Sophia Thornton argues that the aggressive policing of Extinction Rebellion (XR) highlights the UK government’s reticence to combat the climate and ecological crisis
Fifteen days have passed since the closing ceremony of the ‘Autumn Uprising’, a 2-week occupation by Extinction Rebellion (XR) in the heart of London. Regardless of controversies over the groups use of non-violent civil disobedience, it is clear that the significant police response on the 14th of October, alongside the decisions to remove certain essential pieces of infrastructure including disabled equipment, have led to a urgent and shocking discussion around human rights abuses and the silence from the Government on the climate and ecological crisis.
On the 14th October the Met Police made a significantly strategy altering choice, to ‘crackdown’ on protestors by, essentially banning everyone taking part taking part in the ‘Autumn Uprising’ from London, justified by claims from the Deputy Commissioner of the response being both ‘proportionate’ and put in place in order to tackle ‘serious disruption.’ In the UK unlike many other countries around the world, when citizens protest peacefully and even get arrested, they face fairly minor consequences. This autumn the power of peaceful civil disobedience was challenged but maintained by police actions. In fact, it could be argued that this move played into XR’s favour, as its severity saw a strong legal case against the decision and potentially engaged the public in a wider discussion about the issue. The legal challenge and outrighted condemnation by politicians such as Caroline Lucas, journalists such as George Monbiot, alongside leading lawyers and Amnesty International, spoke largely of the abuse of the right to freedom of expression (Article 10 of The Humans Rights Act) and the right to protest and freedom of association (Article 11 of The Human Rights Act). It was clear that the police actions where unnecessarily intense, which raises alarm bells concerning the reaction of our Conservative government to the emergency we are facing and leads to wider questions about the neo-liberal ideology the government insist on clinging too.
many in power are failing to come to terms with the real threat to our freedoms and futures: extinction and the destructive reality of climate breakdown for our everyday lives
So, as opposed to getting wound up in debates over the tactics of police, we must focus on the exact reason all this chaos is being caused, unpicking the realities of the language used, including the ‘proportionate’ nature of the response and the ‘disruption’ to communities. We should take on board the clarity of Tobias Garnett, a human rights lawyer ‘“Rather than wasting its time and money on attempts to silence protest, the government should focus its efforts on meaningful action against the biggest threat we face.”
To waste time merely discussing tactics is a distraction, what these actions by the police suggests for the wider UK Conservative government is that many in power are failing to come to terms with the real threat to our freedoms and futures: extinction and the destructive reality of climate breakdown for our everyday lives. Extinction Rebellion’s protest is entirely proportionate to the scale of the crisis. Therefore, any attempts to stop the protest, especially in the name or proportionality, signify that the massive psychological shift that must occur, to deal with the facts, has not yet occurred for the majority of those, who govern the system in which we live.
To be precise: how can the police (representing the government) claim they are responding with ‘proportionality’ to the protest, when the UK has totally failed to address the climate and ecological crisis proportionally, ignoring the science again, and again, and again? From 1992, where the ‘Union of Concerned Scientists’ ‘feared that humanity is pushing Earth’s ecosystem beyond their capacities to support the web of life’ to the exponentially rising curve of carbon emissions, which regardless of the multitudinous agreements, including Paris, have failed to realise any decline in carbon (in fact this year the rise in emissions are predicted to be the highest on record). To today, where an 11,000+ strong union of scientists’ state that they ‘have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any great existential threat…a clear and unequivocal declaration that a climate emergency exists on planet Earth.’ Therefore, the government’s actions, do not merely deny us freedom of speech, they deny the science.
The government’s response also suggests they are totally failing to put any value on the public’s health safety which are at severe risk with climate and ecological breakdown in both the short and longer term. The careless cruelty of the removal of infrastructure including ‘two mobile accessible toilets and showers, wheelchairs, ramps, noise-cancelling headphones for autistic protesters, and solar-powered charging equipment for wheelchairs and scooters’ is shocking. This action seems symbolic of a wider attitude at play, which are the very reasons many citizens feel compelled to rebel. To be specific, our health as at serious peril, with continued burning of fossil fuels extreme heatwaves will become an average summer for Europe by 2040. Additionally, air pollution will continue to kill, as the world’s largest environmental cause of disease and premature death. The very sustenance of life, our food and agricultural systems, will continue to be depleted. Already 500 million people live in areas that experience desertification and ocean dead zones have quadrupled in size since 1950. The UK is dependent on food imports from other countries for nearly half its food consumption, even as extreme climate leads to fluctuating yields in the UK, we know that other countries will seriously experience extremes of hot and cold, severely impacting our food security. The World Health Organization call ‘Climate change… the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century’, public lives are being put at unnecessary risk.
Therefore, the government’s actions do not merely deny us freedom of speech, they deny the science
Whilst, we should be wary of the police response to protesters, we should see this as merely a temperate check for the UK government’s response to the climate and ecological crisis. Police actions may limit our voices being heard in the short-term, government silence and inaction is more deadly than police brutality and so by silencing the messengers of the crisis, the government threatens to silence a whole generation, condemning them to an uncertain and threatening future.