In October, as the autumn wave of Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists blocked roads and occupied public space to try to force the government to act on the climate emergency, rightwing commentators bemoaned the intolerable inconvenience to the public, while Boris Johnson demanded the police “use the full force of the law” against the “crusties”.
The police response was already well in motion: even the weekend before the first “hemp-smelling bivouac” had been erected, police had raided a building where XR were storing supplies, confiscated equipment and arrested 10 people on suspicion of conspiracy to cause public nuisance. This alarming, if not unexpected, pre-emptive action was to set the tone for the rest of the demonstrations.
Following the first round of XR protests in April, the Met was accused of treating the demonstrations with “indulgence” by one pundit. To show that there would be no repeat, Metropolitan police commissioner Cressida Dick took the unusual step of writing an op-ed in the Evening Standard to assure Londoners that the response had been “extremely robust”.
That’s one way of putting it. A recent report from the Network of Police Monitoring (Netpol) lays bare just how “robust” the police response was.
Following a callout by XR’s legal team, Netpol documented 521 abuses of power. It is difficult to make direct comparisons, as abuses are rarely measured in a systematic way, but Sam Walton, a co-author of the report who has been monitoring the police for over a decade, says he has never seen abuse on this scale.
Rather than striking a balance between the rights of Londoners going about their days and facilitating the right to protest, the police simply tried to prevent the rebellion from taking place – in the process throwing established good practice for public order policing out the window.
Among the troubling findings are that the police misused stop-and-search powers, arrested people unnecessarily and with needless force, confiscated belongings and used intimidation.
All of this followed one giant abuse of power that justified the rest: the imposition of a sweeping section 14 banning order demanding that “any assembly linked to the Extinction Rebellion ‘autumn uprising’ must now cease their protest(s) within London”. This order – subsequently ruled as unlawful – seemed to give officers a carte blanche to crack down on protesters.
One such “assembly” consisted of just two people – a disabled protester and their carer who was assisting with the flow of an oxygen tank and accessing medication from the wheelchair. Protesting outside New Scotland Yard against the police’s confiscation of accessibility equipment such as wheelchair ramps during the protests, they were both arrested because their presence as a pair meant they constituted an “illegal assembly”.
Netpol found that disabled protesters were systematically discriminated against. One disabled arrestee tells of how they had their walking stick confiscated because the officer believed it was a “potential weapon”. Such abuse was to prompt the Met’s own disability advisers to make their first formal complaint in 20 years.
While this ought to be a scandal, it is not an aberration.
The Met’s operation falls into a pattern established by other forces at fracking protests across the country. From Sussex to Lancashire, protesters – many of them first-timers – have had to fight for their communities while treading on eggshells, as the police have imposed policies of zero-tolerance for even minor disruptions. In Lancashire, protesters were arrested for small infringements such as stepping off the pavement and on to the road. Near Fylde, a man was threatened with arrest for honking his horn. Even more sinister is the case of Lancashire police admitting passing footage of disabled protesters to the DWP – seemingly so that their eligibility for benefits could be scrutinised.
Speaking at the launch of the report, barrister Jude Bunting QC, of Doughty Street Chambers, who has represented environmental protesters, said that fracking protests became a “petri dish for how the law and protest interacts”, with creative protest leading to the police finding new methods to combat it.
Creativity might be an asset for protesters, but a police force finding innovative new ways to justify abuses should be a concern. As demands to get to grips with climate chaos grow – and as an emboldened rightwing government predictably fails to take the challenge of decarbonising the economy seriously – there will rightly be more protests, many of them attempting to disrupt polluters. The police response so far makes one thing clear: fighting for the right to protest is a vital part of the collective fight for survival.
• Simon Childs is home affairs editor at Vice