Government and police have held talks to strengthen public order laws to allow a tougher crackdown on futureExtinction Rebellion(XR) climate demonstrations in what civil rights lawyers warn would be a “a shocking assault on the right to protest.”
The move, which comes as XR’s two-week “uprising” drew to a close on Friday, follows widespread criticism of the Metropolitan police after officers implementeda city wide banon the protests earlier this week.
Talks have been ongoing for months between police chiefs and the Home Office with changes to specific sections of the 1986 Public Order Act being discussed.
The officer in charge of policing the demonstrations, deputy assistant commissioner Laurence Taylor, said: “We have been engaged with the Home Office around a number of asks in relation to the legislation. This work is at an early stage, but includes looking at what constitutes serious disruption, and how Sections 12 and 14 of the Public Order Act may be more aligned. This will require further engagement with the Home Office and NPCC [national police chiefs council] Public Order Lead. ”
One senior police source said changes could include lowering the threshold at which police can place restrictions. Such a change would mean that the prospect of “disruption” is enough to impose tough conditions, not “serious disruption” as the public order act currently states.
The source said government wanted to see more robust and proactive action from police: “They want‘ move forward ’tactics and to see the police are doing something and clearing the streets. Government wants police to be more robust earlier and more often. ”
But civil rights lawyer Jules Carey, who is representing XR protesters, denounced any attempt to secure new powers for the police.
“The specter of the government now giving itself the power to prohibit all protests across the city would amount to a shocking assault on the right to protest,” said Carey.
“It would be in breach of the UK’s obligations to uphold and protect the right to protest under international law and would set an appalling precedent that would be cheerily welcomed by authoritarian states throughout the world.”
The attempt to introduce new police powers came as the Met said more than 1, 700 people had been arrested for taking part in the XR protests.
Thousands of people have blocked roads, glued themselves to government buildings and blockaded big financial institutions to raise the alarm about the escalating climate emergency. One group targetedLondon’s underground network.
Organizers say that a record number of people – up to 30, 000 – took part over the two weeks. And data analysts within the group are already looking at which actions were most successful at sparking public support or resulted in new members signing up.
But key figures within XR acknowledged there are serious challenges facing the movement as it reflect on the last two weeks.
There have been fears raised that the recent activism did not cut through in the same way it had in April – as environmental civil disobedience and mass arrests “became normalized.”
That changed on Monday evening whenpolice imposed a blanket ban on XR protests across the capital.That proved a boost for those on the streets with support from civil liberties groups and politicians who branded the move “chilling and unlawful”.
But that high was short-lived. On Thursday morning a small group of activists targeted the tube network prompting a violent backlash from commuters.
The action also prompteda split among XR supporters, with some complaining it was counter productive, had alienated ordinary working people and had gone ahead against the wishes of the majority of supporters.
Others saw the fallout differently. They argued that the scale of the climate crisis requires the disruption of “business as usual” to create “breakthrough moments that force people to engage with the reality of the climate crisis”.
This divergence of opinion points to a fundamental challenge facing the group.
Many of its founders and early supporters believe that only radical, disruptive – and sometimes polarising – action resulting in mass arrests and imprisonment will raise the alarm about climate emergency and bring about the political transformation required.
Others, who have joined since its launch just 12 months ago, come from different political traditions with alternative “theories of change”.
The challenge of accommodating these differing views on tactics and strategy was acknowledged in a note sent out to XR activists after Thursday’s tube protest.
“Our world is in grave danger… We’re still figuring out how to work together to prevent or mitigate catastrophe, but in the meantime let’s not forget the love that brings us together…Moving forwards will bring challenges – it was always going to. But let’s remember why we’re here. ”
Asked how the two weeks of protest had gone, a well-placed source in XR said: “It’s too early to tell in some ways – we are in the midst of it still.”
“There’s something about being in XR which is about facing your grief or allowing that to be part of your daily emotion.”
They added: “Thursday was a bad day, the day before was a great day. Today feels strong and for sure there’s much we have to learn… will keep learning, we are not a static movement that thinks it’s got the answer, we are just trying to do something. ”
Out on the streets on Friday XR activists continued to sound the alarm about the climate crisis.
Charlie Lewin, 54, was crying as she handed out leaflets to passersby at Oxford Circus that read: “We’re sorry.”
“People are really angry and want us to go away and I want to go home, but I have to be here,” Lewin said.
“I haven’t seen my family for a fortnight, I miss my family… I don’t want to be arrested again but I’m terrified for my future and my family’s future.”