployed? What are they doing? Political pundits say that the 'E' generation has given up on public protest in favour of private bliss, while the poorest, unable to pay their council taxes, have lost their right to vote and, with it, all political will. The rest of us, apparently, wallow in apathetic torpor. Not so, Ms Berens says. 'It's only partly true to say this generation is apolitical. It has lost faith in the mainstream parties and the electoral system, but there is a growing belief in community spirit and in the Direct Action movement.'

Direct Action is the activist tag for non-violent, mass civil disobedience, organised around local, environmental and civil liberties issues. 'The anti-roads movement has already forced the Government to cut its road-building programme by a third,' she says. 'We're beginning to win the hearts and minds of people right across the political spectrum. The roads issue sparked a backbench rebellion, uniting ex- Tory councillors with Green radicals, blue-rinse grannies with hardcore ravers.'

This, Ms Berens claims, is the politics of the future. 'And this Bill is specifically designed to curb the new tide of dissent, to stop people who will lie down in front of bulldozers to prevent the destruction of our countryside.'

'The idea that young people don't care about politics is ridiculous,' says Atiya Lockwood, a spokeswoman for Liberty, formerly the National Council for Civil Liberties. 'We can tell by the increasing number of young volunteers this year. Previously it was always the white, middle- aged, middle classes. Now the vast majority are under 25, coming from all social backgrounds. And they know exactly what the Bill is about, in detail.'

Ms Berens says that protest must be peaceful. As a steward on last weekend's march, she played a significant role in preventing an escalation of the violence that erupted in Downing Street. That is not my opinion, or even hers, but the view of senior officers quoted in Monday's Evening Standard. They were 'effusive in their praise for the stewards who intervened several times to defuse potentially violent situations'.

Even her claim to have police sympathy seemed verified by the newspaper's report, which quoted 'one senior officer' thus: 'Most of (the protesters) are law-abiding representatives of what you might call middle England, with a legitimate concern about fighting a Bill that would affect their civil liberties - and quite rightly so.'

Quite rightly so? From a senior police officer, quoted in the Evening Standard? Come in, Mr Howard, your time is up.