Ever more people worry about the precarious state of the environment and the planet we live on, which has been compromised by damaging human action or lack of action. Often, these concerns have led individuals and groups to mobilise and protest against state and corporate decisions that affect not only our health but also non-human animals, plants, ecosystems and biospheres.
Governments regularly agree at the Conference of the Parties (or COP) on the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to tackle climate change. But they often show little sympathy to those who are raising their voices against ecocide and who are fighting for the preservation of life on our planet – activists and concerned people alike.Recent policy changes in England and Wales, including the notorious UK Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 and the Public Order Act 2023, demonstrate this.
Both Acts have increased police powers to deal with public protest and have raised penalties and sanctions for protesters, effectively making the right to protest more difficult to exercise. The recent Public Order Act 2023, for example, introduced new police powers to stop and search with and without suspicion, and prison sentences for those who use lock-on strategies (for up to 6 months, and/or a fine) and block roads (up to approximately 1 year, and/or to a fine).
This Act was used for the first time at King Charles III coronation to arrest around fifty members of Republic, the leading republican movement in the UK, as well as campaigners for women’s safety, Just Stop Oil activists and other environmental protesters. These arrests were based on activists carrying objects such as rape alarms, placards, string and luggage straps which the police suspected were aimed to cause public nuisance.But police powers to deal with public protest had been strengthened in England and Wales already before this Act, and namely through the UK Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. Interesting for our purposes are the Explanatory Notes to the first version of UK Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and related reports, which provide us with some interesting insights into the reasons why the then Johnson government decided to introduce new draconian anti-protest measures.
The reasons seem to be very much economic-related and linked to new ‘disruptive’ protest strategies which protesters have adopted in recent times, often negatively affecting businesses and the working and productive community. The main culprit here has been the environmental movement Extinction Rebellion (XR), which since 2018 has organised peaceful yet highly disruptive protests all around the UK and internationally. In London, its protests have involved occupying roads outside Parliament and blocking bridges, key intersections and railway services, with people also gluing, or locking themselves onto various objects. These new protest strategies are often, indeed, seriously disruptive (as many protests indeed are, and are often meant to be): they block or slow down car traffic and pedestrian circulation, preventing people getting to work, and to get on with their daily plans and activities. Enough is enough, so to say – the police and the government felt it was time to strike a new balance between the right to protest and the general economic interests of the community.
This is by no means unique to England and Wales. Indeed, other countries in Europe including Italy, as outlined in previous articles, have tightened their regulations on public protesting, including for economic reasons. In my recently published book Policing Environmental Protest, Power and Resistance in Pandemic Times I focus on how Italy policed and regulated environmental protest during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The book draws on an extensive ethnography of two eco-justice groups in the northern Italian city of Trento, which allowed me to reveal how their policing intensified during the COVID health crisis. Not only were militarised police and containment measures more substantially deployed and hence more visible during public protests, but also activists were made increasingly invisible to the public eye.
Indeed, contrary to other types of protests possibly considered less ‘disruptive’ by the police, environmental movements in Trento were generally banned from staging their protests in the city centre. Rather, they were displaced to other areas, where their grievances were made less visible to the public.
Towards the end of my fieldwork, in November 2021, other protesters were also banned from staging their demonstrations in the city centre: they were the people opposing the so-called ‘COVID pass’, a digital or paper certificate proving that its holder has been vaccinated, tested negative or recovered from COVID-19, which in Italy was for long required to dine indoors, visit museums and theatres, and enter workplaces. The argument underpinning such a ban was, once again, economic: it was mobilised by unhappy business owners in the city centre, who associated their loss of revenue during weekends with too frequent and ‘disruptive’ anti-COVID-pass protests.
This is far from just a local story. In November 2021, the police practice of displacing public protest from commercially valued urban spaces was further legitimised by the then Italian Minister of the Interior Luciana Lamorgese. With a dedicated directive, the Minister allowed local authorities to identify key urban areas within their jurisdictions where all protesting could be banned. This decision had an explicit economic reasoning underpinning it: the need to safeguard the local economy, which had slowly been recovering from the COVID-related downturn. In essence, as discussed above for the case of England and Wales, also in Italy public protests has increasingly been problematised for its negative effects on relevant economic and commercial interests.
In a phase affected by multiple, ravaging ‘crises’ – economic, political, climatic, among others – it is certainly hard to strike a fair balance between competing rights, including the right to protest and, for example, the right to work and make one’s ends meet. People need to work, and Just Stop Oil protesters blocking cars from getting through certainly causes frustration and conflict.
But are economic reasons – and emotions linked to economic strains and pressures – enough to legitimise outright criminalisation of environmental activists and the removal of protesters from urban centres? Isn’t the economy and most notably capitalism and its extractivist logic what led us to the climate crisis in the first place?
This story clearly doesn’t end here, but if governments are serious about tackling climate change they should also think carefully about the reasons why they are punishing and excluding environmental defenders, instead of having them on their side as crucial allies.