A serious annoyance? How the policing bill could stifle climate protests

Anti-protest legislation will make it harder to hold government to account over climate crisis, activists tell Emma Snaith

Tuesday 23 March 2021 10:31 GMT
Police evict Extinction Rebellion activists after they blocked the junction around Oxford Circus in April 2019
Police evict Extinction Rebellion activists after they blocked the junction around Oxford Circus in April 2019 (Getty Images)

Four days before the annual global climate strike, Greta Thunberg tweeted a photo of herself sitting alone with a placard outside the Swedish parliament, accompanied by the caption: “Definite cause of serious annoyance.”

The teenage climate activist was making an apparent dig at Priti Patel’s controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Under this new legislation, protesters could be jailed for up to 10 years for causing “serious annoyance or inconvenience”.

It begs the question: Could the school strike movement founded by Thunberg, and other climate protests, be viewed in these terms?

The 307-page-policing bill, which passed its second reading in the Commons last week, contains a huge range of new laws on crime and justice – but proposals for protests have sparked particular alarm. A series of  ‘Kill the Bill’ protests have followed, with one march in Bristol turning violent on Sunday night after protesters attacked a police station, leaving 20 officers injured, two seriously.

Extinction Rebellion’s co-founder Gail Bradbrook tellsThe Independent that the bill “takes us onto the foothills of fascism”. “It’s suppressing a cornerstone of democracy — effective protest,” she says. 

Climate strike protests in London

Civil liberty groups and other protest movements have also condemned the legislation as “draconian”. Liberty went on to describe MPs’ vote on the legislation last week as a “dark stain on our democracy”.

Among other things, the bill gives police powers to set noise limits, break up “static protests”, impose a start and finish time and move on solo protesters and restrict protests around Parliament. It also gives home secretary Priti Patel and her successors the power to define the kind of “serious disruption” which could lead to demonstrators being arrested and prosecuted.

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And while the measures relate to protests for all causes, Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick singled out Extinction Rebellion mass protests in 2019 as the spark that led her to discuss a change to police powers. Priti Patel has also been highly critical of the group, describing XR activists as “so-called eco-crusaders turned criminals” and accusing them of attacking Britain’s way of life. 

So if the policing bill is passed, what impact could it have on climate protests organised by the likes of Extinction Rebellion and school strikers?

Rachel Harger, a solicitor at Bindmans LLP who works in the firm’s Actions against Police and State team, says that the police “already have a huge amount of discretion under the Public Order Act”. She points to Extinction Rebellion protests in October 2019, when the Metropolitan Police imposed conditions, twice, under section 14 of the Public Order Act, which banned any XR protests within London, but was later found to be unlawful.

But Ms Harger says that the proposed policing bill “is giving even more discretion and powers to the police”. She believes the government is seeking to push the bill through “because they know that effective protests are as vital as they have ever been and without them the government will often go unchallenged.”

Ms Harger continues: “No government wants to be faced with demonstrations against its policies and rule and recently Extinction Rebellion, BLM and Sisters Uncut have highlighted that there are a lot of disillusioned citizens here who are prepared to take action against this government. In doing so they have pushed their demands on the environment and liberation to the top of parliamentary political agendas.”

The Home Office insists that the government is “absolutely committed to maintaining freedom of expression”. But, it said that the public expects people to protest in a proportionate way”, adding: “The measures proposed in the Bill will ensure that those who protest with intent to cause serious disruption to the public can be more proactively managed by the police.”

However, XR co-founder Gail Bradbrook believes the proposed powers have little to do with the public facing disruptions during demonstrations.

“What the government’s concerned about is that we have an effective voice at the minute on the climate crisis – especially during the year that they’re leading Cop26,” she says. “It’s sinister: Why wouldn’t a government that’s trying to drive through action on climate change want a really effective protest movement?”

Just weeks after Extinction Rebellion’s mass protests in April 2019, which saw thousands of activists bring parts of London to a standstill for days, parliament declared a climate emergency. The government went on to sign the UK’s net-zero target into law in June of the same year.

Gail Bradbrook speaks before smashing a window at the building housing the Department for Transport in protest against HS2 on 15 October 2019 (AFP via Getty Images)

Bradbrook also believes the anti-protest measures in the policing bill were in large part a response to XR’s printing press blockade in September last year. The protest saw activists block the roads outside three presses owned by Rupert Murdoch, which print a raft of newspapers – including The Sun, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mail

Extinction Rebellion remain adamant that disruptive protest is an essential tool in order to push for meaningful action on the climate crisis – even if it affects the group’s popularity. Of the 1,418 British adults polled by YouGov between October and December 2020, only 38 per cent have a positive opinion of Extinction Rebellion. Just under 20 per cent have a positive opinion and 16 per cent are neutral.

“Democracy is messy but necessary,” Bradbrook says. “Nothing was tidy about the Suffragettes and the start of the trade union movement.”

While school climate strikers have tended to use less disruptive tactics than XR, many students are still worried about the impact the policing bill could have on future protests.

Scarlett Westbrook, a 16-year-old member of the UK Student Climate Network, says that during climate strikes in 2019, “police were already kettling children holding coloured cardboard signs.” She points to a climate strike she attended in Birmingham that year where she noticed people “having panic attacks” as they were surrounded by police. “It was really bad because mostly people were under 16,” she says.

Young demonstrators protest around outside of Buckingham Palace during a climate strike on 15 March 2019 (AFP via Getty Images)

Organisers said that roughly 300,000 people participated during the biggest school strikes so far, in September 2019, many of them children who walked out of lessons to take part.

Scarlett is concerned that the extra powers police could be given to crack down on protests under the policing bill might dissuade students from joining climate strikes in future.

“It’s like they’re trying to scare us away,” she says. “If someone is deemed a ‘public nuisance’ they could face up to 10 years in jail [under the new bill]. But when you’re young, having a criminal record is going to massively affect what University courses you can get onto, and what jobs you can apply for. And parents aren’t going to let their children go somewhere where they aren’t safe.”

She believes that if the policing bill is passed, it is unlikely to stop climate strikes altogether – but will make them much more infrequent. In a crucial year for climate action with the UK hosting Cop26 in November, she worries what impact this might have.

“Although we’re disenfranchised, we’ve found a way to have our voices heard by politicians with climate strikes,” Scarlett says. “MPs can say no to meetings, but they can’t say no to us protesting outside their window.”

Extinction Rebellion’s Gail Bradbrook believes that while the policing bill may scare some people off, many protesters will still take part in direct action, whether or not the bill is passed.

“There are many of us in Extinction Rebellion who have moved past the point of deep concern for our own safety and freedom because we are moved by a higher concern of the future of our children and the future of life on earth,” she says. “We stand on the shoulders of those who went through brutal times – at least 200 environmental activists around the world were murdered in 2019.”

As it stands, the policing bill has been delayed until the next parliamentary session. The delay came after a series of protests against the bill led by feminist activists Sisters Uncut, and joined by activists from other movements including Black Lives Matter and XR.

Bradbrook sees a glimmer hope in this moment of coordination between different protest groups: “If you’re going to take yourselves to the foothills of fascism, some of us are going to get even better organised off the back of that,” she says.

But she is quick to warn that attempts to silence XR’s protests will make it much harder to hold the government and powerful polluters to account, especially as the coronavirus crisis rages on.

“We’re living in dangerous times,” Bradbrook says. “The government is not using this moment to protect us – they’re using it to suppress democracy.”

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