The report published today by conservative think-tank Policy Exchange, attacking campaigners from Extinction Rebellion, is a direct call for expanding surveillance on “far left, anarchist and environmentalist extremism”.
The report’s co-authors Richard Walton, who was formerly the head of the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command until 2016, and Tom Wilson of Policy Exchange also call for new legislation to “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”.
The report also makes the extraordinary claim that “the underlying extremism of the campaign has been largely obscured from public view by what many see as the fundamental legitimacy of their stated cause”.
Walton and Wilson claim Extinction Rebellion has its roots in what they characterise as “the political extremism of green anarchism, eco-socialism and radical anti-capitalist environmentalism” and speculate, based solely on the its alleged “extreme objectives”, that “it is not inconceivable that some on the fringes of the movement might at some point break with organisational discipline and engage in violence”.
The report goes on to make the extraordinary claim that “the underlying extremism of the campaign has been largely obscured from public view by what many see as the fundamental legitimacy of their stated cause”.
The neo-liberal ideological perspectives of the co-authors are made very clear: they say any message that environmental catastrophe “can only be averted if the free market and economic growth are abandoned” is extremism.
It is this alleged “far left, anarchist and environmentalist extremism” that Walton and Wilson want the Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE), set up by Theresa May’s government in 2017, to ensure is “sufficiently recognised and challenged within a wider national strategy on extremism”.
This is exactly the kind of vague and highly political judgement about what constitutes extremism that Netpol has long argued is extremely convenient to units within the National Counter Terrorism Policing Operations Centre – the latest name for the part of UK policing responsible for gathering intelligence on protest movements.
With no robust legal definition, officers have interpreted extremism to mean anyone who breaks the law, including any act of civil disobedience, which in turn is used to justify increasingly intrusive surveillance and decisions on who is targeted as a “person of interest”. This has also led directly to far more aggressive police tactics on the ground and more violent arrests.
Such subjective judgements are why David Anderson QC, a former independent reviewer of UK terrorism legislation, has called the ‘domestic extremism’ label applied by police to a wide range of campaigning groups ‘manifestly deficient’.
It appears the Policy Exchange is never keen on clear definitions that might prevent counter-terrorism policing from having a free hand. In April 2019 Walton and Wilson jointly published a condemnation of a parliamentary group’s efforts to define Islamophobia and called on the Commission for Countering Extremism to “reject efforts to define anti-Muslim hatred” and to “create instead a future Code of Practice on extremism”.
What is potentially significant about this latest report, however, is who it is aiming to influence.
In May, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner promised a “more assertive” response to future climate protests. Now, with a new prime minister in office from next week, a well-connected former senior officer with a background in counter-terrorism, writing for an influential right-wing think tank, has garnered national media coverage for calls for tougher legislation and for demands that officers are “far more proactive in enforcing laws that relate to public protest”.
There seems little doubt that the senior levels of UK policing would welcome greater freedom to crack down on direct action protests.
For Richard Walton and Tom Wilson, this is not simply about Extinction Rebellion protests but about preventing “other political activists from embarking on illegal tactics that cause mass disruption and significant economic damage”. This could potentially embrace campaigns against fracking, new gas-fired power stations, open-cast mining and airport expansion, the kind of resistance to deportations undertaken by the Stansted 15 and even strike action organised by new unions such as United Voices of the World.
Netpol’s work over the last decade suggests the senior levels of UK policing would welcome greater freedom to crack down on direct action protests. As we have seen, there is constant lobbying too, on bodies such as the Commission for Countering Extremism, for an expansion of police surveillance on movements that fit the five reasons why campaigners are more likely to face categorisation as “domestic extremists”.
It is why it is so important to reject completely any “wider national strategy on extremism” that draws in more and more campaign groups.
These efforts to undermine the legitimacy of protest movements are precisely why Netpol is campaigning for the police to end the categorising of campaigning as ‘domestic extremism’.
You can add your support our ‘Protest is Not Extremism’ campaign here