Stop categorising legitimate protest as extremism

A new report from right-wing think tank Policy Exchange calling for increased surveillance on environmental activist groups, such as Extinction Rebellion, has been condemned by campaigners who say it “intimidates and alienates” people wanting to join campaign groups.

Jenny Jones protesting surveillance of activist groups.
Jenny Jones protesting surveillance of activist groups.

Image: Jenny Jones

Alan Story

A paranoia-tinged report by a right-wing think tank about the various threats posed by Extinction Rebellion (XR) has been condemned as an attempt to label anti-climate change campaigners and other environmental activists as “domestic extremists”. 

“The conclusions in this report are a threat to anyone involved in the environment or green movement,” Kevin Blowe, coordinator of the London-based group Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) told Green World in a telephone interview. 

“It makes a direct call for expanding surveillance on ‘far left, anarchist and environmentalist extremism’ and to do so intimidates and alienates people from taking part in activities, whether related to fracking or climate change or racism or anti-nuclear weapons,” Blowe said. 

The report by the well-funded think tank Policy Exchange, which has close ties to the Conservative Party, was released on 16 July. Entitled, 'Extinction Rebellion: A review of ideology and tactics", the 76-page report – more than 25,000 words long and with 494 footnotes – on the direct action climate emergency group was written by two counter-terrorism experts. Richard Walton was Head of the Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command (SO15) between 2011 and 2016, while Tom Wilson is listed as specialising in the study of extremist groups and counter-terrorism strategy. Both have worked in the Middle East.

“Walton is not just a lower level researcher. For five years, he was at the top of the Met and he is expressing the views of the senior ranks,” Blowe added.

The Policy Exchange report wants new legislation ‘to strengthen the ability of the police to place restrictions on planned protest and deal more effectively with mass lawbreaking tactics (including incitement and conspiracy offences) such as road and bridge blocking, aggravated trespass and criminal damage’.

It argues that ‘the underlying extremism of the [Extinction Rebellion] campaign has been largely obscured from public view by what many see as the fundamental legitimacy of their stated cause.’ Blowe replied: “What an extraordinary claim.”

Shutting down legitimate protest 

The Policy Exchange report came out a day after supporters of Extinction Rebellion blocked bridges and traffic in London, Cardiff, Leeds, Bristol and Glasgow as part of the group's 'summer uprising'. 

It was released in the same week that anti-fracking campaigners were arrested on Preston New Road in Lancashire. The previous week, Cuadrilla Resources announced that it was about to resume drilling for fracked gas at this site. 

And this was also a week in which the two candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, refused to condemn the real extremism and racism that are rapidly becoming the new normal: the comments of US president Donald Trump that four women of colour who are members of the US House of Representatives should “go back” to other countries. 

The right-wing politics of the Policy Exchange report could not be clearer. It says any message that environmental catastrophe ‘can only be averted if the free market and economic growth are abandoned’ is extremism.

Netpol is running a campaign that demands the police must stop categorising campaigning and protest activities as ‘extremism’. More than 150 campaigners, lawyers, academics, journalists and politicians recently signed an open letter in The Guardian in support of its campaign.  

At the moment, XR’s climate emergency campaign is riding high. And this Policy Exchange report will not likely blow its famous pink sailboat off course. 

But the organisation is now at a bit of a crossroads. Does it slowly, but steadily, build on the undisputed success of its work in London in April when it shut down many streets and led the news – and not just in London – for some days? Or does it try to pull off something more spectacular? 

One fears the latter. At the moment, XR’s on-again/off-again plan to block Heathrow airport runways with the use of drone aircraft is unfortunately back on again. Yet, there is a massive difference between closing down Oxford Circus – or a street in Bristol as happened this week – and attempting to close down one of the world’s busiest airports. As this report hints at, holding some type of 'drone-in' at Heathrow on an afternoon in October will not go down well at all with counter-terrorism police; extremely harsh prison sentences are very possible, independent lawyers warn.

[Full disclosure: until recently, I was a very active member of the delegate circle (steering group) of XR Sheffield. But after criticising the proposed Heathrow drone plan, a few people expelled me from the XR Sheffield delegate circle, deleted Facebook comments from others also criticizing this drone tactic, and then banned me from the Facebook group.]  

Few can doubt the thoroughness of this Policy Exchange report. We learn in a footnoted entry on page 58, for example, that the group’s accounts ‘record a particularly large donation of £121,140 being made on 8 April 2019 prior to its protests aimed at shutting down much of central London.’ 

Those who sign letters to The Guardian are duly noted. In other words, there is lots here to keep Daily Mail columnists busy for hours. What is not yet proven is whether Walton and Thomas were supplied with inside information about a high-profile organisation that has existed for less than a year and first received widespread media exposure only three months ago.

Funding transparency

As for Policy Exchange, little is known about where its funding comes from. Some suspect offshore money helps it keep turning over and churning out a regular stream of expensive-to-research policy papers. There is no legal requirement that this charity reveals its financial sources.

The UK campaign for think tank transparency, WhoFundsYou, ranks Policy Exchange among the most opaque.  

Its links with the Tory party are rather more clear. When it was established in 2002, Michael Gove (now Environment Secretary), was Policy Exchange’s first chairman. Two directors of the think tank went on to work as advisors to Boris Johnson and former Tory chancellor George Osborne. 

As this is her last week in office, PM Teresa May deserves the last word.

In a 20 June 2018 talk at the Policy Exchange Summer Party, May said: “…can I give a sincere thanks to Policy Exchange for everything that you’ve been doing, because it’s 16 years now that you’ve been making the case for a modern, compassionate, reforming conservatism. We must remain the optimists: optimistic about what Britain can achieve, optimistic about the potential of new technology, confident that our values can speak to a new generation. So let’s go out there and let’s make the case. And, if we do so with all our hearts, we cannot but succeed.“

She didn’t.

The aims and current campaigns of Netpol, the Network for Police Monitoring, can be found on the organisation’s website.

Alan Story is a member of the Sheffield Green Party and a regular contributor to Green World.