Peaceful Protest Under Attack: XR Trials – Labour Article

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Peaceful Protest Under Attack: XR Trials – Labour Article

Over 1,000 Extinction Rebellion protestors are being taken to court in what experts are deeming “one of the biggest crackdowns in British legal history”. These include activists who took part in the civil disobedience protests across the “three major rebellions”.

According to XR, 3,400 participants were arrested and 1,700 charged since the protests. Of those charged, 900 pled guilty to civil disobedience offence and another 800 are currently taking part in trial proceedings. 

Now, I believe that the strategy of “extended non-cooperation” and civil disobedience should be addressed proportionally to the action because punishing all civil disobedience is a slippery slope towards infringing on the right to protest peacefully. Note – civil disobedience demands peaceful protest. So, the action taken by XR activists should not be compared with the violence we’ve seen on Capitol Hill. Admittedly, the XR tube disruptions were not a good idea and should be dealt with accordingly. Nevertheless, 1,700 people did not participate in that form of protest. 

I also believe that the climate crisis is the biggest threat to humanity at this moment. It should be combatted through every possible avenue. So I may be just a little biased in this discussion.

However, regardless of whether you believe that these activists will be on the right side of history or not, I think we can all agree on the fact that there are far more important things going on at the moment, right? 

These court proceedings will entail thousands of people – the defendants, their lawyers, the prosecutors, et cetera – travelling across the country to London. The defendants’ lawyers highlight the dangers of travelling to London during the third wave of the pandemic. I find this ironic after XR was slapped with multiple fines for the gathering of more than 30 people due to the pandemic. This is fair enough in its own context, yet it seems ridiculous that the same defendants will be forced to further risk public health. 

Raj Chada, the solicitor representing multiple defendants, criticised the decision to put public health at risk, as well as the Crown Prosecution Service “continuing these cases at great financial cost”. As he points out, the taxpayer funds these trials, whilst we are experiencing immense pressures on all areas of the public sector. 

I think it is also relevant to note that the majority of the activists being charged have never had to face the legal system before. These are not dangerous, repeat offenders who pose a serious threat to society. They are definitely not “criminals” who promote “anarchy”, as Priti Patel called them. 

The reason people were arrested was that they failed to comply with the restrictions put in place by the police. However, Gracie Bradley – XR’s interim director – called these conditions “unworkable” and “heavy-handed”, making it difficult not to breach them. She added that such conditions were doubly dangerous as they also “undermine[d] our right to protest by reframing it as a public nuisance.”

This, paired with the fact that the Metropolitan Police’s blanket ban against the protestors in 2019 was deemed “illegal”, highlights how our right to peaceful protest seems to gradually be infringed upon. 

Such sentiment has become so prevalent in recent years that civil liberty experts are warning “peaceful protest is under threat”. They highlight that the scale of the current prosecutions, and even the decision to pursue the trials during the pandemic, is unprecedented. 

Graeme Hayes, a specialist researcher from Aston University, reiterated this: “What we are seeing looks very much like political decisions to charge people and to take them to court for very minor offences, and that is extraordinary”.

The Crown Prosecution Service asserted that its decision was an independent, “demand-led organisation”.  However, rather than reassure, all this prompts from me is the question, where is the demand coming from? Who is it putting pressure on CPS to ensure the trials of environmental activists? 

Now, you may believe the XR activists are scum or that they should be punished for their reprehensible actions. This was a consequence they were willing to accept going into it. However, surely you can agree that we should pause such petty hearings until the worst of the pandemic passes.

Additionally, the fact that these are able to happen relatively quietly because we’re all, as we should be, paying far more attention to COVID-19 makes me suspicious. To me, this reeks of political intervention, lobbied by those who have a vested interest in the undermining and criminalisation of environmental activism. 

Written by Senior Labour Writer, Abi Smuts

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Point of Information

The Wheels of the Law Must Continue To Turn – A Conservative Response

Reading this article, I feel there is a clear misunderstanding of what is going on. The title, “Peaceful Protests Under Attack”, encapsulates this perfectly. It is obvious that these protests were anything but peaceful. Firstly, these people deemed themselves to be rebelling. They’re not called Extinction Protest, and the “three major rebellions” were self-imposed labels. So, to later try and roll that back is confusing.

In terms of the actual damage, they are also more than protestors. Blocking the printing of newspapers is blocking free speech. Damaging private property, and delaying people from working and flights from leaving are not peaceful protests. To add to the blocking of newspapers, this damages independent retailers who can’t restock the papers. And my personal favourite in all this, are the four rioters who chained themselves to Jeremy Corbyn’s house. Whatever you think of the news media and Jeremy Corbyn, this is not appropriate.

The Labour Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, commented that these protests were preventing the police from carrying out work to stop violent crime, showing how much the protestors alienated themselves. The ban on protests was not unprovoked, though ultimately deemed illegal.

Peaceful protests, however, are able to continue. There have been many protests even during lockdown conditions. I have stated this before, and I will say it again: protesting is a democratic right. But so-called ‘rebellions’ causing major disruptions are not anyone’s democratic right.

In her article, Abi also states that these people haven’t faced the law before. This implies they aren’t capable of breaking it. However, this is similar to a defence Tucker Carlson used in order to question why a woman was shot in the capitol during those riots. He argued she didn’t look like a radical, nothing like the “angry children wrecking our cities”. This defence moves the discussion away from the act itself and brings sympathy to the defendant. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t broken the law before. You have broken it now and should face the full force of the consequences.

There is no need to wait until the pandemic is over to hear these cases. Four Justice Watchdogs have “grave concerns” about the backlog of court cases. Where it is safe to do so, we must clear this quickly. Justice should not wait. The people demand it.

Written by Senior Conservative Writer, Kieran Burt

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The Protest IS the Problem – A Liberal Response

I mostly agree with Abi’s article and heavily empathise with her sympathies to the XR Movement, as I too am petrified of the lack of action and apathy that’s present in our current government with regard to climate change. So, even though Extinction Rebellion can be “problematic”, I have a soft spot for them. They bring attention from wide swathes of society to the urgency of the sixth mass extinction.

Furthermore, as Abi said, it does feel superfluous and underhand to try them now, considering the huge public interest the trial would gather in normal circumstances. However, the group’s disillusionment with the current society leads them to perceive themselves as existing outside the law. This, paired with the fact they are knowingly breaking the law, means I do not see the problem (outside of Covid concerns) with the criminal proceedings.

XR’s ambivalence towards the law is inherent to their elitist and privileged form of activism. The lack of intersectionality within their movement (demonstrated by their willingness to be arrested) could be considered a more important problem, rather than how the government has responded to aggravated law-breaking. This is because creating a movement that’s only accessible to white middle-class people will not enact change. It will prevent change – arrested or not.

Written by Junior Liberal Writer, Lucy Severn

Abi Smuts
Labour Senior Writer | Website

Hi, I’m Abi, a final year at Uni of Exeter studying International Relations and English. To me, it was only in A Levels that I realised how important politics was, when I was stuck in my male-only, extremely conservative Politics class having to constantly justify and defend my opinions to them.

Kieran Burt
Senior Conservative writer | Website

Hello, my name is Kieran Burt and I am going into second year at Nottingham Trent University studying Politics and International Relations. I first developed an interest in politics through reading the Dictator’s Handbook by Alastair Smith and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, when I was 16, and have furthered my interest by studying politics at A level and now at university.

Lucy Severn

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