Rules on Rebellion: Climate Protests Raising Issues of Lawfulness

April 22, 2019

2 min read

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What's going on here?

Over 750 people have been arrested so far in response to the climate change demonstrations taking place around London.

What does this mean?

Activist group Extinction Rebellion has been inviting people to join them for their climate change protests. The demonstrations have targetted key areas in London including Oxford Circus, Waterloo Bridge and the area around Parliament. However, police have started arresting many of the protestors. The protest group is demanding that the UK government declare a “climate and ecological emergency,” reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025, and create a “citizens’ assembly” to drive climate policy.

What's the big picture effect?

Over 1500 officers have been deployed in London to deal with the protests. As protestors refuse to budge, police hope to deter them by making arrests, making over 750 so far. These arrests are for breaches of Section 14 Notice of the Public Order Act 1986.

Section 14 of the Act allows police to impose conditions on protestors that are refusing to move from a location. The condition that they’ve imposed is to ask protestors to relocate to London’s Marble Arch, so they’re less disruptive to the public. The provision requires a factual basis as officers have to ‘reasonably believe’ that these demonstrations ‘may result in a serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community’. Thus, Extinction Rebellion’s peaceful approach may raise questions as to whether the police’s discretionary power was validly used in the first place.

Out of the 750 arrests made, only 28 people have been charged. One reason for this is that the police are happy that these are “peaceful protesters”. They’ve said that “while disruptive their actions are not violent towards police, themselves or other members of the public.” Aside from this, making mass arrests in these instances would be impossible due to limited police resources such as officers and cell space. It would also send the wrong message about individuals’ right to freedom of speech.

The protests raise questions as to how much power the police should have to stop peaceful protests. After a big anti-capitalism protest in London in 2000, the police used a tactic called “kettling” to stop the spread. This is when they impose barriers around the protestors and push them into an enclosed “pen”. The tactic came under legal challenge and, after 11 years, the European Court of Human Rights declared that it was lawful.

With the protests still going strong, the police will be hoping to strike the right balance between protecting the freedom of the protestors and the limiting disruption to the general public. The question is, how?

Report written by Joshua L

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