An independent report from Netpol, the Network for Police Monitoring, has revealed that the police were intent on stopping October’s Extinction Rebellion protests rather than facilitating the right to freedom of assembly.
Entitled ‘Restricting the Rebellion’, Netpol’s report was launched today (20 November) at Doughty Street Chambers in London, where Green Peer Jenny Jones hosted barrister Jude Bunting, report co-author Sam Walton from Netpol and a representative from Extinction Rebellion’s legal support team.
The report, which is based on testimony gathered between 28 October and 3 November, draws on evidence from 521 reported incidents concerning potential abuses of police powers and 150 individual statements.
According to the report, the Metropolitan Police’s systematic discrimination against disabled protestors demands an urgent review of how the police facilitate disabled people’s right to protest and how disabled protestors are treated on arrest. Netpol received a number of statements from disabled protestors, including one from a disabled campaigner who was arrested, handcuffed and left lying on the ground for around half an hour, with his walking stick confiscated as a ‘potential weapon’.
The report also raised concerns with the police’s use of Section 14 powers – the order used to impose a London-wide ban on the Extinction Rebellion protests. Following on from the High Court’s ruling on that these powers were used unlawfully, the Netpol report highlights that the police’s use of a Section 14 order was disproportionate, unreasonable and sought to criminalise the entire movement as ‘illegal’ rather than judging individual actions.
Green MEP Ellie Chowns, who was arrested in Trafalgar Square on the evening that the protest ban was announced, has described the Section 14 order as “completely draconian”, defending the right to protest as a fundamental pillar of democracy.
Despite the protestors’ commitment to non-violence, the report found that an unnecessary and unjustifiable level of force was too often used to make arrests, with around 38 per cent of all reported incidents concerning physical harm and rough handling. According to the report, Netpol received numerous complaints that protestors were pulled along the road, bundled to the ground or violently tackled and subject to physical restraint.
Commenting on the report’s findings, Sam Walton from Netpol said: “This report highlights concerns we have raised repeatedly over the last decade about a token commitment by the police to genuinely facilitating the right to protest.
“The Extinction Rebellion protests in October 2019 were undoubtedly disruptive, but they were also a non-violent attempt to discourage the public to recognise the scale of the climate emergency and force the government to act. However, the police’s zero-tolerance approach escalated into unnecessarily aggressive arrests, a disregard for protestors’ welfare and eventually to the unlawful use of police powers.”
Baroness Jones expressed outrage at the police’s approach towards disabled people, saying: “I am shocked in particular by the absolute disregard for the welfare and rights of disabled protestors, as well as those who are elderly and less physically robust.
“Based on their experiences outlined in this report, I fully support the call for an urgent review of how, in future, the police facilitate disabled people’s right to protest and how disabled protestors are treated on arrest.”