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.”

Professor David Mead, who specialises in UK Human Rights Law at the University of East Anglia, told the Metro that he thought the ban “could contradict both European and British law.” He said, “I think there is a very good chance that a court would conclude that the Met’s decision to impose a condition bringing to an end the XR protests in London would be unlawful. If it were seen as one bringing to an end all XR protests, then I think it would be unlawful as European human rights law, and our own Human Rights Act, require such decisions to be proportionate. That means narrowly tailored to address an identifiable problem.”

He also said, “There are I think other legal issues that the Met would have to overcome, largely relating to the certainty of the target assembly. Human rights law requires that where restrictions are imposed, then protesters are entitled to know with sufficient certainty if they are affected. I am not sure that’s the case here. While it might (but quite possibly not) be lawful to bring this one specific assembly to an end by imposing a condition, it cannot lawfully be used to impose an effective ban on all assemblies in London, which on one reading the notice seeks to.”

In addition, the Metro spoke to Dr Michelle Farrell, a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Liverpool, who reinforced Professor Mead’s comments, stating that the police action “almost certainly fails to meet the legal requirements of necessity and proportionality, obligations that the police must comply with under the Human Rights Act and European Convention on Human Rights.” She added, “The police have failed to establish a legitimate aim for imposing this section 14 order; getting ‘London moving again’ does not cut the mustard legally speaking. The police have not shown in any credible way how the XR Autumn Uprising as a whole raises a general risk of serious public disorder or serious disruption to the life of the community, and, moreover, they have not shown why this general ban is necessary rather than more restrictive targeted measures.”

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year old Swedish campaigner who inspired the global climate strike movement, whose participants now number in their millions, also weighed in, tweeting, “If standing up against the climate and ecological breakdown and for humanity is against the rules then the rules must be broken.”

For Liberty, advocacy and policy manager Gracie Bradley stated, “Banning Extinction Rebellion from protesting in London is a grossly disproportionate move by the Met, and an assault on the right to protest. Their heavy-handed use of this power sets a dangerous precedent. Freedom of expression and assembly are fundamental rights, protected by domestic and international law. The courts have made clear that a protest is not unlawful just because it’s disruptive.”

For Amnesty International UK, Allan Hogarth, Head of Advocacy and Programmes, stated, “Imposing a blanket ban on Extinction Rebellion protests is an unlawful restriction on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Under UK and international human rights law, the Government has an obligation to facilitate the exercise of these rights. The majority of those protesting have been doing so peacefully, removing and prosecuting activists for engaging in non-violent direct action to raise their voice is deeply worrying.”

There was also widespread condemnation from Green MPs, and from some Labour MPs. Green Party MP Caroline Lucas criticised the ban as a “huge over-reach of police power”, adding, “there’s a right to peaceful protest in this country. The Climate Emergency needs us all to make our voices heard. I stand in solidarity with the rebels for life.”

Diane Abbott, Labour’s shadow home secretary, said that the order was “wrong and completely contrary to Britain’s long-held traditions of policing by consent, freedom of speech, and the right to protest”, and shadow treasury secretary Clive Lewis tweeted, “The action by police overnight is a huge overreach of statutory power — we must protect our right to protest with everything we have. Huge solidarity with the rebels for life.”

Even London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, “issued a statement that appeared to distance himself from the Met’s decision to ban further protests”, as the Guardian described it. Khan said, “I am seeking further information from senior officers about the operational decision to impose a section 14 order on the Extinction Rebellion Autumn Uprising – including at Trafalgar Square – and why this was necessary. I believe the right to peaceful and lawful protest must always be upheld.”

The police’s overreach

Reflecting on this unprecedented move by the Metropolitan Police, it seems to me that they took the only course of action they could envisage that would allow them to non-violently shut down the protests, with senior officers evidently having decided that, after eight days, they had had enough of policing a protest movement that had set up camp in Trafalgar Square and on the edges of St. James’s Park, disrupting “business as usual”, and that had also engaged in freewheeling marches and gatherings up and down Whitehall and in Parliament Square.

Last week, the police’s response, after the first few days of protests, was to shut down all but the Trafalgar Square encampment, reclaiming Whitehall and Parliament Square, and driving protestors to seek another open space to accommodate the many thousands of people now excluded from central London, That space was Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in Lambeth, but yesterday that camp too was shut down by police, who demanded that everyone pack up and leave, or face arrest, even though there was clearly nothing going on in Vauxhall that constituted anything resembling “serious disruption to the life of the community.”

Unfortunately, while everyone concerned must be grateful that, after a week of protests, the Metropolitan Police, and, presumably, the Home Office, worked out that using disproportionate force on resolutely non-violent protestors crossed a line that they were not prepared to cross — unlike, for example, in France and Belgium, to name just two examples, where the police have been pepper-spraying non-violent protestors and using water cannons on them — the blanket ban on all XR protest in London is, without a doubt, a troubling and unprecedented infringement of civil liberties.

Moreover, if it is not successfully challenged legally, it will set a precedent that can be used again on any protest movement that the authorities decide is causing them too much trouble, fundamentally gutting the principle that, in a democracy, we have the right to protest, which must be tolerated unless it strays into violence.

This is not to say that every Extinction Rebellion protestor should be allowed to protest without being arrested, but it is crucial that the authorities recognise that there is a difference between, for example, waving a flag, and targetting a corporate office or a government department in an action that is intended to lead to arrest. Many of those involved in the movement are specifically seeking to cross lines that will lead to their arrest — the “arrestables” engaged in non-violent direct action against specific targets: at City Airport last week, in the City on Monday, and at the Department of Transport yesterday, for example.

The “arrestables”, in fact, are central to XR’s mission to overwhelm the system by obliging the authorities to arrest people in significant numbers, thereby forcing much more drastic action on the environment than would otherwise occur if everyone stayed at home and signed online petitions, or engaged in carefully proscribed protests that are essentially toothless.

But by crossing a line and declaring that any perceived Extinction Rebellion protest by two people or more is illegal anywhere in London, the authorities have strayed into dangerous and undemocratic territory, and their Section 14 order must not be allowed to stand.

Yesterday morning, the police tried to defend their actions. At the London Assembly’s Police and Crime Committee, the Met’s deputy commissioner, Sir Stephen House, “denied a suggestion by the Green member Sian Berry that the revised order was disproportionate”, as the Guardian explained.

“We are not saying, Extinction Rebellion you cannot protest in future”, House claimed, adding, “What we are saying is that, in relation to this demonstration, it must now cease, because it’s been going on for 10 days” — actually, eight — and, as the Guardian described his comments, the Met was “paying a heavy financial and operational price for policing the protests.”

XR challenges and defies the ban

This morning, lawyers for Extinction Rebellion filed an urgent application for a judicial review at the High Court, As the Guardian described it, Tobias Garnett, a human rights lawyer working with XR’s legal strategy team, said that they were challenging  the order because it is “an infringement of the right to protest, disproportionate, and beyond the powers given to police by the Public Order Act.”

“There’s a general consensus that this is unlawful overreach and that it risks criminalising anyone who seeks to protest about the climate and ecological emergency”, Garnett said, adding, “As we saw from Sadiq Khan … yesterday, there is a suggestion that a lot of people think the police have overstepped the mark here, and we hope the court will agree.”

The claimants on behalf of Extinction Rebellion include Baroness Jenny Jones and Caroline Lucas of the Green Party, Clive Lewis, the journalist George Monbiot, and Green MEP Ellie Chowns, who was arrested in Trafalgar Square on Monday evening. In a column for the Metro, Caroline Lucas made a point of noting that Home Secretary “Priti Patel has in the past laid claim to the mantel of the suffragettes, in the ‘fight for democratic freedom.’ She seems to have forgotten that the brave suffragettes resorted to radical tactics in the name of what was right. So have the Extinction Rebellion protesters.”

Via Extinction Rebellion’s media team, Garnett called the ban “a disproportionate and unprecedented curtailment of the right to free speech and free assembly”, and added, “We will call on the government and police to stop silencing protest and instead focus their efforts on telling the truth and acting now to deal with the greatest threat to our planet.”

As Extinction Rebellion proceeded to explain, “If the Met refuse to back down, the test of the legality of this move will come when High Court Judges are tasked with weighing whether the decision to issue blanket suppression of fundamental human rights, over an entire city, was proportionate to the threat posed by peaceful protestors, and only what was strictly necessary. They may also consider whether the rebels’ actions were reasonable and proportionate, given the seriousness of the imminent threat posed to all life by the climate crisis.”

Also this afternoon, defying the ban, thousands of XR supporters gathered in Trafalgar Square, where there were a number of high-profile arrests, including the Green Party’s co-leader Jonathan Bartley and George Monbiot, who had already announced his intention to be arrested today, and had written an article for the Guardian eloquently explaining his reasons for doing so.

However, the sheer numbers of those converging on Trafalgar Square seemed to indicate that the police’s ban had backfired. As XR explained in a tweet, “After rousing speeches on Trafalgar Square maybe 2,500 people [are] now sitting in circles of 10, participating in XR’s democratic decision-making process (people’s assembly) to consider how to respond to govt. silence on Climate & Ecological Emergency in [the] face of attempt to silence us.”

And elsewhere the protests continued, with “arrestables”, of course, largely immune to the intent of the ban, because they are all prepared to be arrested anyway. Extinction Rebellion Youth (with support from Doctors for XR) targeted YouTube, blocking the entrance to the company’s headquarters, and “demonstrating against the platforming of climate denialist videos, which are hugely popular on the site”, as the journalist Xavier Greenwood explained.

Earlier, as XR tweeted, over 100 mothers and babies blockaded Google’s offices, “staging a mass feed-in”, and, in a similar vein to the youth protestors, complaining about the recent revelations about corporation’s donations to climate deniers, and in the early evening rebels converged on the London headquarters of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Also today, over a hundred celebrities issued an open letter in support of Extinction Rebellion, acknowledging, “We live high carbon lives and the industries that we are part of have huge carbon footprints”, but calling for “systemic change” of the “fossil-fuel economy” they are “stuck in.” Citing dire warnings about the climate crisis by the International Monetary Fund and Sir David Attenborough, the signatories, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Jude Law, Alison Steadman, Jeanette Winterston, David Byrne, Thom Yorke and Steve Coogan, stated:

Climate change is happening faster and more furiously than was predicted; millions of people are suffering, leaving their homes and arriving on our borders as refugees.

Alongside these people who are already paying the price for our fossil fuelled economy, there are millions of children — called to action by Greta Thunberg — who are begging us, the people with power and influence, to stand up and fight for their already devastated future.

We cannot ignore their call. Even if by answering them we put ourselves in your firing line.

The stories that you write calling us climate hypocrites will not silence us.

The media exists to tell the public the truth. Right now there has never been a more urgent need for you to educate yourselves on the CEE (Climate and Ecological Emergency) and to use your voices to reach new audiences with the truth.

We invite all people with platforms and profiles to join us and move beyond fear, to use your voices fearlessly to amplify the real story.

Thousands of ordinary people are risking their freedom by taking part in non-violent civil disobedience. We’ve been inspired by their courage to speak out and join them. We beg you to do the same.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from seven years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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19 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article – about the Metropolitan Police’s outrageous decision to impose a London-wide ban on Extinction Rebellion​ protests (gatherings of two or more people) under Section 14 of the 1986 Public Order Act, which has prompted widespread criticism from lawyers, NGOs and MPs, and a legal challenge submitted to the High Court today, seeking an urgent judicial review. Most particularly, however, XR’s non-violent direct action has continued, despite the ban, with the numbers attending actions indicating that the Met’s move may well have backfired.

    While I understand that the police were fed up after eight days of protest, and probably saw the blanket ban as a non-violent way to wind up the Extinction Rebellion London​ protests, they do seem to have scored an own goal, suppressing the right to peaceful protest while doing nothing to put off the hardcore “arrestables”, who are up for getting arrested anyway. Today, XR supporters massed in Trafalgar Square despite the ban, and also took on YouTube, Google and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Neil Goodwin wrote:

    I was asked by a cop if I was a member of XR at least twice, to which I shook my head, and they said something like, “okay”, or “fair enough” and left me alone to continue to protest about the climate. I was alone and not in a group. I also saw loads of people walking about in various groups with XR insignia on – flags and t-shirts etc often with police nearby. The whole thing seemed a little rushed and badly thought out, and surreal. Like SOCPA. The sign of a government with something to hide, and certainly in crisis.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I cycled to Parliament Square yesterday afternoon, Neil, and at that particular time there wasn’t a trace of the protest, and not a single XR protestor remained. It was so off-putting, and there were so many police, that I hid my XR sticker on my jacket by folding my jacket back on itself. I felt like it made me a target. I then cycled to Vauxhall Gardens and on the way there were police everywhere, with a big presence on the bridges.
    So it was slightly disturbing, but also completely ridiculous, as it’s simply not acceptable to suggest that any group of two people or more in support of XR constitutes some sort of threat to law and order. But we all felt it.
    And as you say, it was “rushed and badly thought out”, and a sign that they – the government, the police, the banks and corporations – are feeling under threat.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Ros Jesson wrote:

    A friend of mine works for a company in the Shard, and they closed early and sent everyone home because of the protest outside. 😊

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    That sounds a bit like overkill, Ros, as though XR constitutes some sort of threat rather than a minor inconvenience. It’s not like they were going to try and kettle workers as they left their offices. That’s still a tactic that only the police use 😉

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Bridget McKenzie wrote:

    Judging by the brawl at Canning Town this morning, commuters are not scared at all. But they are pissed off and stressed, and disrupting the Tube in that way was bound to be triggering. I disapprove of that type of action and am concerned at what an escalation of tactics beyond this extremity might look like.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I find it counter-productive too, Bridget, alienating commuters when there are so many targets in government, the banks and the corporations that ought to be regarded as more rewarding objects of disruption.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    That said, Bridget, the rage shown by commuters is genuinely quite shocking: https://twitter.com/davidjmadden/status/1184746248596873216

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Melanie Finn wrote:

    Andy I wouldn’t be at all surprised if these were ‘state actors’. Will be interesting to see how it plays out. XR’s nonheirachical model means despite (so I’m told) clear & overwhelming majority being against this particular action individuals can still act out a protest in their name. There’s absolutely no way they’re not infiltrated anyway.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s a very interesting point about infiltration, Melani, given the authorities’ history of infiltrating protest groups, but this morning’s actions seem to have come from groups fixated with disrupting trains. 83-year old Phil Kingston, for example, who glued himself to a train in Shadwell, took part in the DLR disruption at Canary Wharf in April.
    I am curious, however, to learn more about the young man at Canning Town who was dragged off the train by the angry mob. I’d imagine someone in the mainstream media would be interested in hearing his story.
    Guardian report here: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/17/extinction-rebellion-activists-london-underground

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Patrick Lyons wrote:

    Leave the workers alone – the target is at the top of the known corporations, they should be Called out more and action to make businesses Change.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, exactly, Patrick. Definitely an own goal, as an XR spokesperson has admitted – but I’m still shocked by the violence shown in that video …

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Dave Rendle wrote:

    An interesting article thought I’d share “One of Netpol’s core aims when we started back in 2009 was to try to highlight and educate campaigners about the everyday experiences of policing, particularly in working-class and racialised communities up and down the country.”
    Campaigners, read this!

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s very powerful, Dave. Thanks for sharing. I saw reference to it yesterday and had been meaning to get round to reading it. I read elsewhere about the flower tribute to Brixton police, which also enraged me as a step way too far in the attitude that some involved in XR have towards embracing their oppressors with supposed love and understanding. Yes, climate catastrophe will affect all of us, but let’s not cosy up to the police without understanding the history of relations between the black community and police stretching back way beyond the 1981 riots and continuing to this day. Some police are killers, which should really make people think twice about embracing them before they’ve pretty much exhausted the opportunities of embracing everyone else.

    What is it with some middle class people and issues of race and class? If XR is serious about not alienating everyone other than its own middle class base, its organisers need to give some serious consideration to educating those drawn to the movement, and engaging in some truly humble outreach to those most affected at the front line of police brutality.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Here’s the Guardian on the fallout from this morning’s action at Canning Town, confirming that it had been widely opposed within XR’s ranks: “More than 3,700 people responded to an online poll circulated on the group’s social media networks with 72% saying they were opposed to the action ‘no matter how it is done'”: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/17/london-tube-protest-divides-extinction-rebellion

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Dave Rendle wrote, in response to 14, above:

    Sadly many just not open to discussing it. in local group pages there is hardly any thought given to the rest of the world who have to live under the boot of this oppressive system, hence personally I feel rather alienated from their mindset, sad really, because climate changes effects all, hate to rain down on their parade.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Hence the need for organisers to address these problems, Dave, as they clearly need the support of more than a middle class base. Some leadership is needed from elders – or particularly wise young people. A lot of what I’m hearing about complaints regarding XR membership – though genuinely touching on the offensive and the thoughtless – is actually nothing more than the typical inflexible posturing of youth, but there desperately needs to be education and guidance.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Mark C Lord wrote:

    I was feeling, hmm that’s a step too far, but then read the thoughts of participants saying that basically, we have gone so far in our state of climate chaos, that when we say we can’t continue with business as usual, we mean it. This disruption has raised the bar, made the news in a bigger way and made more people sit up and take note. Is that not what we want?

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s very well put, Mark. If people can’t stand to be inconvenienced on a journey to work, they’re completely failing to understand XR’s key message: that they’ll be a damn sight more inconvenienced on an inhospitable planet. Within their lifetimes.
    So the fact that it made some people hate XR not only needs to be measured against the fact that it also got huge amounts of publicity, but also against what is supposed to be the overriding drive of XR: to shake people out of their “business as usual” mentalities by disrupting them.

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