Jail for holding a placard? Protest over the climate crisis is being brutally suppressed

15 04 2024 | 14:09Natasha Walter

Years ago, when Dr Sarah Benn recognised the scale of the climate crisis, she made sure that she was doing all the right things. She recycled, she went vegan, she stopped flying, she voted Green, she signed petitions. It was because she didn’t see real change happening, despite doing all those things, that she then went further. She glued her hand to a building. She sat down in front of an oil terminal. And she stood on a grass verge with a handwritten sign, saying, “Stop New Oil”.

Benn's story will be pretty familiar to anyone with a passing interest in the current wave of climate protest. This wave grew out of deep frustration with existing avenues for change. And it did feel, for a time, as if these protests might be a catalyst for the wider shift that so many people recognised was urgently needed. The marches and sit-downs sparked so much sympathy and curiosity, even with politicians from Michael Gove to Dawn Butler. I remember walking along a street on an Extinction Rebellion march in 2019 and people were cheering from their windows. A big part of all the early protests was outreach, with protesters talking to people on the streets, in communities and workplaces, and finding eager responses.

This hopeful sense of engagement is hard to find now. Its disappearance is often blamed on the protesters themselves. Aren’t they too disruptive? Too white? Too young? Too old? Too disconnected from politics? Too political? You can put the blame with them, and, for sure, protesters make mistakes, but you also have to recognise the impact of the backlash. Because where many of us saw great hope for change, others saw only a threat. And because they saw only a threat, they acted quickly to undermine and marginalise it.

The legal response to protest in the UK has been transformed at an astonishing pace. Actions have been newly criminalised; locking on, carrying glue to protests, walking slowly in the road. The growth in the use of private injunctions has enabled corporations to impose crippling fines for, say, blocking certain roads or sitting down at oil terminals.

Existing crimes have been escalated, so that what once might have attracted a small fine, such as sitting down in a road, can now lead quickly to prison. Defences are being stripped away; some protesters have been told by judges that they may not even mention the climate emergency in court, and are imprisoned if they do so. Long custodial sentences are becoming normalised.

While many people are happily going along with this repression, thinking that it's necessary to stop disruption, or that it only affects a few extremists, the direction of travel is fast and frightening and its repercussions are growing.

Let’s go back to Benn. Not only did she spend more than 30 days in prison for protests, including holding that placard on a grass verge near an oil terminal, the 57-year-old is now facing an unprecedented development, a hearing by the General Medical Council this week to decide whether she should be struck off, or lose her licence to practise medicine, because of her criminal convictions for climate activism.

Last week, I was at a conference at the Queen Mary University of London’s School of Law where the UN special rapporteur on environmental defenders, Michel Forst, talked of his grave concern about the situation in the UK, and how such action against doctors might amount to "penalisation, persecution and harassment".

This week also sees the start of another hearing, this time at the high court, of another woman. Trudi Warner is a 69-year-old retired social worker who silently held up a sign outside a court reminding jurors of their right to acquit.

In the eyes of hundreds of supporters, who have now mimicked her action, Warner was simply trying to uphold the right to a fair trial in response to those who are currently trying to undermine it. But in our newly repressive culture, she is facing the possibility of a severe sentence for contempt of court. And last week, new serious disruption prevention orders came into force, which threaten to escalate still further the powers of the police to track and control protesters’ movements and contacts.

Members of the government, and police and judiciary, may well feel this repression is going to plan. Fewer roads are being blocked, for sure. Sympathy for protesters across the media is waning. But the protesters aren't disappearing. This year has seen a new group called Youth Demand emerge, devising eyecatching protests, with more uncompromising demands. Protests at politicians' houses seem pointlessly confrontational to me, and may well only alienate potential supporters. But I sense that they arise from young people’s anguish about how to get politicians to wake up to injustices that to them seem so urgently obvious.

If you refuse to engage with those who are seeking change, it doesn't make the causes of their actions go away. We can still see the floods, feel the heatwaves, read the research, watch the news and recognise that our government is not moving in the direction that we need.

Other avenues need to be explored, of course. A recent groundbreaking judgment at the European court of human rights shows the potential for law to be used in a progressive as well as a repressive way.

But protest is always part of the path to change. A few years ago, those climate protests suggested an opportunity for meeting across divides and finding new ways to respond to growing threats. But now a bitter polarisation, driven by government, is making those divides yawn wide. Unless we challenge this marginalisation of those who care the most, unless we stand up against this repression of protest, they will yawn wider still.

Natasha Walter has been arrested on climate protests, and is honorary professor at the Centre for Climate Crime and Climate Justice at Queen Mary University of London