It’s May Day and Trafalgar Square is slowly filling with protesters, though from their banners – “resist mass eviction”, “decriminalise sex work”, “queer solidarity always”, “cops aren’t kosher” – it isn’t clear that they’re here together. Things start to fall into place when a pickup truck pulls on to the square carrying a sound system, and a young Black woman climbs aboard. She tells the crowd that with her new policing bill, Priti Patel is making the same mistake as Margaret Thatcher did with the poll tax: “Don’t come for us all at once, you idiot.” As she speaks, someone weaves through the crowd stuffing flyers, red or purple, into protesters’ hands. “Kill the Bill,” the paper squares demand.
On 9 March 2021, the police, crime, sentencing and courts (PCSC) bill got its first reading in the Commons. The bill is the first major proposed change since 2003 to the Public Order Act, a law first introduced in 1986 in response to events including the miner’s strike, Battle of Orgreave and Brixton uprising, codifying offences such as riot and unlawful assembly.
The PCSC bill represents a full-frontal assault on civil liberties, threatening to eliminate not only the right to even peaceful protest but entire ways of life. If there is an upside, it is that this historically repressive bill gave rise to a historically liberatory movement.
In the few months since its birth, Kill the Bill (KTB) established itself as a defining political force in the UK. Hundreds of protests have taken place in dozens of towns and cities across the country, inspiring some of the boldest acts of civil disobedience since the 2011 London uprisings. Filling the void left by Corbynism and building on the groundwork laid by Black Lives Matter (BLM), the movement has convened a broad coalition around a single goal: to prevent the bill from becoming law. Yet as time has worn on, organisers have worn out.
KTB exploded on to the streets in spring but has been largely dormant over the summer – uncoincidentally, Britain’s first taste of freedom since the pandemic began. It’s clear that the movement has lost some of its fight in that time. When on 14 September the bill quietly completed its second reading in the Lords, the movement barely registered the news.
On the face of it, KTB is dead: Google Trends reports that searches for “kill the bill” have flatlined since May. But though less visible, the struggle is ongoing.
Since its inception, the KTB movement has combined direct action with political education in the knowledge that history’s successful movements have played both the long game and the short. Alongside workshops and rallies, KTB organisers recently put hundreds of activists through organising training; they are now planning to train hundreds more in police intervention.
Despite managing to delay the bill’s progress, KTB organisers have always known their titular demand is unrealistic; the bill is now at committee stage in the Lords and, barring a chance of parliamentary ping-pong between the two houses, will breeze on to the statute books. But killing the bill has never been the movement’s sole ambition – that much has been clear since at least 1 May.
The protest that wasn’t.
The May Day protest was meant to be the apogee of the movement, but wasn’t. Things started to go awry when the driver of the double-decker bus the organisers had hired was harassed out of Trafalgar Square by the police. Then there was the failed parting of the Red Sea. The original plan had been for the crowd to split by the colour of their flyers, with the reds heading north, the purples south. In the end, the organisers judged that the turnout wasn’t high enough to keep two contingents safe, so decided to keep everyone together, marching southward to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.
Then came the final blow: the police threatened to seize the pickup truck and sound system. Unwilling to risk the scenes that had played out in Bristol a couple of weeks earlier, one of the organisers broke the bad news to the crowd: “I’m sorry to say we’ve reached the end of the party. We’ve got to quit while we’re ahead, because we know what the cops are like.”
“It was hard. There was a lot of chaos. A lot of things went wrong,” admits Aviah Day, a member of Sisters Uncut, one of the groups that organised the May Day protest. Day attributes this “chaos” in part to the multiplicity of organisers. Most of the previous KTB demos in London had been planned unilaterally, or at least coordinated centrally, by Sisters Uncut. May Day, on the other hand, was a team effort from across the KTB coalition, a loose grouping of over 100 organisations from unions to campaign groups to media platforms (including this one). This meant that when things went wrong – as they invariably do with such protests – “it was hard to make calls with people you’re not used to making those sorts of calls with”, Day says, hard to “understand people’s different boundaries”. Risk arrest or don’t? Escalate or retreat?
If one challenge was too many cooks, another was too few diners. Marvina Eseoghene Newton is a founder of United for Black Lives (UBL), a coalition of UK-based BLM groups established after the uprisings last summer. She reckons the underwhelming turnout may have been pandemic-related: the KTB movement exploded during the long winter lockdown; May Day came soon after things began to unlock. Many people were too busy enjoying their restored freedoms to spend Saturday at a protest. “It [was] business-as-usual,” she says. “People [were] not as bothered.”
Another problem, Newton continues, may not just have been timing but time. She knows from experience there’s only so long a movement can drive forward at top speed. “The BLM uprising – remember how heavy it was in the first month? Anything after that was dead. […] That’s how movements sometimes peak.”
May Day exemplified the challenges that have beset KTB since its outset, namely coordination and momentum. Yet it also demonstrated the movement’s strengths: agility, strategy, breadth. When the bus was forced to leave, the truck was ready to go. When low turnout blocked plan A, plan B kicked into gear. And by the time the London protest was forced to disperse, 40 others were going strong around the country.
It was what happened at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, however, that really showed the movement’s mettle. There, the organisers had planned not just dancing and chanting but also a programme of workshops on stop and search, the impact of the bill on GRT communities, and resisting eviction. The protests, says Day, are a flashpoint, sure – they’re also a gateway drug. “The idea was…to get people not just mobilising out on the streets, but starting to feel like…they need to actually get involved. This is just a taster.”
As the Tories prepare to give their bill its final push through parliament, they have most likely won this battle. In the process, they’ve started a war. The KTB movement has not only mobilised the masses against the PCSC bill, but also awoken them to the police state. The movement is now setting in motion plans to leverage this newfound consciousness in the hopes of effecting change far more radical than its name. At this pivotal moment in its growth, I look at where Kill the Bill came from, where it’s been, and where it’s going.
If Conservative manifestos are typically dry, 2019 was a classic vintage. Never a fan of hard work, Boris Johnson called the snap election in part because winning would require virtually nothing of him beyond letting his opponent lose. He could phone in a manifesto safe in the knowledge that nobody would read it, distracted as they were by the Brexit-shaped clusterfuck metastasising within Labour. Had we foreseen the events of the next two years, we might’ve paid more attention.
There on page 19 of Get Brexit Done: Unleash Britain’s Potential, tucked between standard-issue invectives against benefit fraudsters and “child murderers”, was a vaguely-worded pledge whose eventual fulfilment would inspire historic resistance: “We will back our police by equipping officers with the powers and tools they need to keep themselves and all of us safe.”
Luke Smith, founder of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller collective GRTSocialists, was frustrated that, when the Tories’ manifesto pledge finally materialised in the PCSC bill, the left was aghast. “People [were] going around saying that it’s shocking that [the Conservatives] are doing this,” Smith told Novara Media. “It’s like, no, they ran in an election with this as their very clear aim.” His disappointment in the Labour party is particularly acute: “Keir Starmer…should have been campaigning against these Conservative manifesto pledges six months before this bill even reached parliament.”
Of course, the usual leftwing Cassandras had been warning of the bill – the rest of us just weren’t listening.
In June 2020 – nine months before the bill came to parliament – openDemocracy reported that the Met, tired of ungluing XR activists from edifices around the city, wanted the Home Office to tighten protest laws. By November, the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) had caught wind of a “protection of the police and public bill” set to be tabled in 2021. Come early December, the bill was all but official: the Telegraph confirmed that “a police powers bill” including “measures to limit [the] disruption” created by protests was “due in the New Year”. Still, the left slept.
Day is a criminology lecturer at Birkbeck as well as an organiser with Sisters Uncut. Despite being part of a group that’s become synonymous with the KTB movement, Day says she knew only “a little bit” about the bill before it was put before parliament. “People knew something was in the works, that Priti Patel was kind of on one,” she says, but “the conversation on the left about this bill [was] pretty marginal.” Day reckons that even those raising the alarm didn’t believe that the government would follow through: “[They] were like, ‘Oh my God, this is horrifying, but nothing’s gonna happen.’” Yet the Tories’ long flirtation with the idea of creating a police state was over. This time, they were serious.
On 9 March, the PCSC bill got its first reading in parliament. It would be another five days before the movement to kill it kicked into gear. For while the bill was causing consternation among activists, it wasn’t enough to generate national opposition. No, that would require something else – what the social movement theorist Bill Moyer calls a “trigger event”, a “‘highly publicised, shocking incident’ that ‘dramatically reveals a critical social problem to the public in a vivid way”. For Kill the Bill, it would be the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard by serving Metropolitan police officer Wayne Couzens – or more specifically, the Met’s violent suppression of the vigil held in its wake.
The vigil that triggered a movement.
The Clapham Common vigil that will forever be remembered as having birthed a social movement was never intended to. Its original organisers – a group of Labour councillors and female entrepreneurs organising under the banner Reclaim These Streets (RTS) – liaised closely with Lambeth Police on what they hoped would be a quiet, respectful and most importantly, law-abiding event. Together, they planned for fifty RTS stewards, with one police officer assigned to every three. Had the RTS vigil gone ahead as planned, there would probably be no KTB movement to speak of. What happened next ensured there is.
Two days before the vigil, RTS got a call from the police, of a kind increasingly familiar to protest organisers. The police had changed their minds; the protest was now illegal. RTS was stunned.
Jamie Klingler, co-creator of the London Seafood Festival and a founding member of RTS, hadn’t expected that someone like her – a white, middle-class business owner – could be treated with such “disrespect” by the police. “My arrogance [was thinking that] having worked with big media brands, the police’s door was always open to me,” she says. Organising the vigil soon disabused her of this notion. After the police’s volte-face, RTS launched a legal challenge to be able to hold the vigil. Having been ordered by the judge to negotiate with RTS, Lambeth Police issued a press release saying the protest remained illegal while still at the negotiating table. “They were treating us like we were stupid little girls.” The “worst part”, according to Klingler? Its unsisterliness: “The women under Cressida Dick were the ones doing it.”
RTS called off the vigil, deciding they couldn’t take the financial and professional risks that organising it now entailed: “Our lives would probably be destroyed for a while, people would lose custody battles, go bankrupt,” says Klingler. As for herself, “My business is putting on events…If I don’t work with authority…it would destroy my business.” Instead, RTS decided to crowdfund £320,000 – the amount they would have had to pay in fines had their planned vigil gone ahead – for the Stand With Us Fund, which pools donations for a number of women’s charities in the UK. At the time of writing, the RTS crowdfund contains over half a million pounds.
RTS is now crowdfunding a second court case to ensure protest rights are enshrined in any future lockdown legislation. Citing Audre Lorde’s famous axiom, I ask Klingler why the group is still seeking to dismantle what she herself calls a “systemically racist and sexist…police department” using its own tools. Conformity is a hard habit to kick, she admits: “I don’t know if you just stop a lifetime of playing by the rules.” She continues: “I don’t think that we’re gonna win this battle, but I am still trying to win the battle in the house that they built. Maybe that makes me sound like a fool.”
Day says Sisters Uncut wasn’t surprised by how things turned out with RTS. “We could see where things might be going,” she says. “That they [RTS] were invested in the legal framework, that they might actually just call it off.” While Sisters had always intended to have a bloc at the RTS vigil, they now took over as organisers.
Day says their reasoning was twofold. The first was a protective instinct: they “[couldn’t] allow people to just turn up with no organisational presence”, as BLM had the previous summer, thereby leaving those who did attend all the more vulnerable to police violence. Second, “we thought it’s politically important” – even, indeed especially, if legally prohibited – “to stand up to the police.”
The events of the vigil for Sarah Everard are well-documented. While royals broke lockdown to lay wreaths in broad daylight, the police moved in as night fell. To many present that day, it was clear the police were attempting to escalate an otherwise quiet event. Day remembers a particularly bizarre interaction with one cop, a police liaison officer usually tasked with befriending protesters in order to gather intelligence. The officer baselessly accused another Sisters Uncut member of assaulting her, and attempted an arrest. “Even by [the police’s] standards,” says Day, “I felt like she was just completely acting up.”
Day was among the last people to realise the full impact of the vigil. “We didn’t have our phones on us,” says Day, “so we had to wait until we got home to see how it was received.” Day returned home to a text from a friend: “Have you seen the news? You’re going out again tomorrow, right?” The public backlash against the police was immense: even the home secretary, who it transpired had ordered the police to intervene, claimed to find the footage of them doing so “upsetting”. Like it or not, Sisters Uncut had ignited a protest movement.
Sisters united will never be defeated.
Still, Day insists that Sisters never intended to play such a prominent role in KTB. “We were a little bit reluctant…we’re not really used to being in that kind of position.” In many ways, though, the group were the movement’s natural leaders.
Long before they formed in 2014, the marginalised women who started Sisters Uncut recognised that their mission – to protect domestic violence services from coalition cuts – could only be achieved through the wholesale dismantling of the carceral state. Throughout its seven-year history, the group has refused a narrow focus on “women’s issues” for a broad-based assault on the interlocking axes of state oppression, from its austerity fetish to its hostile environment.
Still, until March of this year, the group has predominantly undertaken small-scale direct action: crashing red carpets, seizing empty council flats, occupying prisons. What they did have was agility. “Seven years of organising together made the group incredibly tight,” says Day. “We know each other really well, [meaning] we are…able to do things very quickly.” When the fallout from the vigil demanded rapid mobilisation, Sisters stepped up, organising a protest within 24 hours.
It was during those 24 hours that Sisters Uncut set the terms of the movement. Rather than building a campaign around Everard’s death, the group trained the public’s grief and fury squarely on the police. “Police are perpetrators of individual and state violence against women – as evidenced last night,” the group tweeted in the hours after the vigil. “The police abuse the powers they already have, yet the government plans to give them even more powers in the #PoliceCrackdownBill.” They called a protest for the following day at New Scotland Yard – and Kill the Bill was born.
Grim as it is, Day says Everard’s death, and its coincidence with the PCSC bill, made the conditions “ripe” for an abolitionist movement to spring up. “It’s hard to know how to articulate this in a way that doesn’t sound really cynical,” says Day. “Because at the end of the day, there was the violent murder of a woman at the centre of this…but the circumstances surrounding what happened, the [fact that the] person who has been charged with her murder is a serving Metropolitan police officer, the [police] response at the vigil, then the fact that two days after that vigil, this bill with more police powers was [voted on in parliament] – you’ve got this weird, perfect storm that played into the hands of those who have been arguing against police powers.”
A coalition converges.
Yet while Sisters Uncut has played a formative role within the movement, it would be a mistake to describe them as its sole leaders. Other groups, including United for Black Lives, have been integral to the organising effort – despite facing different challenges in participating.
Newton says the police warned BLM activists against attending the initial KTB protests. Following the Everard vigil, she says, “we noticed a lot of Black activists started getting phone calls and letters [saying] the police were looking for us”. Fearing arrest, Newton stayed home over the weekend of the vigil, instead organising an open letter from a number of Black activists. In the time since, UBL has become instrumental to the KTB movement, particularly its online arm; the group runs the “Kill The Bill Official” Instagram account that at the time of writing has over 14,000 followers.
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Together, UBL and Sisters Uncut convened the KTB coalition that has since March issues joint statements, run training and held open meetings. Yet while a signature strength of KTB, the coalition’s solidity shouldn’t be overstated.
Day says that beyond a “core 40”, the KTB coalition is loose. Most local organising has taken place organically, with no coalition oversight. No one I spoke to at demonstrations in Bristol was plugged into any national organising effort; they’d found out about the protest from social media, or by word of mouth. Many hadn’t even heard of Sisters Uncut or UBL.
This decentralisation has been expedient to the movement in evading state scrutiny. It has also sowed confusion.
Vik Knight is a student at the University of Manchester. He came across Kill the Bill in a typically random way: first a few tweets about Bristol, then a Labour Grassroots meeting. Like many people, he was moved to act. “That week, I sort of tried to gather some people together and see if we could go down to the city centre here in Manchester,” he says. “It turned out there was already a protest.” Knight’s is not an isolated experience: on more than one occasion, local KTB chapters have called national days of action only to discover that another has called one for the following day.
“A lot of us were really happy to see people kicking off and planning their actions and doing their thing,” says Day. “We didn’t want a situation in which the whole country’s waiting for us to get our shit together…because that would have an impact on momentum.” Still, Day sees the downsides in decentralisation: “There definitely was an element of like, this is not particularly well coordinated, and we’re having trouble communicating and knowing who’s doing what.”
Day attributes this disorganisation in part to a fear of heightened state surveillance during the pandemic. “The movement starting during covid [regulations] pranged [people] out a lot,” she says. “There was a lot of scaremongering [and a] security culture…[people were] going about telling regions not to organise under real names or with anyone they didn’t know.” This meant a lot of disjointed working and duplicated effort. Though belatedly, the coalition is now devising “a structure around regional KTB groups and how they communicate,” which it hopes to roll out in the coming months.
Left puritanism and the dirty work of coalition-building.
The coalition’s heterogeneity, however, has been one of its great strengths. Lydia Caradonna is a member of the KTB-affiliated Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM). She says the coalition’s breadth has generated unexpected alliances: “We weren’t on each other’s radar [but]…Gypsy and sex worker groups have so much more in common than we thought,” she says. “[Sex workers are] used to the argument that ‘Sex work is fine, but we don’t want it to be visible.’ [Similarly,] GRT communities are often faced with ‘Oh, you guys can exist, but not on our village green.’ We’re [both] so heavily criminalised and seen as completely other.” Caradonna foresees the relationships forged in the movement long outlasting it: “I honestly think we’re gonna be organising with [GRTSocialists] for decades to come.”
Yet ideological heterogeneity has also proven challenging for Kill the Bill. Besides familiar objections to the involvement of the Socialist Workers’ Party, particular friction has arisen between BLM and XR.
There’s natural solidarity between the groups, both of which have been targeted by the government’s protest crackdown. There’s also underlying mistrust, bred in part by XR’s willingness to work with, even closeness to, the police. According to Newton, things came to a head on 17 March at a meeting between the two groups. Towards the end of the meeting, one of the XR activists disclosed that they had previously worked as a police officer – and the BLM activists left immediately. “There was a lot of restorative work that needed to be done,” says Newton.
Day admits the coalition formation of KTB has tested Sisters Uncut, who weren’t used to working with other groups, let alone ones with such “different political understandings”. She says that being part of KTB has tested Sisters’ abolitionist principles: “How do you deal with it if someone that you’re organising with is being really problematic? In the past, we would’ve been like, ‘Bun that person, we’re not going to organise with them anymore.’ But now it’s like, ‘Okay, how do we actually address it?’”
This question became immediate in March, when one coalition group drafted a statement denouncing the violence of the Bristol protesters. Sensing internecine conflict, Day turned to a group of “elders”, seasoned activists who’d been through many of the same struggles from the Brixton uprisings of 1980 to the poll tax riots of the 90s. Their advice? “Do not publicly denounce each other.” Sisters privately approached the group who’d prepared the statement; after what Day describes as “a good political conversation”, they pulled it.
Day hopes that the experience of organising in the Kill The Bill coalition will make the left less puritanical. “Leftist movements…have been a lot more sectarian, more individualistic, more inward-looking, and haven’t really had the capacity to build coalitions…or the resilience to withstand the difficult conversations,” she says. “I’m hoping that this [movement] creates the conditions to learn a different way of organising.”
“They still get fucked the same way as the rest of us.”
Those on the periphery of the movement see with particular clarity the need to maintain a broad church.
Sam* is a community worker based in Bristol, and has been a first aider at a number of the Bristol demos. He says that while “lefty, arty-farty types” like him were easily drawn into the movement, KTB hasn’t yet penetrated the marginalised communities he works with. “There is a privilege in protest,” he says.
This frustrates Sam, because it’s the “ordinary working people” who see the demos as an “inconvenience” who would be among those most acutely targeted by the PCSC bill were it to become law. “You know, there’s a lot of working-class folks who are maybe more rightwing,” he says, “but they still get fucked the same way as the rest of us.”
Smith shares Sam’s frustration: “Don’t get me wrong…There is a lot of interest [in KTB], it’s not like it’s nothing,” he says. “I’m just saying a bill on this scale, we should be seeing millions of people in the streets. Like, if people truly understood what this bill meant…we should be seeing mass civil disobedience.”
Of course, one obvious contingent KTB has yet to bring into its coalition are those who were anti-lockdown, libertarians both left and right. Talia*, a self-described “media wanker” and KTB activist in London, would like the movement to take a more pragmatic approach to this demographic. “Even though I don’t want them anywhere near me with a 10-foot barge pole…maybe that’s something we should be working on.”
More broadly, Talia thinks the movement should prioritise politicising those who remain apathetic about the bill, but whom it will affect just the same. “I would hate to be like, ‘We have to sanitise it for everyone else,’” she says. “But…not everyone has the political education or experience to understand how bad this is.”
The evidence suggests otherwise. Only 26% of Britons polled on 15 March (the Monday after the Everard vigil) believed that protests, vigils and marches should have been allowed under covid restrictions. By June, two-thirds of Britons were concerned by the government’s plans to curb protest rights. What began as a cause championed by the far left is gradually becoming common sense. Politicians – many of whom have previously distanced themselves from the movement – are beginning to realise this.
On 1 July, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy and the Constitution found that both the Metropolitan and Avon & Somerset police had “breached fundamental rights” in their suppression of the Sarah Everard vigil and Bristol protests. This week, Labour MP Harriet Harman wrote to Met commissioner Cressida Dick demanding her resignation. Should enough opposition to the bill and the police force pushing it accumulate in parliament in the coming weeks, the Conservatives may discover the PCSC Act is not the fait accompli they had thought.
In the streets, meanwhile, things remain quiet. Sabina Nessa’s suspected murder, as well as news that David Carrick, an officer from Couzens’ former Met unit, has been charged with rape, might have been further “trigger events” – moments that drove KTB back onto the streets and into the headlines – but they weren’t.
The reason, perhaps, is that organisers are retraining their focus from the short to the long term. The coalition recently put around 300 activists, including Talia, through Strike School, a six-week online programme run by union guru Jane McAlevey, and is planning to enter thousands more. As Wayne Couzens’ trial got underway at the Old Bailey, Sisters Uncut launched national police intervention training, after it transpired that Couzens had falsely arrested Everard under covid regulations in order to kidnap her, and that no bystanders intervened.
It may be too late to kill the bill. Yet from the outset, the abolitionists shaping the movement have wanted much more. They are intent on entrenching a militarism that might make mass resistance to Tory rule a possibility for the first time since the poll tax riots. By “building people’s capacity and bravery,” says Day, the hope is that “if this bill does come into force…it [will be] unenforceable.”
*Names have been changed.