Climate activists need to protect their right to protest

| 21st April 2011
Police tactics have been heavily criticised in two reports
Police tactics have been heavily criticised in two reports
Following the High Court judge ruling that police 'kettling' tactics at the G20 protests were illegal, Climate Camp legal advisor Frances Wright argues that protestors need to be more aware than ever of their rights

A practical reality of environmental campaigning is that if protest is part of your tactics (even if it is just an A to B march and certainly if it takes the form of direct action) then the police will be your uninvited guests and have a tendency to want to wreck your party.

Don’t expect to interact with the police like a member of the public, for you are more than likely at some point to experience the collective will of the Police Force protecting business and their property. You risk being seen as, or be indistinguishable from, the ever present (from the police perspective) violent minority, or a domestic extremist whose details and movements belong on a database and on whom undercover spying is a legitimate use of public resources.   

This privilege is not exclusive to environmental campaigners – as UKUNCUT discovered at Fortnam & Mason – an effective protest-based campaign attracts oppressive policing. Whilst many protestors are galvanised by the experience, some don’t return, and some are sufficiently deterred by what they hear to stay away from protests

The first protest I attended was the Climate Camp in Heathrow in 2007. As a former solicitor, what surprised me was how knowledgeable people attending were about the law, and within a few days I understood why that was a necessity. Having been searched, harassed, and kettled, I wanted to talk to everyone I knew about the experience and committed to coming back to future camps. At the camp, I learnt about the role legal observer (nothing like Liberty’s March 26th version, of which all protestors should be extremely wary) and put on a yellow bib. 

The legal observer’s primary role is about welfare. They watch for arrests so that those arrested can be monitored while they are in custody and their welfare looked after upon release. It is not unknown for arrestees to have their clothes, phones, and possessions retained and to be chucked out in the early hours of the morning in an unfamiliar location.

The legal observer role is also about educating people about the law and their rights; helping people feel more empowered in what can be a frightening and disempowering situation. Legal observers keep a note of what police officers are doing and look for other witnesses if the policing is out of order. This evidence can sometimes be vital to someone’s defence against a criminal charge or help get them compensation if they are injured by the police. The hope is that a legal observer’s presence might have some deterrent effect. 

The policing at the Kingsnorth Climate Camp in 2008 was so unbelievably oppressive that the decision was taken to let the Climate Camp’s legal team (the working group that recruited and trained legal observers and provided the arrestee support) start campaigning about policing. The team learnt new skills and started talking to journalists, MPs and with frankly anyone who would listen. Legal action was initiated. The decision involved hours of debate as no-one wanted to risk making bad law. The legal challenge to the systematic mass stops and searches by Dave Morris (one of the litigants in the McLibel case) and 11 year-old twins had to go to Court before the Chief Constable of Kent finally conceded. 

This was the first of three occasions the legal team felt compelled to initiate legal action and challenge the legality of the policing operation itself. Thanks to the skilful advice of John Halford of Bindmans solicitors each judicial review challenge has been successful. The Met immediately settled in relation to the morning-after raid on a convergence centre for the G20 protests. Now the High Court has ruled that the pushing and kettling of the Climate Camp outside the European Carbon Exchange in Bishopsgate during the G20 protests was unlawful. The Met lost but immediately announced they would seek leave to appeal.
This is the first time there has been a successful legal challenge to kettling. It is important reminder that legally kettling is a tactic of last resort.  It reinforces the message already given by the Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of the Constabulary’s post-G20 report, ‘Adapting to Protest’, that human rights considerations need to be embedded into the policing of protest.  Those in the police, who were never convinced by HMIC’s vision, will look for opportunities to revert to more familiar territory, as many students have discovered.
Like most Ecologist readers, meaningful action on climate change is my ultimate objective. To achieve that, it is necessary for environmental campaigners (as with anyone who has a cause about which they feel passionate enough to take the streets and protest) to take action to protect the right to protest. 
Frances Wright, member Climate Camp legal team. For training on the legal observer role and basic legal information – see

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