By Laurie Goering/London
As London’s police try to manage a rise in non-violent street protests aimed at spurring action to tackle climate change, they face a quandary, human rights experts said.
With violent protests, “if someone tries to punch you as an officer, you get the horses in and kettle them and the public will absolutely support you,” said Tobias Garnett, a legal strategist for the Extinction Rebellion climate action movement.
But while last year’s mass protests by the grassroots group in London were disruptive, they were peaceful.
Neither were members deterred by large-scale arrests or an October ban on gatherings that was later overturned in court.
“Extinction Rebellion is an unprecedented challenge for the police,” said Garnett, noting the large number of people “dedicated to an issue, prepared to be arrested and, crucially, totally non-violent in the process”.
That consternation may be one reason the group this month showed up in a guide produced by British counter-terrorism police on how to spot followers of extremist ideologies.
The document put Extinction Rebellion alongside organisations ranging from Islamic State to neo-Nazis.
Rob Cooper, a retired police chief superintendent in Devon and Cornwall who is now involved in Extinction Rebellion, called the classification “just totally over the top”.
“Extinction Rebellion is not a risk to the public. But the government’s inaction on climate change is very much a risk to the public,” he said.
“If they took the time to reflect on why Extinction Rebellion are protesting, what this climate emergency is all about, they would see that what we’re trying to do is entirely appropriate and proportionate,” he said.
London police officials and others, such as the anti-radicalisation Prevent programme’s former head, quickly disavowed the group’s inclusion in the guide as a mistake.
Sara Khan, who leads the government’s Commission for Countering Extremism, said in a statement the guidance should and would be recalled.
But Britain’s Home Secretary Priti Patel insisted it was important for the government to assess “a range of security risks”.
Despite the U-turn, that suggests “the policing mentality remains one of trying to find ways to prevent, suppress and punish anyone who takes on climate change by means of serious public protest”, said Philip Alston, chair of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University.
The incident also raises questions about the kind of push-back climate change protest groups — including the school strikers inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg — will face as they ramp up demands for urgent action.
Alston said 2020 would be “a crunch year” for the movement.
Runaway fires in Australia and other evidence of surging climate threats mean there is a “deeply growing realisation it’s now or never” for efforts to persuade world leaders to effectively curb climate change.
But with key emitting countries like the United States and Australia clearly demonstrating they are not willing to respond, “the only option that seems to remain on the table is public protest”, which is likely to expand this year, Alston said.
In response, governments — unnerved by the size of protests or under pressure to curb disruption — are looking for ways to limit or manage protests, human rights experts said.
The Australian state of Queensland last October approved a new law to expand police powers to search activists, something unions called a “slippery slope” that could lead to the restrictions being deployed against a range of strikers.
Parliamentarians discussed, but rejected, amendments to require prison sentences for repeat protest offenders and to ban gatherings intended to block traffic flow.
And a number of US states have passed laws making protests opposing fossil fuel pipelines criminal offences, Alston said.
In Britain, police pressed charges against more than 95% of the 1,100 Extinction Rebellion activists arrested during April protests, an unusually high rate, said the group’s lawyer Garnett.
During the October demonstrations that followed, police issued a blanket protest ban, which was later overturned by London High Court judges.
The police service noted the activists had caused widespread disruption in London and pulled officers away from other duties.
Extinction Rebellion is calling for Britain to cut its carbon emissions to “net zero” by 2025.
It accuses the government of investing vast sums in fossil fuel projects that are inconsistent with its stated environmental aims.
Garnett said London protesters were “extremely lucky to be living in a country where, when rights are infringed, there are independent courts able to remedy that”.
“For many people trying to do something about the climate, to stand up to power and change the system that got us here... there’s very little protection. Those people are extremely courageous,” the lawyer said.
But he said he worried less about potential restrictions on protests than about the rapidly closing window for effective climate action itself.
“It’s essential there isn’t an authoritarian (shift) to crack down on rights,” so citizens can ensure that narrowing opportunity is not wasted, Garnett added.
“The window that’s really shrinking is our moment to change the course of history and our future.
That’s the one I’m really nervous about,” he said. – Thomson Reuters Foundation
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