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The wrong people are being criminalised in the climate protests

Greta Thunberg and other protesters like her are being arrested, fined and threatened with jail. These intentionally aggressive tactics aim to bully us into silence.

October 20 2023, 09.42am

The most globally recognisable face of the climate movement - Greta Thunberg - was arrested, and charged, after joining a protest in London earlier this week. Protesters gathered at a five-star hotel on Tuesday morning to denounce a meeting dubbed the “Oscars of oil”. 20 people were arrested, including the young Swedish activist. 

Her arrest - during a peaceful, non-violent demonstration - is a symptom of a worrying trend emerging in the UK, and spreading like wildfire across Europe. Faced with a catastrophic, preventable climate crisis, one democratic country after another is choosing to prosecute those among us trying to prevent it. And as if that wasn’t enough, they’re also curtailing our right to protest any other issue.  

2023 has been the year of mainstream, high-profile, disruptive climate action. The iridescent orange of Just Stop Oil has been causing havoc just about everywhere - from Wimbledon, to the National Gallery, to Harrods, to the World Snooker Championships. Climate groups have super-glued themselves to roads during rush hour, closed down motorways, and even scaled the Prime Minister’s roof to unfurl a giant banner.   

The government has responded using the tactics they are most comfortable with: mocking the protesters in the media, and then treating them like a national threat when they think no one's looking. Neither response is justified or proportionate.  

The worst of the latter tactic shaped the Public Order Act, passed in April this year, granting draconian powers to restrict everyone’s fundamental right to peaceful protest. Police and government were given dangerously vague pretexts to clamp down on even the smallest of protests - including by one person. The Act made “locking on” - the chaining or glueing oneself to an immovable object - a criminal offence. Merely possessing the required tools to do so has also been criminalised. So be careful if you turn up to a protest with a bike lock in your backpack. 

“The purpose is not only to discourage direct action, but to intimidate and bully people into silence, into compliance.”

Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak announced a weakening of the government’s key net zero policies. His government would much rather get on with the ostensibly populist business of undermining the UK’s climate targets without pesky pushback from the populace. Criminalising protesters is meant to do just that. 

Arrests and the possibility of jail time aren’t the only concern. Climate activists have also reported being hit with “crippling” bills because of legal action. They say injunctions are being used more frequently to crack down on climate demonstrations, and to silence those who take action. 

​​One Just Stop Oil protester told Open Democracy that lawyers warned those who go to trial to fight an injunction breach and lose could be made to pay up to £200,000 in legal fees, while accepting a breach could cost up to £20,000.

There has been a slow creep of the systematic criminalisation of environmental defenders. Before the Public Order Act, there was the 300-page Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act of 2022, which significantly increased the state’s power to regulate activism. Alongside this, a new statutory offence of causing a public nuisance was also created - specifically targeting protests - with offenders facing sentences of up to 10 years in jail. 

If that feels disproportionate, it’s because it is. Police and government responses are intentionally aggressive. The purpose is not only to discourage direct action, but to intimidate and bully people into silence, into compliance. 

The wrong people are being criminalised. It is not protestors who deserve hefty fines and the threat of imprisonment, but the fossil fuel companies who, encouraged and facilitated by government approval, continue to rake in obscene profit at the expense of everyone else's future. 

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