The Significance of the High Court Ruling That the Police’s London-Wide Ban on Extinction Rebellion Was “Unlawful”

Metropolitan Police officers and the Extinction Rebellion camp at Trafalgar Square, October 11, 2019 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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The news cycle seems so frenetic right now that stories barely get noticed before the media spotlight promiscuously turns to some other topic. A case in point, to my mind, is an important High Court ruling last week — that a decision taken by the Metropolitan Police last month, to impose a blanket ban across the whole of London prohibiting any assembly of more than two people linked to Extinction Rebellion’s ‘Autumn Uprising’, under section 14 of the Public Order Act of 1986, was “unlawful.”

The two High Court judges who issued the ruling — Mr. Justice Dingemans and Mr. Justice Chamberlain — said, as the Guardian described it, that “the Met had been wrong to define Extinction Rebellion’s two-week long ‘autumn uprising’ as a single public assembly on which it could impose the order.”

As Mr. Justice Dingemans stated in the ruling, “Separate gatherings, separated both in time and by many miles, even if coordinated under the umbrella of one body, are not a public assembly under the meaning of section 14(1) of the 1986 act.” He added, “The XR autumn uprising intended to be held from 14 to 19 October was not therefore a public assembly … therefore the decision to impose the condition was unlawful because there was no power to impose it.”

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Extinction Rebellion Challenges and Defies Outrageous London-Wide Ban on Public Assemblies

Extinction Rebellion supporters defy the Metropolitan Police’s outrageous London-wide ban on XR protests, congregating in significant numbers in Trafalgar Square, October 16, 2019 (Photo: Ben Gillespie).

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On Monday evening, in response to the start of the second week of actions in London by the environmental campaigning group Extinction Rebellion, as part of their International Rebellion in at least 60 cities worldwide, the Metropolitan Police issued an unprecedented order, under Section 14 of the 1986 Public Order Act, which allows them to impose restrictions on any “public assembly” (an assembly of two or more people in a public place), if they claim that it poses “serious disruption to the life of the community.”

The order on Monday night stated that “any assembly linked to the Extinction Rebellion ‘Autumn Uprising’ … must now cease their protests within London (MPS and City of London Police Areas)” by 9pm, and even before it was issued police began clearing protestors out of their camp in Trafalgar Square.

Lawyers, civil liberties groups and some MPs immediately responded with understandable outrage. Jolyon Maugham QC tweeted, “We believe the section 14 Order is invalid — that it amounts to a huge overreach of the statutory power — and likely reflects the enormous political pressure the Met is under”, adding, “It exposes the Met to all sorts of risks — of legal challenges to validity, of civil claims for wrongful arrest with aggravated damages and so on — merely because this Government cannot tolerate peaceful protest.”

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Extinction Rebellion and the Undeniable Power of Non-Violent Revolutionary Change

Extinction Rebellion campaigners outside Downing Street on October 8, 2019 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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As the environmental campaigning group Extinction Rebellion begins the second week of its International Rebellion, it is worth reflecting on how much they — and the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, who initiated a rolling global climate strike by schoolchildren that, last month, saw millions of schoolchildren and supportive adults take to the streets in 185 countries around the world — have shifted the terms of the debate on climate change over the last twelve months.

As the Guardian explained in an editorial last week, “Ipsos Mori reports that its latest poll found that 78% of Britons believe the planet is ‘heading for disaster’, up from 59% in 2013.” The actions of Thunberg and XR amplifyied the messages of doom put forward by scientists — in particular, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s landmark report, last October, in which, as the Guardian described it, “The world’s leading climate scientists have warned there is only a dozen years [now just eleven] for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people”, adding added that “urgent and unprecedented changes are needed to reach the target”, which they called “affordable and feasible although it lies at the most ambitious end of the [2015] Paris agreement pledge to keep temperatures between 1.5C and 2C.” Since then, the doomsday message has been reinforced by the likes of Sir David Attenborough, via his hard-hitting BBC documentary, ‘Climate Change: The Facts’, and the combined weight of all these actions has led politicians to acknowledge the scale of the unprecedented man-made crisis faced by the whole of humanity.

Under Theresa May, the UK government declared a climate emergency and committed to a 2050 target for zero carbon emissions, and last month the Labour party conference took an important additional step, adopting 2030 as the intended zero carbon date.

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The Green Generation: The Furious Energy of Young People and the Global Climate Strike

Children taking part in the Global Climate Strike in London on September 20, 2019 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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If you’re reading this, and, like me, were comfortably born within the long reach of the 20th century, then pause for a moment and imagine what the future looks like for those born this century, those who aren’t even able to vote yet, and who make up a large part of what has been termed ‘Generation Z’ — those born between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s — as well as those born more recently, who trend-watchers don’t even seem to have a name for yet, although they might want to think about calling them the ‘Green Generation’ if yesterday is anything to go by.

Yesterday’s Global Climate Strike — the third this year — was the biggest yet, and the biggest climate protest ever. In 185 countries, at least three million people — mostly young — took to the streets to demand urgent action to prevent the worst effects of an already unfolding environmental catastrophe.

By now, no one should have any doubts about the urgency of the crisis. In the Northern Hemisphere, where 90% of the earth’s population lives, the last five summers have been the hottest since records began in the late 19th century, with this summer being the hottest yet. Globally, the only year that was hotter was 2016.

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Photos of WOMAD 2019: Awareness of the Global Environmental Crisis Hovers Over Three Days of Sunshine and Great World Music

A few of my photos from this year’s WOMAD festival at Charlton Park in Wiltshire.

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Check out my WOMAD photos from this year here!

What a difference a year makes. Last summer the global environmental crisis was certainly on many people’s radar, but it hadn’t gone mainstream like it has in the last 12 months. The change has come about in particular because of the resonance of the global climate strikes by schoolchildren, initiated the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, and the actions of the campaigning group Extinction Rebellion, but the real trigger was the publication, last October, of a chilling report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, warning that we have just 12 years to avert an unprecedented catastrophe caused by man-made climate change. 

Awareness of the unprecedented climate emergency was everywhere at WOMAD, as you would no doubt expect at a clued-up, globally-minded, middle class festival — and it certainly helped that the day most of the crew arrived, Wednesday, was the second hottest day ever in the UK, with temperatures reaching 38.1C (100.6F) in Cambridge. 

I had numerous discussions with people involved in the WOMAD organisation, in which we either briefly discussed the urgency of the environmental crisis, or alluded to it, although it wasn’t promoted specifically, except through the presence of Extinction Rebellion activists, and the conspicuous efforts to tackle waste and recycling issues. The most shocking example of out-of-control throwaway culture at festivals in recent years was, most notoriously, Glastonbury, whose aftermath was featured in truly shocking photos in 2015, but everywhere our casual addiction to plastic, and an enthusiasm for abandoning tents has led to the aftermath of festivals becoming a vivid and disturbing demonstration of how, collectively, we have become startlingly adept at turning everywhere into a vast dustbin. Even this year, at Glastonbury, where climate change and the environment were the festival’s theme, the sale of single-use plastic bottles was banned, and David Attenborough turned up to thank festival-goers for using less plastic, saying, “That is more than a million bottles of water that have not been drunk by you”, vast amounts of litter were still left behind.

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Extinction Rebellion’s Summer Uprising Shows the Need for Increased Direct Action as the Establishment Fights Back

A screenshot of a video of Extinction Rebellion activists blockading London Concrete’s plant in Bow, in east London, on July 16, 2019.

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Last week, the environmental protest group Extinction Rebellion (XR) held a ’Summer Uprising’ in five UK cities — London, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow and Leeds — theatrically installing painted boats emblazoned with key messages in all five locations, and engaging in various actions designed to continue highlighting their three core messages: to get the government to “tell the truth” about the unprecedented man-made environmental crisis that is already unfolding at an alarming rate, to “halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025”, and to “create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.”

Since last autumn, when the group announced itself via the occupation of five bridges in central London, and followed up in April with the extraordinary and unprecedented occupation of five sites in central London that lasted for over a week, with the police arresting over a thousand people but refusing to respond with blanket violence to a movement that was resolutely non-violent, Extinction Rebellion has been one of two movements that have captured the public’s imagination in significant numbers regarding the unprecedented emergency facing life on earth  —- the other being the School Strike for Climate initiated by the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg

With the steely resolve of an individual with Asperger’s who has chosen an implacable route, Thunberg relentlessly confronts world leaders about how they have known about the scale of the unfolding disaster for 25 years, and yet have done nothing about it. She is particularly scathing about the “fine words” they utter when confronted about it, which she correctly assesses as being completely meaningless without the necessary actions to fulfil them. Inspired by her message and her attitude, millions of schoolchildren around the world have taken part in — and continue to take part in — regular school strikes, showing adults the world over how much more clued-up they are when it comes to what should be society’s urgent priorities.

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This Summer Solstice, The Party’s Over; Now It’s Time to Save the Planet

The summer solstice 2019 at Stonehenge (Photo: Hannah McKay/Reuters).

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Today is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, and at Stonehenge, the astonishing Bronze Age temple on the downs in Wiltshire, around 10,000 people gathered to watch the solstice sun rise through the heart of the temple, on one of the relatively rare years that the dawn sky was clear. It’s a contemporary celebration of the cycle of the seasons, but it also ties us to our mysterious ancestors, 4,000 years ago, who spent untold years transporting and shaping the vast sarsen stones that make up the temple’s epic bulk, so that it aligned with the rising sun on this particularly significant day.

People seem to have been drawn to Stonehenge for the summer solstice for centuries, although many archaeologists have a different take on the monument’s purpose, suggesting that it was not built to celebrate the summer solstice, but to celebrate the other end of this cosmic axis: the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, when, as the archeologist Aubrey Burl has suggested, our distant ancestors — whose lives, to quote Thomas Hobbes, were “nasty, brutish and short” — sought to reassure themselves that life would return from the dead world of winter.

Burl may be right, and much of the archaeological record supports his Hobbesian analogy. Life was indeed hard and short, but the romanticised view of our ancestors celebrating the summer solstice — rather than undertaking the building of stone circles and other extraordinary monuments to seek reassurance, in the depths of winter, that life would return to a dead world — has a powerful resonance for anyone who lived through, or has been influenced by the counter-cultural movements of the western world in the decades following the Second World War, and, in particular, the 1960s and 70s.

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Radio: I Discuss Guantánamo and the Tidemill Campaign on Wandsworth’s Riverside Radio, Also Featuring Songs by The Four Fathers

Andy Worthington at a previous radio appearance, discussing Guantánamo in Northampton, Massachusetts in January 2015.

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On Saturday, I was delighted to be visited by Andy Bungay, from Wandsworth’s Riverside Radio, for an interview broadcast on Andy’s evening show on Sunday, in which we discussed Guantánamo, which I’ve been covering for the last 13 years, and campaigning for its closure, and the housing crisis in London, which I’ve also been involved in challenging for the last few years. I was on Andy’s show back in September, and it was great to have the opportunity to talk again.

The full show is here.

Our interview starts about 1 hours and five minutes into the show, with a discussion of Guantánamo, and, in part, the case of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, whose release in October 2015 I campaigned to secure, initially working with the Save Shaker Aamer campaign, and, over the last year of Shaker’s imprisonment, via We Stand With Shaker, a campaign I set up with fellow activist Joanne MacInnes. This involved creating a giant inflatable figure of Shaker, a PR stunt that might have been widely ignored, but that, instead, led to a hundred celebrities and MPs being willing to have their photos taken with the figure, and to call for his release.

At 1:22, Andy played ’Song for Shaker Aamer’, a solo version of The Four Fathers’ song, used as the campaign song for We Stand With Shaker, which was recorded live in Washington, D.C. in January 2016, where I played it at an event calling for Guantánamo’s closure on the evening before the 14th anniversary of its opening, with lyrics amended to reflect Shaker’s release. The part about Shaker being “back in London” got a big cheer from the crowd!

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34 Years On from the Battle of the Beanfield, Is Widespread Environmental Dissent Conceivable?

A photo from the Battle of the Beanfield on June 1, 1985, when the government of Margaret Thatcher violently decommissioned a convoy trying to get to Stonehenge to set up what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival.

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It’s 34 long years since the boot of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain crushed one of the most visible demonstrations of counter-cultural dissent in the UK via a brutal demonstration of the violence of the establishment at what became known as the Battle of the Beanfield, when 1,400 police — from six counties and the MoD — shut down a vastly outnumbered convoy of nomadic new age travellers, anarchists, environmental activists and free festival stalwarts as they attempted to get to Stonehenge to establish what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival.

From humble origins in 1974, the festival grew — reflecting massive discontent in Thatcher’s Britain, where unemployment was at an all-time high in the early ‘80s — so that by the time it was suppressed, tens of thousands of people, for the whole of June, set up a makeshift settlement, the size of a small town, in the fields opposite Stonehenge. 

Drug use was rife, as was acid rock music, while the festival’s regulars, who took part in a circuit of free festivals in England and Wales from May to September, tried to get by via the creation of a low-level, low-impact economy that, like their decision to take to the road in old vehicles rather than stagnating on the dole in towns and cities without jobs, fundamentally challenged the state’s insistence that nomadic activities were reserved solely for Gypsies, who, themselves, have a long history of persecution, as settled people generally, it seems, despise nomadic people. 

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Deptford’s Tidemill Campaign and the Dawning Environmental Rebellion Against the Dirty Housing ‘Regeneration’ Industry

Save Reginald Save Tidemill campaigners photographed in the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford in November 2018 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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Yesterday, May 23, 2019, another phase in the ten-year struggle by the local community in Deptford to prevent environmental destruction, social cleansing, and the creation of new and inappropriate housing came to an end when campaigners with the Save Reginald Save Tidemill campaign withdrew from a protest camp —  which had existed for the last seven months — on the green next to the contested site of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden.

However, while Lewisham Council and Peabody, the main proposed developer of the site, will be tempted to see this withdrawal as some sort of victory, they should pay attention to the fact that campaigners have also resolutely pledged to continue to resist the plans to build new homes on the site of the garden, and to demolish Reginald House, a block of 16 structurally sound council flats next door.

Moreover, the council and Peabody also need be aware that the contested Tidemill site is part of a much bigger picture — involving a critical awareness of  environmental destruction and of the need for major systemic change to mitigate the worst effects of an already unfolding global environmental crisis — that has generated considerable awareness and support both globally and locally in recent months via the direct action embraced by the campaigning group Extinction Rebellion and the school strikes inspired by the 16-year old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer (The State of London).
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