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The crackdown on face masks at protests isn’t really about masks at all

The slow tightening of our civil liberties is happening right under our noses. Penalties for masks and flares are only the beginning...

Femi Oluwole
Thursday 08 February 2024 17:21 GMT
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Thousands of pro-Palestine demonstrators march in central London

The Tories’ new plan to fine people £1,000 – or jail them for a month if they cover their faces at protests – could be likened to an elephant’s ear.

You know: that old story about the blindfolded people who touch different parts of an elephant to figure out what it is? The one who grabs the ear thinks it’s a leaf… the one who grabs the trunk thinks it’s a snake. And each of them thinks they are right because they only have their limited experience to go on. They don’t see the whole picture.

Well, if banning face coverings at protests was the whole story, you’d think it pretty reasonable – a small crackdown to prevent crime. And I get it. I have been to dozens of protests in recent years – and I’d much rather see everyone’s faces.

But what if banning masks was only part of the elephant? And what if the whole animal had become obscured over the last four years, as the government slowly turned almost all forms of political expression into crimes – and hoped we didn’t realise, because we were so busy looking at the individual parts?

Thanks to the PCSC Act (formerly the Policing Bill), you can now be fined £2,500 or face six months in prison if the police think you’re shouting too loudly at a protest, under the definition of a “noise trigger”. So, being too noisy could see some people lose more than a month’s wages during a cost of living crisis, or end up in jail.

And it’s not just raising your voice at a protest that can get you in trouble – we saw what happened to the people who brought the “not my king” signs to the coronation. They were arrested and held without charge for hours because the luggage straps they used to hold their signs together had been criminalised under the new offence of possession of items used for “locking on”.

I think we can all agree: if you padlock yourself to a road and block an ambulance, or fire flares directly at officers, the police should be able to stop you. But that’s not the whole elephant.

Thanks to the new laws in force, they’re also banning the possession of pyrotechnics – including fireworks, flares and smoke diffusers at protests. Now, I’ve been to protests where people have exploded fireworks outside the windows of residential buildings, so I can understand that it can cause fear and confusion. A clampdown on explosive fireworks in crowds and near buildings is sensible. But coloured smoke diffusers – the same as you get at every football match? Will someone explain to me how that’s fair?

Last year, the Met Police went after a teacher who held a sign depicting Suella Braverman and Rishi Sunak as coconuts. And while I don’t agree with the use of the term “coconut” because it implies that some human characteristics are inherently black (on the outside) or white (on the inside), it’s important we look at the context in which this was used.

The teacher says she really meant “Uncle Tom”, meaning a person from an ethnic minority who upholds white supremacy. I spoke to her at a recent Uppity HQ debate I was in, organised by journalist and broadcaster Nels Abbey. She talked about how her life had been made a living hell because she called out the racism of a government that the United Nations has in turn accused of supporting white supremacy. Does anyone else spot the irony?

To say I’m worried about the impact of this legal crackdown on our right to protest would be an understatement. These new laws will allow police to arrest protesters with masks if they believe criminality is “likely to occur”. Given we also know, from government data, that police stop and search black people seven times more than white people, I’m concerned that won’t exactly be applied fairly.

Then there are the multiple other ways in which our civil liberties have been infringed upon in recent years: some 14,000 people were blocked from voting in the local elections because they didn’t have photo ID. Jacob Rees-Mogg admitted on camera that this was an attempt to rig UK elections, by keeping the young and marginalised out of the voting booth.

And what about the way we teach kids about the inequalities entrenched in British society? Despite the government’s own data showing that white people are treated better in many areas of UK society, they have banned teachers from teaching kids about white privilege.

In the cultural sector, we’ve seen Tory donors in charge of the BBC – and even in charge of regulating our TV at Ofcom. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that these top-down hierarchies – and the people making decisions on our behalf – have influence. Their views and lived experiences (and ideals) trickle down.

When you look at it that way, it’s clear that protest is all some people have. A crackdown on masks at public protests isn’t really just about face masks, but something much deeper and more insidious.

And if we don’t start shouting about the elephant in the room, soon we won’t be allowed to.

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