As Climate Protests Get Bolder, British Police Strike Back With New Powers

LONDON — When environmental protesters recently stopped traffic on the M25 freeway that circles London, one journalist, Charlotte Lynch, was standing on a bridge above reporting on the latest of the group’s disruptive demonstrations for her radio station, LBC.

But not for long. Ms. Lynch was swiftly handcuffed, searched and arrested after being questioned by two police officers about how she knew that the demonstration was taking place.

Ms. Lynch said that she had shown a press card carried by journalists in Britain to identify themselves to the police, and explained that she had learned about where the protest would be held from social media. Nonetheless, she was held for five hours at a police station, where her DNA was collected and fingerprints were taken.

“It was absolutely terrifying being in a cell with a pad for a bed in one corner and a metal toilet in the other,” Ms. Lynch later said. “I was just doing my job.”

As environmentalists and climate change activists ratchet up their protests in Britain — employing tactics that disrupt everyday life — the authorities are responding in kind with robust actions that have raised concerns that long-enshrined freedoms are being eroded.

Determined to crack down on the demonstrators, the government is giving the police new powers to tackle groups that have brought busy highways to a standstill, delayed infrastructure projects by tunneling beneath them, thrown soup at artwork and deflated the tires of SUVs.

“What I’m seeing now is, I think, a sort of spiral — I’d almost say a radicalization,” said Adam Wagner, a civil liberties lawyer and author. “I think there’s a hardening on both sides — the police and the protesters — both of the actions and the reactions. I can see that dynamic and I’m pretty worried about it.”

Mr. Wagner fears that, in this increasingly confrontational context, basic rights like freedom of expression and assembly are coming under ever greater pressure.

“The police are being asked to get involved far too much in things that should be between citizens trying to convince other citizens about their point of view in public, which is what protest is about,” he said.

Mr. Wagner’s recent book, “Emergency State,” explores the effect of the drastic powers given to law enforcement during the coronavirus pandemic, when the government imposed tighter restrictions on demonstrations.

Legislation passed this year in Britain allowed the police to impose start and finish times on some protests and to set noise limits on them, as well. The maximum penalties for obstruction of a highway were also increased to an unlimited fine, six months’ imprisonment or both.

The government wants to go even further, citing the financial effect of the demonstrations. Protests against Britain’s HS2 high-speed railway line, for example, have cost it an added 122 million pounds, or about $145 million, a figure that is expected to rise to £200 million, according to the project’s management.

Legislation making its way through Parliament would set jail sentences of up to six months or unlimited fines for protesters accused of “locking on” to people, objects or buildings. Tunneling under infrastructure — another favored tactic of demonstrators — would carry a maximum penalty of up to three years in prison under the bill. And the police would gain news powers to stop and search people for materials that could be used for a “protest related” offense.

One person surprised to be caught up in Britain’s charged debate is John Cridland, a former director general of Britain’s business federation, the Confederation of British Industry. When Russia invaded Ukraine, Mr. Cridland felt strongly enough to stand outside the Russian Consulate General in Edinburgh to express his opposition with a handmade sign.

This lone, silent protest seemed to have crossed a line for the police, and within minutes he was warned against what he was doing by a uniformed officer. Having checked the law in advance, Mr. Cridland stood his ground, but the confrontation was disconcerting.

The police, he said, “seemed more concerned about whether Russian diplomats might get upset than whether Russia had invaded Ukraine.”

“Freedom of speech is something you tamper with very, very reluctantly,” Mr. Cridland said.

The harder police line comes as activists in Britain have become increasingly willing to disrupt daily life, inspired by arguments like those made in “How to Blow Up a Pipeline,” an influential book by Andreas Malm. They say the climate movement needs to escalate its tactics to call attention to the dangers of a warming planet.

Some protest actions have so antagonized Britons that the police have had to intervene to protect protesters from bystanders. People have been urged not to take the law into their own hands, but protesters still find themselves the targets of rage, like when a protester against the oil industry was tackled for spraying orange paint on a building.

The immediate question is whether Britain needs additional laws to stop activities that are often already illegal. That issue is being debated in the House of Lords, which this year watered down legislation granting the police more powers to crack down on protests.

“To stop and search someone suspected of carrying a bomb is one thing,” Robert Skidelsky, an economic historian, said during one debate in the House of Lords. But, he said, “to stop and search someone suspected of carrying a bicycle lock seems to me, to put it mildly, disproportionate — and, in fact, mad.”

Some police officers say privately that they resent being caught in the middle of a polarizing debate about freedom of expression, though the formal position is more diplomatic. “Police officers involved in policing protest consistently place themselves in harm’s way to keep these events safe and lawful,” said a statement from the National Police Chiefs’ Council.

Samantha Smithson, a climate activist who has been prosecuted for several protest actions, said that the legal risks for demonstrating had increased recently but that it would not stop protests, given the growing dangers of a warming climate.

“The more that we witness this oppressive behavior from the state, the only thing it is going to do is galvanize civil society,” she said, placing climate action in a long British tradition of protesting, including the suffrage movement.

“No one wants to go to prison,” Ms. Smithson said, “but when humanity is on the verge of collapse — we are being told that by the scientists — when everyone knows the fact, what choice have we got?”

Steve Bray, who has been protesting Brexit and the Conservative government for several years by playing loud music outside Parliament, said that the police seemed confused about how to handle such tactics and that their approach changed from day to day. “The week before last they seized my amplifier,” he said. “The next day they called me to come an pick it up.”

“At the end of the day,” Mr. Bray said, “protest is part of democracy. It is about sound and vision. There is no point just standing there with your arms folded.”

But he does not support the more disruptive tactics of members of groups like Just Stop Oil, who have blocked highways by gluing themselves to the road. “I agree with their message,” he said, “not their delivery.”

Feyzi Ismail, a lecturer in global policy and action at Goldsmiths, University of London, called recent efforts in Parliament to toughen the laws on protests “draconian,” and said the government was trying “to separate protesters from the public.” But she added that, however genuine their motivation, protest groups are more likely to succeed if they mobilize a wider public.

“I don’t want to criticize the fact that they are trying to raise awareness of climate change,” Ms. Ismail said, “but, at the same time, they need protest that is wide-ranging enough that ordinary working people can get involved.”

Having been ensnared, fleetingly, in Britain’s discussion over freedom of expression, Mr. Cridland, the former business federation leader, acknowledged that it was difficult for the police to strike the right balance.

“I think there is a common sense way through this,” he said. “Policing by consent and policing with just a sense of reasonableness.”

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