Although XR champions ‘peaceful civil disobedience’, revolutions do not happen by asking for permission.
We are witnessing an historic international rebellion, an overwhelmingly rapid rise in the numbers, tactics and impacts of environmental campaigners.
To ‘protest’ - as defined by the 15th century French origin of the word - is not just to challenge power, but also ‘to make a pledge, a solemn declaration’ and to drive change.
And this rebellious pledge, this conviction to a noble cause, has marched great movements and struggles to victory for centuries.
The Peasants Revolt, the French Revolution, the Luddites, Suffragettes, the US Civil Rights movement, South African anti-apartheid struggles and now - one hopes inevitably - a good outcome for today’s Extinction Rebellion (XR) and climate strike actions.
XR activists are clinging to historical evidence of such protests to conclude their non-violent rebellion just needs to win over 3.5 percent of the population, in order to succeed.
But lawyers and rights groups monitoring Extinction Rebellion [XR] protests that continue to disrupt 60 cities around the world for the second week of their ‘Autumn Uprising’ are concerned by a threat that lurks at the heart of this quest to speak truth to power and demand accountability and change.
How much are freedoms and rights being encroached? How much is enough, especially bearing in mind the backdrop of a recent UN report warning that the climate crisis is the "greatest ever threat to human rights".
Where are the lines drawn with reasonable disruption? Although XR champions ‘peaceful civil disobedience’, revolutions do not happen by asking for permission.
While the arrests and other personal sacrifices made this week by the XR protestors, along with the cost of disruptions they are causing, have been described by activists as mild compared to the catastrophic future costs, impacts and deaths from climate warming made by scientists, not everyone is seeing it that way yet.
Police, politicians and XR activists remain resolute in their opposing views of what is enough.
A few high profile critics have used their media platform to complain that the methods activists use are too disruptive and will lose public goodwill.
Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, even tried to dismiss XR’s thousands of supporters as ‘hemp smelling,” “uncooperative crusties”.
Across the world, the state and the rebels have taken aim at each other’s battle lines, to dismantle the other side - with XR strategies including ‘moving like water’ and popping up across cities to undermine police efforts at containment.
The activists are using the power of numbers and rapid communication networks including secret and open social media channels to achieve an efficient, ever moving peaceful ‘army’.
Look to nature and you can see the effectiveness of this: it is reminiscent of the highly successful, organised and unstoppable colonies of social insects such as the humble ant, where the power of each one is sustained and grows by using shared intelligence and cooperation.
XR also uses surprise, and endless replacements of resources including, so far, seemingly limitless numbers of arrestable protestors, tents and other equipment.
By comparison, the Metropolitan Police seems somewhat restricted. Last week, police Assistant Commissioner Nick Ephgrave, pointed to the huge cost of XR on the police, businesses and people, and called for a review of protest laws.
The April uprising cost the police £16m. Ephgrave wants banning orders for rebels who repeatedly break the law: “The legislation around public order was drafted in a different era and it’s not particularly helpful because it wasn’t designed for what we’re dealing with now,” he said.
“Were we to allow unlawful protest to be tolerated it would encourage others to do the same sort of thing and it’s difficult to see where that would end. It’s not our job to worry about their motivation, we just have to deal with the situation as we see it and try to get the balance right.
"We will police this within the law, fairly but firmly,” he added. “Our intention is that London stays open for business throughout this period and we will take whatever measures we can to make that happen.”
London’s Metropolitan Police had imposed a condition on London protestors on Tuesday under the Public Order Act 1986, stating that the rebels must restrict their assembly to Trafalgar Square.
“The Met believes that this action is necessary in order to prevent the demonstrations from causing serious disruption to the community. Anyone who fails to comply with the condition is liable to arrest and prosecution,” a statement read.
Of course, XR wants a high arrest count for civil disobedience. By Monday, 14 October 2019, the Met Police had obliged by arresting 1,405 protestors in London; around 500 were arrested in Belgium at the weekend where police used water canons and pepper spray, and an estimated 1,500 more internationally.
The Met claimed some activists posed a security and safety threat at London City Airport where they had blocked and glued-on to buildings, a train station and a British Airways plane. A spokesperson said: “Targeting an airport and inconveniencing travellers in this way is wholly unacceptable and irresponsible.”
Across London, police cleared many of the 12 main London rebel encampments and seized their tents, equipment and food. XR supporters complained the police were being ‘intimidating, provocative and violent’ towards them and shared videos of belongings being forcefully seized.
Some shared videos claiming they were ‘violently arrested’ and that police were using ‘pain and compliance’ tactics. Many more, however, appeared to remain peaceful and even sang during arrests.
It has prompted police actions to be scrutinised and criticised by protestors, politicians and lawyers. Green Party deputy leader Amelia Womack said police "swooped in" and removed staging and equipment when she was about to speak to protestors last Wednesday.
She praised XR for raising public awareness of the climate emergency, adding: “The right to protest is crucial in any democracy to enable people to show their unhappiness when important matters are being ignored. We have a proud history of using acts of rebellion to start debates where other methods haven't yielded results.
“If our government want to see Extinction Rebellion stop their peaceful protest, then they must listen and take immediate action to tackle the climate emergency. Our country, and its citizens are demanding it.”
The police confiscation of vital ramps, wheelchairs and accessible toilets was also criticised by disabled protestors, who said they had spent months planning the event to ensure the protests were accessible and inclusive and safer for them.
The climate crisis charity Plan B has written to the Metropolitan Police complaining of numerous instances of alleged human rights violations in the policing of XR protests and of ignoring good policing guidance.
Tim Crosland, the Plan B director and member of Extinction Rebellion, said: “Extinction Rebellion activists are being treated as criminals. Their 'crime', let’s remember, is to demand the action required, according to science, to prevent the ultimate humanitarian catastrophe.”
High profile barrister Jolyon Maugham QC of The Good Law Project, told The Ecologist: “Our politics is in disarray. The media is flooded with Brexit. At times like this it's even more important that we zealously guard the few remaining spaces where people can be heard. Good Law Project is very keen to take forward some test cases to protect the right to peaceful protest."
Human rights lawyer, Kirsty Brimelow QC, agreed the right to peaceful protest is protected under Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights: “However, it is a qualified right. This means that it doesn’t trump all other rights,” she said. “But the right to protest is a significant consideration when the police decide about the reasonableness of any protest obstruction such as tents.
“Camps may be an eyesore or a literal mess but the nature of protests includes elements of unruliness. There has to be a careful balancing exercise between competing rights and regulations before peaceful protests are interfered with by the police.”
She added: “History has shown that many peaceful protests have been right. Here protestors are uniting behind science, in particular the latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In this context – the future of the planet – the State should be expected to exercise a high degree of tolerance when dealing with protestors.”
A spokesperson for Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, said: “Sadiq strongly supports the democratic right to peaceful and lawful protest and has backed the climate strikes over recent weeks and months.
"However, he will not support illegal action, which causes major disruption to Londoners or risks public safety. Such action is counter-productive to this crucial cause, and puts further pressure on our already over-stretched police force who need to be focused on tackling violent crime.”
XR has pledged its peaceful disobedience actions will continue all this week across the world. One thing is clear from the history of environmental campaigning: they are not going to achieve a revolution by writing emails, signing petitions or waiting for permission.
This rising fight for environmental justice is a protest true to the French meaning of the word: a pledge, a solemn declaration and a demand for change, it is rooted in civil disobedience, it has emboldened an escalating mass movement and now it is defining its own battle lines, regardless of the law.
It echoes Martin Luther King Jr’s historic message from an earlier protest movement: “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
Alex Morss is a freelance writer, author and ecologist. She tweets @morss_alex.