Last week, in a police guidance booklet, the environmental peaceful protest group Extinction Rebellion was placed on a list of extremist ideologies that counter-terrorist forces should be aware of. In a depressing, if ridiculous page spread, it included advice on how to “safeguard” young people from this. Apparent warning signs of being an environmental extremist include those who speak in “strong and emotive” terms about the imminent climate crisis engulfing us all. So far, business as usual, with anti-terror group Prevent known for it’s over-the-top recommendations occasionally reaching into defining free speech as a security risk. However, in an unprecedented and disturbing move, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has defended its exclusion, due to concerns over risks to the public.
In the name of full disclosure, I am actually an Extinction Rebellion member, but I don’t think it’s overly biased to argue that Extinction Rebellion are practically non-existent as a threat to the British public. In fact they are protesting against perhaps the greatest threat to the global community ever seen before, and their tactics are specifically non-violent, and therefore cause only disruption, not risk.
If this had been the sole act against protest groups in the UK, it could be laughed off, or even seen as a sign of Extinction Rebellion’s success in gaining attention. For decades, accusations of extremism have been used to marr and discredit activist groups gaining popular support, from South African anti-apartheid protestors to peaceful pro-democracy marchers in Hong Kong. However, this is not the sole assault on the right of citizens to peacefully protest, in fact there has been a worrying trend of cracking down on protests in Britain in recent years.
In October, legislative changes directly targeted Extinction Rebellion protests, and this legislation was later ruled as distinctly unlawful. On top of this, cities such as Glasgow have been restricting protests, and police around the country confiscated protest utilities, including disabled toilets designed to make protest more accessible.
When recent events are combined, not only does this suggest a more fraught relationship than ever between protesters and the government in the UK, but also a tendency towards an authoritarian view of protest. This is also another aspect of life that Brexit anxiety can add another dimension to. British governments have traditionally been anti-protest, much like most governments, but have been held back by the ECHR, with Articles 10 and 11 protecting the human right to peacefully protest.
Popular protest has risen from the ashes over the past decade, be it over Brexit, the environment, or university fees. Even though this is a sign of our fracturing society, I also see it as a positive sign of an active democracy, where many have refused to give in to political apathy. A government that refuses to acknowledge the right to protest is not a government that respects the voice of the people, therefore it is crucial to not let this go unnoticed. Extinction Rebellion used the courts to challenge their protest ban, and are also threatening legal action over being labelled extremist. Other organisations must follow suit, as, with a Prime Minister disdainful of protest, the legislature is the key method to ensure our right to protest remains.
Image: Julia Hawkins via Flickr