Police ban on XR was illegal

IssueDecember 2019 - January 2020
News by David Polden

Several hundred XR activists may now be able to sue the Metropolitan police for wrongful arrest. On 6 November, the high court said that an earlier police ban on protests by Extinction Rebellion (XR) was itself ‘unlawful’.

Separately, a report by Netpol, the Network for Police Monitoring, says that there were over 500 cases of police abusing their powers during the XR October ‘rebellion’ in London, including discrimination against disabled protesters, and a police officer breaking the finger of a protester.

The police ban had been issued under section 14 of the Public Order Act on 14 October, after a week of XR street actions in London. Section 14 allows the police to ban public assemblies (defined as consisting of two or more people.)

Earlier, the police had warned XR protesters to demonstrate in Trafalgar Square only or risk arrest. The ban was finally lifted on 19 October, when the police said that the demonstrations had ended.

There were 1,832 arrests during the entire 10-day ‘rebellion’, and 165 people were charged with crimes, according to the police.

The ban was challenged by a group including baroness Jenny Jones and Caroline Lucas MP of the Green Party and journalist George Monbiot.

In court, the police argued that the ban was the only way to tackle the widespread disruption, pointing to a message posted online by London activists, telling protesters to adopt tactics used by demonstrators in Hong Kong.

‘Be water, crowds split up into fast moving groups and pairs that network via phones,’ it said. ‘You gather at particular spots in large numbers, until the police response is building then you move to a new disruptive site.’

No power

Mr justice Dingemans said in his judgement: ‘Separate gatherings, separated both in time and by many miles, even if co-ordinated under the umbrella of one body, are not a public assembly within the meaning of section 14(1)’ of the Public Order Act.

The judge went on: ‘The XR autumn uprising intended to be held from October 14 to 19 was not therefore a public assembly... [T]herefore the decision to impose the condition was unlawful because there was no power to impose it’ under the Public Order Act.

According to section 14, conditions can be imposed on a public assembly by ‘the most senior police officer present’ at the assembly, or, in the case of a future assembly, conditions can be imposed by the chief of police in writing. Neither of these requirements were met in this case.

However, in their judgement, the judges did claim, rather obscurely, that ‘there are powers within the act which may be used lawfully to “control future protests which are deliberately designed to take police resources to breaking point”.’