The UK’s 2021 Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and the Politics of Making Noise
In the UK, public attention has recently been drawn to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, also known as the Police Crackdown Bill. It is the latest evidence of the authoritarian nature of the country’s current Conservative government, and is part of long running efforts by the state to silence dissent and marginalised voices from public discourse. It is the notion of silencing that I want to draw particular attention to, given that the bill specifically mentions noise as a parameter for the police to consider when seeking to limit or stop a public demonstration.
New media technology has recentered aurality and orality in daily life.
The most obvious examples of this are the popularity of podcasts, audio/visual content (i.e. YouTube) and the habitual creation of voice memos. The growth of sound studies, theory from which I shall draw on throughout this essay, is one of the results of this cultural turn. The increased awareness of the importance of the sonic sphere by the authorities is another. Elsewhere, I have argued that being able to produce sound and create an ambience is a cornerstone of community formation (Burman). Here, I want to explore how the Police Crackdown Bill aims to preemptively squander future attempts of such a thing.
Steve Goodman describes how “vibration […] connects every separate entity in the cosmos, organic or nonorganic” (xiv). This opens us up to recognising how it is that sound is a medium through which affect can flow, and how there is such a thing as a “politics of frequency” (xv, italics in original). The sonic aspects of the Police Crackdown Bill are attempts to codify limitations on how the population, through demos, can relate to each other and affect change through frequencies. It is the state’s attempt to obtain biopower – “the power over life” (Hardt and Negri, 57) – and to limit the sometimes liberatory frequencies that life can resonate.
The bill was almost certainly born from the police and the government’s reactions to protests by Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter over the past few years, but London’s Metropolitan Police and other police forces around the UK have a long history in undermining political groups, rather than preventing criminal activity. What is dubbed “the spy cops scandal” revealed that undercover police officers have been infiltrating activist groups since 1968. Undercover officers were “tasked with gathering intelligence that could be used to disrupt and monitor political groups” (Lewis and Evans). Morbidly, some officers assumed identities of deceased children (Evans). We also learnt that “deployments typically lasted four to five years, with officers living alongside political campaigners, forming deep bonds of friendship, or romantic liaisons, with their targets” (Lewis and Evans). This included, in some cases, male officers having children with the women they were spying on, women who were deserted by those men once their “investigation” was over (Lewis, et al.).
The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act that passed earlier this year means that from hereon in, undercover law enforcement agents cannot be found to have committed crimes while on duty. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is a crude sequel to that Act; arriving via methods of dominance applied upon communities that receive little sympathy in mainstream discourse, it is a near complete territorialization of a liberal democracy by right wing impulses. These recent developments have widened what is considered criminal activity so that previously unacceptable police activity is now perfectly legitimate in the eyes of the law.
The UK Parliament’s explanatory notes on the Police Crackdown Bill (Police) explains that, were it to become law, it would “broaden the range of circumstances in which the police can impose conditions on the use of noise at a public procession or public assembly or a one-person protest” including, it continues, “where police reasonably believe the noise generated by persons taking part may have a significant detrimental impact on persons in the vicinity or cause a serious disruption to the running of an organisation” (17). It outlines “a two-stage test” that would be carried out by a “senior police officer” – on the hoof, one supposes – in order to measure “a significant relevant impact on persons in the vicinity” of a demonstration (76). This includes “where the noise generated may result in intimidation or harassment […] may cause such persons to suffer serious unease, alarm or distress” (79). The aforementioned officer would have to ascertain “the likely duration of that impact […] and the likely intensity of that impact on […] persons” (79). The report also considers “excessive noise” as “damage to the environment” (80).
Much could be said about these extracts, but for the sake of brevity I will remain wedded to their relationship with sound. What is latent is the concern over some peoples’ right to silence at the expense of others’ right to be heard. The term “noise” is far from apolitical.
As Marie Thompson explains, noise “is sound that is unwanted, undesirable, unpermitted” (14). There is no objective measure by which you can describe one sound as a noise and another as pleasant. The reason why this bill uses “noise” rather than, for example, “loud sound” or provides a decibel measure is twofold: it allows police to improvise so that they cannot be held to an objective account at a later date, and it is because the state fears noise. The term “vicinity” is equally ambiguous. Where a “noise” ends cannot be rationally measured. Again, this allows for a police officer’s subjectivity to determine what is or is not permissible in public. It is a further de-democratisation of the public sphere.
As Thompson notes, “noise is recognised [as] a process of interruption that induces a change” (13). The noise that comes from a demonstration or a protest is an amplification of a change that the crowd is wanting to take place. Black Lives Matter protests and the recent Sisters Uncut-led demos that have taken place in the wake of the alleged murder of Sarah Everard by a police officer have been especially vocal when it comes to critiquing the police. In these instances, the “noise” of the crowd is an affect of change that seeks to fundamentally alter – and ultimately decrease – the power that the (racist, patriarchal) state and its agents have over the lives of those taking to the streets.
The relationship between sound and social movements is thoroughly investigated in Brandon LaBelle’s Sonic Agency. LaBelle accentuates the role that sound has to make us aware of those or that which is invisible. He writes, “sound works to unsettle and exceed arenas of visibility by relating us to the unseen, the non-represented or the not-yet-apparent” (2). While he notes that silence can also be a source of power (20), sound can draw one’s attention to “an excess, a background, or a push of energy that stirs below or around hearing, and yet which I know, or intuit, as being present” (60, italics in original). LaBelle is drawing a link between the way in which frequencies can approach us in a manner that other physical matter, such as bodies, cannot. We usually need to see a body to say it is there (and refusing to look can be a political act); but we have no such control over sound – we feel it whether we like it or not, and it comes from everywhere all at once. Additionally, while we may see a body on the street we may also easily ignore it. But if that body begins to amplify itself it becomes harder to not take notice of it. Bodies making or receiving sound is the basis for Goodman’s politics of frequency and a foundation for potential political change.
A world where our volume is deemed a permissible aspect of legal control is one where our very ability to be present in space is under question. For some, their being present is already uncertain and an act marked by violence. Black Lives Matter and Sisters Uncut are movements that come out of but are also counterpoints to such experiences. The Police Crackdown Bill’s aim to decrease the “noise” of public activity is part of broader efforts to suppress affects of change and limit opportunities for solidarity and collective action by such groups. The British state has figured out that in order to stymie revolt it is not only important to make certain bodies invisible, it is also important to make them unheard.
- Burman, Nicholas. “A Community Ambience: Tracing the Affect of Tuning In — the neighborhood’s Contemporary Drone.” Resonance: The Journal of Sound and Culture, vol. 2, no. 2, 2021, forthcoming.
- Evans, Rob. “Met faces legal action over spies’ use of dead children’s identities.” The Guardian, Guardian News & Media Limited, 7 Dec 2020, https://theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/dec/07/met-police-legal-action-spies-use-dead-childrens-identities. Accessed 25 March 2021.
- Goodman, Steve. Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2010.
- Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Commonwealth. Harvard UP, 2009.
- LaBelle, Brandon. Sonic Agency. Goldsmiths Press, 2018.
- Lewis, Paul and Rob Evans. “Secrets and lies: untangling the UK ‘spy cops’ scandal.” The Guardian, Guardian News & Media Limited, 28 Oct 2020, https://theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/oct/28/secrets-and-lies-untangling-the-uk-spy-cops-scandal. Accessed 16 March 2021.
- Lewis, Paul, et al. “Trauma of spy’s girlfriend: ‘like being raped by the state’.” The Guardian, Guardian News & Media Limited, 28 Oct 2020, 24 Jun 2013, https://theguardian.com/uk/2013/jun/24/undercover-police-spy-girlfriend-child. Accessed 25 March 2021.
- Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill Explanatory Notes. The House of Commons, 9 March 2021, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/58-01/0268/en/200268en.pdf. Accessed 16 March 2021.
- Thompson, Marie. “Productive Parasites: Thinking of Noise as Affect.” Cultural Studies Review, vol. 18, no. 3, 2012, pp. 13–35.