After a week of demonstrations in London, Extinction Rebellion protesters were ordered to move on by police on Monday evening. In an attempt to crack down on the climate activists, the Met ruled:
“Any assembly linked to the Extinction Rebellion ‘Autumn Uprising’…must now cease their protest(s) within London (Metropolitan Police Service, and City of London areas) by 21:00hrs [on Monday] 14th October 2019.”
It did this using section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986, which lays out a framework for how police can control public assemblies. This is a revision of a previous section 14 order, imposed on the second day of the “Autumn Uprising” last Tuesday, which restricted assembly to a pedestrianised area in Trafalgar Square. This zone became a central camp for the movement, which is staging two weeks of disruption in the capital.
Because of alleged “continued breaches” of this original condition and “ongoing serious disruption”, the new rule was imposed this week, according to deputy assistant commissioner Laurence Taylor in a statement. “After nine days of disruption we felt it is entirely proportionate and reasonable to impose this condition because of the cumulative impact of these protests.”
Although protesters were “notified, and given an opportunity to leave” according to the police, the Guardian reports that hundreds of police officers descended upon the Trafalgar Square camp on Monday night “almost without warning”.
At around 8pm, police turned up and ordered protesters to clear the area by 9pm, according to protester Ben Kenward, a 41-year-old Oxford Brookes research psychologist who had stayed in a tent at the Trafalgar Square camp the previous night.
“They wanted everything gone by 9 o’clock, which was a ridiculous demand because we’d erected some fairly serious infrastructure which just was completely impossible to remove by then, so they were asking for something that was impossible,” he tells me.
“They’ve basically banned Extinction Rebellion from doing anything at all in public in London,” he says, calling this development a “big new issue” for the protesters.
“Not only do we face these potential catastrophes that the government’s ignoring, but also they are basically removing our right to democratically protest about government inaction on the catastrophes by saying you can’t even peacefully gather in Trafalgar Square,” he says. “That’s really shocking to many people.”
Ellie Chowns, a Green MEP for the West Midlands, was arrested at Trafalgar Square last night, in a protest against the police decision to clear it. “Last night I was arrested in Trafalgar Square while defending the right to peaceful public protest. That right is central to a functioning democracy,” she wrote on Twitter. “Yesterday, public protest was banned throughout our capital city. This is a completely unjustified and disproportionate measure.” (Public protest in general has not been banned.)
A legal challenge has been organised against the section 14 direction, while some lawyers have publicly questioned the police’s decision.
“Police issue ‘S.14 order’ to ban Extinction Rebellion protests from central London. Torrential rain is probably more effective and less susceptible to legal challenge,” tweeted the criminal barrister Matthew Scott, while human rights lawyer Adam Wagner wrote that “the police may have gone too far here” and that the order “will probably be overturned by the courts”.
In a comment piece on openDemocracy, Mike Schwarz, a lawyer who is known for representing political activists and has a particular interest in freedom of assembly, questions the section 14 orders used against Extinction Rebellion campaigners, arguing: “It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that wider political factors are being brought into play.”
There are questions over whether the decision is truly proportionate in terms of protecting protesters’ rights to free speech and free assembly, and whether it can be applied to such a wide area and to future rather than current gatherings.
The London Mayor Sadiq Khan has released a statement saying he’s “seeking further information” from officers about the decision, but also blames protesters for putting “undue pressure on already overstretched police officers”.
To date, over 1,400 Extinction Rebellion protesters have been arrested. Kenward, who was previously arrested for gluing himself to City Airport floor, left the Trafalgar Square site when the police came to enforce the new ruling, and a press release issued by Extinction Rebellion first thing Tuesday morning declared that it would “let the Trafalgar Square site go”.
However, protesters are continuing to cause disruption in London. For one of these protesters, a founder of the campaign, “nothing’s changed”.
“All week, the police have been asking us to move, and all week they haven’t had the capacity to move us,” they tell me. “That’s why right now in front of me 500 people are sitting in the road outside Millbank, because when we sit together as a mass the police don’t have the capacity to remove us.
“They’re limited by their capacity to make arrests in London, which is very low, which is why I think they’re leaning on new announcements in the hope they’ll split us up but it’s not working today.”
The most significant aspect of the police’s latest decision, Kenward argues, is that it suggests the protests are making an impact. “This kind of thing shows they’re really starting to take us seriously, and heavily clamping down on us, much more than they were in April [during the previous mass protests]. That means we’re actually one step closer to reaching some kind of victories.”