The Metropolitan Police force have requested greater powers to deal with the threat of #ExtinctionRebellion. The exact details of the request are unclear, but some of the proposals have begun to emerge. And they are couched in what may be politely be called ‘utter bullshit’. The police seem to be deliberately obscuring existing powers in order to gain new draconian ways of preventing people from expressing their views together. It is important to see the obfuscation, as well as the outline of these potential powers. This is the case, not least because the proposals have been apparently well received by the Home Secretary (Priti Patel), making it likely that they will form part of any future Tory party legislative agenda.
The Met claim: ‘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.’ The Public Order Act was passed in 1986. It contains a wide variety of tough public order powers, including powers to ban protests and prevent public harassment. The Act was part of Thatcher’s operational and legislative criminal justice reforms which placed significant power in the hands of the police. Infamously, Thatcher sought to use public order law and tactics to destroy the power of unions, to supress ‘racial unrest’ following incidents of police racism, and generally to keep a lid on the simmering tensions of a society in flux. The idea that the powers developed for these reasons are not fit for dealing with #ExtinctionRebellion is utterly ridiculous – again, the technical term is bullshit! The police have all the powers that they needed, if they were willing to use them.
We must remember that it is a common refrain when police forces are criticised by the government, to respond that they do not have sufficient powers. This response allows them to lay blame for the ‘crisis’ elsewhere, while at the same time leveraging the situation to fulfil a blind striving for ever greater powers. This is a win/win for the Metropolitan Police:they get to deflect the blame for #ExtinctionRebellion’s disruption, while increasing the possibility that judicial oversight will be decreased and their existent powers increased.
The actual proposals have not been released publicly, but the Met held a press conference to add political pressure to their request. The Evening Standard reports that the police want powers to stop people leaving their bail hearing and returning to the protest. This is a dangerous misrepresentation. Judges can already impose bail conditions on attending events which police can enforce. The only way this makes sense (aside from bad reporting) is if they want a police power to prevent specific people attending events where a judge has refused to impose this condition. This independent power would allow police to significantly constrain someone’s movement around the country, as well as placing draconian limitations on rights of speech and assembly.
The Independent reports the police want ‘‘banning orders’ for protestors who repeatedly break the law’. This sounds like it might be what the Standard is misreporting. The Met justify this by saying: “If we have people who are habitually protesting unlawfully, it would be helpful to have the ability of preventing them”. For some reason the journalists have missed the fact that police have a very long-standing way of preventing protestors attending protests – jail. For centuries the criminal justice system has attached increasing sentences for citizen who continue to commit similar crimes. The police are currently prosecuting hundreds of #ExtinctionRebellion protestors, if successful, these prosecutions will lead to increasing sentences for recidivistic offenses. But the criminal system is slow, and the police seem to want something more immediate. Banning orders would provide the police with an incredible flexibility. Remember, protests are time sensitive. Even if a particular banning order is later deemed unlawful, it has since done its work by preventing the person attending the protest while it is in place.
Even more troubling is the figure of the ‘habitual protestor’. With this, the police (and media) deploy the trope of a ‘trouble-maker’ or the ‘enemy within’. This is a dehumanising move which hints that there are people who should not be afforded the same speech and assembly rights. In this case, the suggestion is that they should have fewer rights because they regularly attend protests. If we strip away the trope, what the police are actually asking for, is the power to prevent someone attending regular protests for a cause they believe in. But what is the point of protest if it is required to politely happen once. Regular protest has become the backbone of the Climate Emergency movement, it was central to the Indignados in Spain and Greece, to Occupy in New York and London, it is the core of the current democratic protest in Hong Kong. The Climate Strike in particular has showed the power of momentum, as numbers have built from the small isolated Scandinavian Friday school strikes, to the spectacle of massive crowds around the world a few weeks ago. This new power aims to interrupt this affective momentum. The police want even more powers to undermine political movements.
The Independent also reports that ‘Police also want the legal threshold for “serious disruption” to be changed’ presumably this is a lowering of the threshold for the police to ban a protest. The police want to be able to ban protests even when ‘serious disruption’ is not expected. On the face of it this would be an extraordinary increase in police powers. But at the same time it completely misses what is actually going on. The police know that ‘serious disruption’ is a largely indeterminate category. They could deploy this against already against #ExtinctionRebellion. Police have refused to ban protests not because of the legislation, but because it looks very bad.
Police bans on protests in the UK are very rare. This is not because of a benign and tolerant police force, but because they have made a strategic decision: Protests present a particularly useful intelligence gathering opportunity. Intelligence gathered through infiltration can be tested, and new subjects of inquiry can be identified. On top of this, police have developed extensive and well-trailed techniques for dealing with the repertoires of protest that tend to be deployed in the UK. And so, they present a very low risk of the type of serious trouble that we have seen unfold in Hong Kong. Banning a protest in the UK, particularly where popular sympathy lies with the protestors, presents a far greater strategic risk to the police. They fear losing a sense of legitimacy by being seen to respond in a draconian manner.
I want to suggest that the legal changes that the Met are suggesting are not particularly aimed at #ExtinctionRebellion, but part of a broader sweep of increasing operational capacity of public order policing. This attempt to increase powers should be understood alongside the massive expansion of the public order armoury – including the recent tripling of the Met’s plastic bullet spending. The police believe that there are new forms of unrest beginning to emerge. They worry that these will grow ever more intense, and they want to strongest armoury possible to undermine and crush dissent. This is an entirely manufactured crisis, borne not from the newness of #ExtinctionRebellion’s tactics, but from worries about the legitimacy of the police when faced with a broadly popular peaceful protest. If the Met are successful, we will see another round of public order reforms that once more curtail the right to protest, granting significant power to police officers to determine the justness of causes, and the legitimacy of tactics.