October 24, 2019 / 4:24 PM / 19 days ago

Judges hear legal case on London police handling of climate protests

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Lawyers for climate change activists in the Extinction Rebellion movement argued in London’s High Court Thursday that a police order barring further demonstrations midway through two weeks of planned October protests overstepped the law.

The ruling effectively imposed a ban on future protests scheduled for those two weeks, which is not a permitted use of Section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986, Extinction Rebellion lawyers said at the one-day judicial review.

Section 14 gives police the right to make arrests “to prevent serious public disorder, serious criminal damage or serious disruption to the life of the community” during a protest.

The Metropolitan Police Service invoked that section after a day of protests that blocked traffic near London’s financial district, as activists targeted firms they said were profiting from or funding activities driving climate change.

Police officials warned in a statement that evening that anyone who continued to participate in Extinction Rebellion’s “Autumn Uprising” would face arrest, before clearing a protest camp in the capital’s Trafalgar Square.

Lawyers for the Metropolitan Police commissioner argued Thursday that the “Autumn Uprising” was promoted as and constituted a single ongoing protest and had in fact caused serious disruption, so fell within the remit of Section 14.

To claim that Extinction Rebellion’s activities - from a sit-in at London City Airport to a gathering of nursing mothers blocking a public road - constituted a series of separate events “parts company with reality”, the police court filing said.

“The disruption was widespread,” it added. “It was not possible for the police to keep that disruption to an acceptable minimum.”

But Extinction Rebellion lawyer Phillippa Kaufmann said the protest restriction “unquestionably had a chilling effect” on some activists, although some protests and arrests continued after it was put in place.

A decision following the hearing is expected within two weeks, lawyers said.

More than 1,800 Extinction Rebellion activists were arrested during the October protests, police said.

The Extinction Rebellion group has called for Britain to cut its carbon emissions to “net zero” by 2025. It says the government has invested vast sums in fossil fuel projects that are inconsistent with its stated environmental aims.

The group’s protests in April helped spur the UK parliament to declare a climate emergency and, some weeks later, set a goal of cutting planet-warming emissions to net zero by 2050.

‘UNCOMFORTABLE MESSAGES’

Outside court on Thursday morning, Tobias Garnett, a human rights lawyer working with the activists, said the police order had effectively made illegal “any assembly of two or more people by Extinction Rebellion”.

If the ban were upheld, “it would be a significant curtailment of the right to peaceful protest”, he warned.

It would interfere with the ability “to make sure those in power hear the sometimes uncomfortable messages citizens want to give them”, he added.

“We don’t want to spend our time fighting in court or on the streets,” he emphasized. “We want the government to act on the climate and ecological emergency.”

David R. Boyd, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, said at the time of the ban that the police move was “clearly a violation of human rights, including freedom of expression and freedom of association”.

Thursday’s hearing drew a small crowd of Extinction Rebellion supporters, including Caroline Thomson-Smith, 53, who said she became involved in the movement and interested in climate change only this month after seeing older people arrested at the London protests.

“Protecting peaceful protest is fundamental - a cornerstone of what our democracy was built on,” said the hairdresser from Milton Keynes, who carried a homemade placard reading, “You won’t silence non-violence”.

Instead of banning and arresting protesters, the government “should be asking why people are out protesting”, she said.

Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate

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