Don’t let police erode civil liberties in pandemic’s lockdown – Bill Carmichael

Police at last weekend's protest in Leeds. Photo: Simon Hulme.Police at last weekend's protest in Leeds. Photo: Simon Hulme.
Police at last weekend's protest in Leeds. Photo: Simon Hulme.
LAST weekend a group of feminist activists planned to hold an outdoor meeting in Leeds city centre to discuss changes to the Gender Recognition Act and to protest at the “erasure of female-centric language”.

Fair enough, you might think, we are still supposed to be – just about – a free country. Let them get on with it, as a few socially distanced protesters outside Leeds Art Gallery on a quiet Sunday is unlikely to cause anyone else a major inconvenience.

But that is not how West Yorkshire Police saw it. Officers ordered the 
women to disperse, arrested three of them and issued £100 on-the-spot fines to 12 others.

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Of course under recent Covid 19 rules people are banned from gathering in groups of more than six, but there is a special exemption for political protests, provided a proper risk assessment has been carried out and measures are in place to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission.

To what extent are Covid restricitons eroding civil liberties? Bill Carmichael poses the question.To what extent are Covid restricitons eroding civil liberties? Bill Carmichael poses the question.
To what extent are Covid restricitons eroding civil liberties? Bill Carmichael poses the question.

Indeed in recent months West Yorkshire Police has facilitated some political demonstrations including those held by the Black Lives Matter movement. So why was Sunday’s protest treated so differently?

I put this point to West Yorkshire Police and they told me that they “received short notice about the proposed event, which initially did not appear to conform to existing regulations”.

The protesters dispute this and say there was extensive telephone contact with the police before the event, and they were prepared to obey the regulations and had carried out a full risk assessment. Surely, with a bit of goodwill, a way could have been found for the meeting to take place?

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Ask the women themselves and they will argue that the police’s reaction to a small, peaceful protest is part of an attempt to silence them for having inconvenient views.

They believe that senior police officers, along with local authorities, the educational establishment and many large multi-national corporations have been captured by an authoritarian and intolerant woke ideology that is openly hostile to free speech and to women’s rights.

They oppose gender self-identification – the ability of people born male to easily re-define themselves as women – because they say it erodes women’s rights and puts at risk female only spaces such as changing rooms, women’s refuges and women’s prisons.

You have to admit they have a point. Take, for example, the case of Karen White, a convicted paedophile previously known as David Thompson, who sexually assaulted two female prisoners after self-identifying as a woman and demanding a transfer to New Hall women’s prison near Wakefield.

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But whenever feminist groups raise these concerns they are howled down and told to shut up. Two years ago, for example, Leeds City Council cancelled a meeting of feminists at Leeds Civic Hall to discuss gender self-identification because they labelled it transphobic.

And when Harry Potter author J K Rowling raised some mild and politely expressed concerns about gender self-identification she was hit by a never-ending stream of misogynistic abuse, including death and rape threats. Many feminists fear their very identity as women is in danger of being erased.

As it happens, the Government announced this week that it had decided to rule out any major changes in the gender recognition laws – largely because of the effective campaigning of feminists like those behind Sunday’s planned protest.

There is a debate to be had here and both sides need to be heard. Trans people need to be treated with compassion and provided with appropriate health care. But feminists also have every right to raise concerns.

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And we need to be very careful of two things – that the state doesn’t use the pandemic as an excuse to erode our civil liberties, including free speech, and that the police are not seen to be taking sides in a toxic culture war.

I will leave the last word to the police. Chief Superintendent Damien Miller, District Commander of Leeds Police, told me: “West Yorkshire Police fully acknowledges the importance of lawful protests and demonstrations, but recognises that these have to be balanced against current legislation which is in place to protect the health and safety of the public.”

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Thank you

James Mitchinson

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