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A newly introduced policing bill could make activist protests illegal in the UK

By Francesca Johnson

Dec 7, 2021

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It’s time to wake up and smell the lab-grown coffee, and while you beg your alarm to somehow forget to do its job and let you snooze in a little more, your utopian paradise is about to be ruined—by the harsh reality climate protesters are fighting to unveil. Insulate Britain, the perceived threat to our new normal is actually trying to prevent the slow and painful death of our planet by the hand of global warming and dimming. They come waving their banners and shouting their slogans down the street and you can’t get back your few precious minutes of lie in. Now, while that rather inconvenient image may get under your skin, does a few people trying to incite change during your morning commute warrant criminal charges and imprisonment?

As part of its bid to reach net zero emissions by 2050, the UK government has proposed some worrying amendments to its already “draconian” policing bill. This week has already made us side-eye the decisions of number 10 thanks to a crackdown on cocaine users, led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, that stinks of hypocrisy. The new amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will directly target environmental activists in an attempt to respond to direct action protests from groups such as Extinction Rebellion (which has been criticised heavily in the past for its lack of diversity), Insulate Britain and STOP HS2, the national campaign group which opposes the High Speed 2 railway project in England. In need of more than a little sprucing up, these groups do not have the best reputation. Insulate Britain has caused quite a stir already this year, with protestors being arrested left and right in pursuit of their cause.

The bill first came before the House of Commons in March 2021 in the wake of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. The amendments grant police access to arrest when protestors “threaten public order or stop people from getting on with their daily lives.” The new proposed changes under the expansive catch-all definition breach essential democratic and civil liberties such as the right to protest and it does so at the worst possible time—when protest is needed most.

In these unprecedented times of COVID-19 restrictions and accelerating climate change concerns—and you know, the possibility of the end of the world taking place during our lifetime—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has repeatedly warned that a radical switch from business as usual is exactly what we need. This bill has perplexing parallels to the ‘Green Scare’ era of the 2000s in the US, after a series of arson attacks against a ski resort in Colorado conducted by the group Earth Liberation Front (ELF) lead the environmental activists Elves to be criminalised and labelled the nation’s top domestic eco-terrorist threat by the FBI in 2001.

We already know that overseas, the US government has managed to sneak in larger police presences and acquisition of military vehicles under the guise of protection against blizzards and storms. During an already trying time full of wrongdoings, at the hands of law enforcement, the public’s calls for defunding the police contrasts the institutional push for police militarisation. With the recent rejection of a new defence taskforce in Minneapolis, after a year of promise in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and BLM protests, it seems as though we are bound into a bargain with persistence on police presence rather than listening to public concern.

A recent article by The Guardian took note of one activist, Ben Taylor, who claimed that arrests will only spark more roadblocks in an address to the UK High Court in November—so you have that to look forward to on your morning commute to work. Taylor was one of nine activists who took part in a blockade at junction 25 of the M25 during the morning rush hour on 8 October. His inflammatory call to arms—in which he said he would “go out and block the highway at the earliest opportunity”—provoked the decision to give him a longer sentence.

However, we have entered a “code-red” era in more ways than one—since this issue is more than just your rerouted ride to the office. Though many may feel inconvenienced by protestors on a small scale, the laws surrounding their treatment in a judicial sense as well as such amendments to their rights are becoming increasingly alarming.

Despite months of mounting opposition this year, the UK government has once again decided to update its laws surrounding policing and activism. Earlier in July, fears of the “draconian” rules around policing sparked concerns over human rights violations and the need for such heavy policing. The bill put through proposed restrictions on noise-based protests and banned single person demonstrations—essentially making anything deemed a “public nuisance” a criminal offence.

The new proposed modifications to the bill are still unsettling. For one thing, the very purpose of protest is to disrupt and enact change through that disturbance. Nonviolent direct actions such as road blockades and civil disobedience are critical to the cause of social and environmental movements. These tactics are designed to be rebellious and truculent to highlight the urgency of a particular issue. Think High School Musical, if Troy had just buckled under and stuck to being a baller then we wouldn’t have got the gems of the sequels. Not that the impending doomsday and destruction of our planet is comparable to a high schooler wanting to sing but regardless of apples and oranges, it still expresses my point—we need change in order to see change.

One of the most controversial protest strategies are lock-ons—when activists literally lock themselves to railings or buildings—and often seem the go-to in times that require extreme measures. When all else fails (voting, lobbying and other traditional modes of political participation) prove ineffective or take too long to get the ball rolling, such interventionist strategies are usually deployed.

Some protestors and activists might argue that climate change is urgent a topic enough for this course of action: after decades of international negotiations and backtracks—and more negotiations and more backtracks—and despite radical decreases in socioeconomic activity spurred on by a global pandemic, the world is still on track to reach 2.4 degree Celsius of warming by 2100.

When the bill was first imposed in 2020, its main goal was to add ‘noise’ to the list of intervenable offences under the Public Order Act 1986 as well as new Serious Disruption Prevention Orders. It permitted the banning or restriction  of any protest deemed as a risk of “serious public disorder” and can be imposed on people if they have previously been convicted of what the amendment calls a “protest-related offence.” It grants a worrying amount of discretion to police officers: if they believe that someone nearby might be “distressed” by a protest, they have the grounds to intervene.

The newest amendments slithered their way in (at the last minute might I add) while the bill passed through the House of Lords, and leading the charge was Home Secretary Priti Patel. Of course. This move directly trails the tumultuous tactics of Insulate Britain, who blockaded major motorways in the lead-up to the COP26 climate summit. Before the amendments were even proposed, more than 600,000 people signed a petition against it, while more than 350 charities and 700 academics wrote letters calling for it to be scrapped. Even former police leaders have stepped forward cautioning against the bill claiming it threatens democracy, entrenches the already prevalent problem of racial discmination and infringes on the professional duties of hundreds of public sector workers.

The UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights has previously commented that the plans are “oppressive and wrong,” with earlier poll numbers showing public anxiety around limiting rights to protest.

In The Conversation’s report, Doctor Heather Alberro—Lecturer in Global Sustainable Development at Nottingham Trent University—pointed out that Sections 319C to 319F are exceptionally perturbing. Under these sections, police officers can stop and search anyone suspected of potential “public nuisance” or “serious disruption to two or more individuals or to an organisation.”

Obviously, this change could easily allow more of the same abuse of power that minorities have been fighting against for decades and it seems like yet again we are to be ignored. People who refuse to comply, or who engage in the tactics so entangled with activism itself such as lock-ons and the “wilful obstruction of highways” could face imprisonment for up to 51 weeks.

All of this calls into question the motives behind Patel and others and their promises to protect the public, since The Conversation noted that up to 40 new UK fossil fuel projects are currently in the wind. Instead of directing their resources into curbing the activities of top fossil corporations, which are knowingly contributing over one-third of modern greenhouse gas emissions, police presence has come first as always.

Maybe it really is time for us to wake up, since the minor mornings and days-long disruptions of activists fighting for change are incomparable to the imminent and irrevocable loss that will ensue without rapid response to climate change. It seems as though climate protesters are the only ones who understand that business as usual cannot stay that way for long, and they’re being arrested for it.