October 4, 2019 / 5:16 PM / 2 months ago

'It's easy to break the law': UK climate activists ready new protests

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sitting alongside five other activists in the City of London Magistrates’ Court on Friday morning, Eloise Jones, a 45-year-old social worker from Reading, pleaded guilty to blocking traffic on Waterloo Bridge at a climate change protest in April.

But before receiving her suspended sentence and fine, she told the judge why she had made an “extremely difficult” choice to be arrested for the first time in her life - a decision she said might lead to the loss of her public service job.

“I consider myself a law-abiding citizen and a good mother of school-age children, with serious cause for concern for their future,” she said.

But years of signing petitions, planting trees and writing letters had produced too little action to curb surging climate threats, she said - one key reason she joined the protests that shut down parts of London and led to about 1,100 arrests.

“I felt it was the only possible way to raise the alarm, to get the message out there and get the action required in this small window of time we have,” said Jones, one of about 50 members of the Extinction Rebellion movement in court on Friday.

PROTEST PLAN

The legal cases are being heard as climate campaigners prepare for a new two-week round of non-violent protests, due to begin on Monday in London.

Organizers said they hoped to blockade roads around the British parliament in Westminster and to carry out large-scale protests at another 11 sites around London, including holding a sit-in at City Airport and shutting down Vauxhall Bridge.

Early actions began on Thursday, with activists using a fire engine bought on eBay to hose fake blood at Britain’s Treasury, drawing attention to what they said was the government’s failure to avert a looming climate cataclysm.

About 9,500 activists have registered their intention to take part in the upcoming protests, organizers said.

Extinction Rebellion is calling for Britain to cut its carbon emissions to “net zero” by 2025. It accuses the government of investing vast sums in fossil fuel projects that are inconsistent with its stated environmental aims.

The April protests 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.

But the campaign’s new protests face a range of challenges, including proposed legal changes that would give police more powers to crack down.

Nick Ephgrave, assistant Metropolitan Police commissioner, told journalists this week that laws designed to maintain public order needed updating to potentially ban habitual protesters and redefine what constitutes “serious disruption”.

The protests may also struggle with some already-convicted activists hesitant to face further arrest and perhaps prison.

Jones - who has a son, a daughter and two step-children, as well as two dogs - said she would take part but would likely avoid being arrested again as it could lead to jail time.

London activist Tom Hardy - who spent the eve of his 65th birthday in a cell in Lewisham during the April actions - also said he might avoid being locked up again, with his current case still in process.

“I’m extremely law-abiding - the son of a vicar, a literary editor and an inspector of schools. I couldn’t be more establishment,” he said, noting he joined Extinction Rebellion only after reeling at scientific reports on climate risks.

But he predicted others in the movement - which organizers said had seen a five-fold increase in members since April - would step up.

“It’s very easy to eventually break the law when you know you’re in the right,” Hardy told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

RAIN THREAT?

Joel Scott-Halkes, an Extinction Rebellion organizer from Cornwall, said recent wet weather could pose one of the biggest threats to the upcoming protests, in which activists from around the country will try to maintain protest camps for weeks.

“The question is, ‘How devoted are you, if you’re soaked through, blown around and ill’?” he asked.

Andrew Medhurst, a former banker who now helps coordinate Extinction Rebellion’s financial affairs, said the movement expected to spend about 1 million pounds ($1.23 million) to support the October protests, largely raised through small crowdfunded donations.

The movement has been able to harness pro-bono lawyers to provide legal support to those arrested, though when convicted, they have largely paid the fines themselves, Medhurst said.

Organizers and activists predicted that an expected harsher police response - London Mayor Sadiq Khan has complained the protests distract police from dealing with other serious threats - could backfire.

“If police come down on us too hard, it means we will probably gain greater public sympathy,” Jones said.

But Ronan McNern, a spokesman for Extinction Rebellion, emphasized that the activists had no quarrel with police, who were only doing their jobs.

“We need to focus on the government,” he said.

Scott-Halkes said the October protests would present political leaders with a tough dilemma.

“Either the government lets us hold the sites and shut down the ministries, which is a powerful statement, or they arrest unlimited numbers of doctors, scientists, priests, imams (and) academics,” he said.

“Do you arrest 5,000 ordinary citizens and still claim to be a legitimate government? It’s a win-win for us.”

Other Extinction Rebellion protests are planned over the next two weeks in New York, Washington and Buenos Aires, organizers added.

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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