London police under fire after banning Extinction Rebellion climate protests

The protesters have launched legal action against a ban spanning the entirety of London.
Image: Protesters hold a banner outside the BlackRock office during an Extinction Rebellion demonstration in the City of London, Britain
Protesters hold a banner outside the BlackRock office during an Extinction Rebellion demonstration in the City of London, Britain Oct. 14, 2019.Henry Nicholls / Reuters

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By Linda Givetash

LONDON — Police are facing a dilemma of whether to arrest protesters defying a sweeping ban against climate change demonstrations in London on Wednesday that experts say will likely crumble when appealed.

The ban issued by London’s Metropolitan Police on Monday in response to more than a week of peaceful but disruptive protests by the Extinction Rebellion movement has been condemned by activists, lawyers and lawmakers for violating people’s freedom to assemble.

"It’s ridiculous as a response to peaceful protests," said Jolyon Maugham, a barrister at the London firm Devereux Chambers. "I haven’t spoken to a lawyer who believes this ban is lawful."

Extinction Rebellion, also known as XR, is an environmental movement founded in the U.K. which aims to use civil disobedience to force governments to take action on climate change. Its so-called global Autumn Uprising kicked off on Oct. 7 with demonstrators painting streets with fake blood, gluing themselves to streets and bridges and blocking entrances of government, media and financial institutions from Brussels to New York City.

By Monday, more than 1,400 arrests had been made in London, police said in a statement as they issued a ban under the U.K.'s Public Order Act. Specifically, the ban outlaws "any assembly linked to the Extinction Rebellion 'Autumn Uprising'" within the Greater London area for the remainder of the week.

By Wednesday, as protests continued despite the ban, the number of arrests had climbed to more than 1,600. Extinction Rebellion held a demonstration in London's Trafalgar Square Wednesday.

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Maugham told NBC News that while the act is used regularly in response to protests, it usually only applies to a small area or specific elements of a demonstration — not to the entire city or a protest movement.

Amnesty International was among the groups to denounce the ban, with its U.K. head of advocacy Allan Hogarth stating: "Removing and prosecuting activists for engaging in non-violent direct action to raise their voice is deeply worrying. Overly harsh and disproportionate charges will have a chilling effect on rights."

Even the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said on Twitter that he "asked senior officers to find a way for those who want to protest the climate emergency we face to be able to do so legally."

Protesters hold a banner as they block the road during an Extinction Rebellion demonstration at in central London on Monday.Henry Nicholls / Reuters

Police defended the decision in a public statement on Tuesday.

"The decision to impose further conditions was made in order to help us get London moving again," said Deputy Assistant Commissioner Laurence Taylor, clarifying that not all protests are banned nor are the general activities of Extinction Rebellion as a group but only the Autumn Uprising.

The group has also launched legal action to have the ban repealed. Tobias Garnett, a human rights lawyer working with the movement, told NBC News that an application for a judicial review of the ban was filed in a London high court on Wednesday and they are now waiting to be heard.

"We want the government and police, rather than focus energies on silencing protesters, to tell the truth and act now on the ecological emergency that we face," he said.

The saga puts police officers in a tough position, Maugham said, because it's likely the protesters will be successful in their legal case, making police susceptible to later face civil cases for wrongful imprisonment.

More concerning is the perception that the police's tough stance is the result of political pressure from the central government, Maugham said. "I think this response signals that that government will not listen to those alarmed about climate change ... but instead, it is trying to muzzle protesters."

Last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson called protesters "uncooperative crusties" who should abandon their "hemp-smelling" camps in central London and stop blocking the streets.

Britain's Home Office told NBC News in a statement that while the government works closely with law enforcement, specific responses to protests are "operational decisions [that] are a matter for the police."

The Home Office upheld the right to protest as "a vital foundation of our democracy," but added, "it is also essential that people can go about their daily business without disruption."

Author and activist Naomi Klein also shared support for the protesters' tactics on Sky News on Wednesday, saying the consequences of climate change, from extreme wildfires to hurricanes, are also "really, really inconvenient."

"So if people have to deal with this inconvenience of some protests in London to get the attention of politicians ... then so be it because this is a planetary emergency."