Kill the Bill – Dorset stays true to its history of radical protest

A proud history of protest

Dorset has a history of radical protest. The Tolpuddle Martyrs raised their voices in protest against landlords who had lowered their wages and denied their right to join together in solidarity and struggle.

Those who burned hayricks and smashed threshing machines in the Swing Riots of the 1830’s protested against the new farming methods which would deprive them of their livelihoods and send their families to the poor house.

Weymouth’s MP, Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, raised his voice in protest against the Slave Trade at a time when his wealthy neighbours were profiting hugely from the sale and ownership of human beings.

Amongst those neighbours were the ancestors of South Dorset’s MP Richard Drax – who still owns Drax Hall, the family’s former slave plantation, known in Barbadian folklore as the home of “the Dukes of Barbados”.

Young women in Bridport working in the rope making industry staged wild cat strikes in 1912 in protest against pay cuts.

In the 1850’s the editor of the Dorset County Chronicle raised his voice against Capital Punishment, moved by the fate of Elizabeth Martha Brown, hanged for the murder of her abusive and violent husband.

Kill the Bill – Weymouth, 3 April 2021

In April 2021, Dorset people raised their voices in protest against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

As Chris Bradey, one of the speakers at the demonstration, said “Dorset has a history of protest to inspire us today – let those voices from the past inspire us today”.

The Police Bill would endanger the right of peaceful protest, enshrined in the 1998 Human Rights Act through Article 12. Participating in protests deemed “noisy” or “recklessly causing public nuisance” could lead to hefty fines or even imprisonment if statues were to be damaged as a result of the protest.

“A Mess”

David Lammy, the Shadow Justice Secretary, has described the Bill as a “mess”, one which will lead to the imposition of “disproportionate controls on free expression and the right of protest. (1)

Moreover, the criminalisation of trespass proposed by the Bill will threaten the Gypsy and Traveller way of life, by rendering a Gypsy or Traveller liable to fines or imprisonment if he or she sets up camp in a place deemed to be an illegal site.

A Gypsy or Traveller’s home would be subject to seizure under the terms of the Bill. Brian Dalton, the Chief Executive of Irish in Britain, has described the Bill as entrenching “acute and chronic discrimination against travellers”. (2)

An “undemocratic assault”

Lynne Hubbard from Dorset Stand Up to Racism said of the Police Bill: “The Government wants to criminalise people who protest against racism … The Home Secretary described these (people) as ‘dreadful’. What’s dreadful is the attack in our rights and on all who want to see social justice.” (3)

Jenny Lennon-Wood from Dorset Trades Union Council was explicit in her condemnation of the Bill: it was an “undemocratic assault on our democracy”. (4)

Dorset Stand Up to Racism

The Kill the Bill Demonstration in Weymouth was organised at short notice by Dorset Stand Up to Racism. A wide range of organisations supported the protest, including Dorset Extinction Rebellion, Weymouth Animal Rights, Dorset Trade Unions Council, Black Lives Matter and Unite, the Union.

Members of the South Dorset Constituency Labour Party also attended and spoke in a personal capacity.

A personal view

I attended the demonstration feeling both excited and nervous. I wanted to show solidarity with those who were defending something I believed as being of profound importance.

I was nervous because of what I had seen on my screens – police raising their batons against protestors in Bristol, violence, confusion. Phil Marfleet, co-chair of Dorset Stand Up to Racism, and one of the organisers of the demonstration, had said that Dorset Police had supported Bristol and Avon Police – would there be similar scenes in Weymouth?

Would I be kettled? Would there be confrontations with those Phil had described as “All Lives Matter” supporters?

A joyous and empowering afternoon

My fears were groundless. The demonstration was joyous and empowering.

The organisers’ liaison with the police ensured a peaceful yet rousing afternoon of protest. Dorset Police later thanked organisers and participants for their strict adherence to Covid restrictions. (5)

I joined protestors assembling before the gaze of George III on his plinth on the esplanade.

There were witty and quirky banners:

“Pritti Patel’s Bill has raised a few eyebrows”

There were also banners which pulled no punches:

“Danger – Corrupt Government attacking our democracy – defend the right to protest – kill this criminal bill”

There were banners reminding passers-by of the voting record of our MP:

“Your MP Richard Drax voted to curb your rights”.

Lynne and Phil gave us the words of chants to call out in the streets: Scott of Extinction Rebellion led drummers who heartened us with their samba beats.

We marched through the town on a route agreed with the police, accompanied by Police Liaison Officers.

Passing motorists sounded their horns in solidarity. Protesters chanted. The sun shone.

True and brave words

Before we set off, speeches from Lynne, Phil and Henni Nicolet (co-chair of Dorset Stand Up to Racism) reminded us of why we were there, and the importance of our cause.  Henni spoke eloquently of the criminality of slavery and of the prevalence of institutional racism.

Not far from our thoughts were the recent revelations in national papers of our MP – how his wealth was historically derived from the practice of slavery, and how it had been reported that he had apparently forgotten to enter all of his assets in the Members’ Register of Interests.

Amongst those who also spoke brave and true words were Jenny of Dorset Trades Union Council and Jonathon Herbert, Chaplain to Gypsies, Travellers and Showmen in the Diocese of Salisbury.

Jonathon reminded us of the historic prejudice shown towards Gypsies and Travellers in Dorset – mentioning “Gypsy hunts”, when the local gentry would hunt Gypsies with dogs.

Grafton Straker, born in Barbados, not far from Drax Hall, spoke at the end of the march to heartfelt applause.

I spoke, too, reminding protestors of Dorset’s proud history of protest.

A noble cause

I marched with over 200 people, coming together at short notice, for a noble cause. For once, I was more than a consumer, a passive individual – I was part of something larger and more important than myself.

Bravo Dorset Stand Up to Racism, Dorset XR – all those who joined together to speak truth to power.

Chris Bradey