Extinction Rebellion protester

This post was first published by New Internationalist on 15 January 2020

Extinction Rebellion is not the first protest group to find itself labelled a threat because of alleged ‘extreme or violent ideologies’ and sadly it is unlikely to be the last.

Over the past decade, Netpol (Network for Policy Monitoring) has documented unwarranted attention and intensive surveillance by UK counter-terrorism police across a wide range of social and political movements: from anti-fascists, anti-arms trade campaigners and individuals involved in international solidarity (especially for the Kurds and Palestinians), to opponents of fracking, open-cast mining, airport expansion and groups resisting immigration deportations.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this ongoing list also extends to campaigners who oppose authoritarian counter-terrorism laws and police spying on legitimate political dissent.

Extinction Rebellion campaigners are not the only ones to feel justifiably aggrieved about their inclusion in the latest guide for local authority staff in the south-east of England entitled, ‘Safeguarding young people and adults from ideological extremism’.

Counter Terrorism Policing South East (CTPSE), which wrote and published the guide, has said it made an ‘error of judgement’ in including Extinction Rebellion. But there has been no similar apology or admission of error for including legitimate opposition to animal testing and wearing fur, or ‘adopting health-conscious and environmentally sustainable lifestyles’ as indicators of potential extremism.

Furthermore, although there is now ample evidence that the fox hunting ban is routinely ignored, it is the Hunt Saboteurs Association – a direct action group to stop fox hunting – which is mentioned as a potential threat. In the CTPSE’s region it is the hunt saboteurs, rather than hunt supporters, who are categorized as domestic extremists and who have faced prosecution.

Why does this keep happening? In part, it is because there is no legal definition of what ‘domestic extremism’ means. The current criteria used by the police is so broad and ambiguous that David Anderson, a former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, has described it as ‘manifestly deficient’.

In practice, decisions about who is labelled an ‘extremist’ are left to police units who have complete discretion in the matter and who are also deeply antagonistic towards protest movements, particularly those involved in direct action and civil disobedience or challenging state and corporate power.

The impetus for including Extinction Rebellion in the recent guidance appears to have come from a report last year by the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange. It makes a number of unfounded claims, speculating that ‘it is not inconceivable that some on the fringes of the movement might at some point break with organizational discipline and engage in violence’. It also insists that believing environmental catastrophe ‘can only be averted if the free market and economic growth are abandoned’ is itself evidence of extremism.

The report was co-authored by a former senior police officer, Richard Walton, who was previously head of the Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command, and until 2016 had a key role in assessing the alleged risk posed by ‘extremist’ campaign groups. Given this knowledge, it’s hardly surprising, therefore, that police judgments about political campaigners are so highly subjective, so overtly political, but also so extremely helpful in providing a justification for intensive surveillance.

Designating a campaign as ‘extremist’ means that all those associated with it may also be labelled in this way – even if they do nothing unlawful. There is no need to have a conviction, or even face any suspicion of criminality, to find yourself categorized in this way.

Police’s list of ‘domestic extremists’ includes Baroness Jenny Jones, comedian Mark Thomas and veteran peace campaigner John Catt, none of whom have criminal records, as well as a number of journalists who appear to have been labelled ‘extremist’ simply for reporting on political protests and campaigns.

The list has also included me, for campaigning around security issues before and during the London Olympics in 2012. I have no criminal record either.

The CTPSE document that included recent environmental activism has now been withdrawn and the police have said they accept Extinction Rebellion is not extremist. However, Netpol has documented police surveillance of the anti-fracking movement for five years. Based on this experience we are very sceptical that, once the current controversy dies down, Extinction Rebellion will face no allegations of extremism in the future.

Following negative media coverage about the City of York Council and a school in north Yorkshire, which both included anti-fracking campaigns in their Prevent program counter-terrorism advice, the Home Office was forced to offer assurances in December 2016 that ‘support for anti-fracking is not an indicator of vulnerability’ to extremism.

However, leaked counter-terrorism local profiles by CTPSE identified protests in Sussex as a ‘priority theme… where increased tensions or vulnerabilities may exist’. These protests did not begin until April 2017, months after the Home Office tried to placate campaigners’ concerns.

As recently as October 2019, Netpol exposed how the safeguarding team at Surrey County Council insisted that local counter-terrorism police from CTPSE had advised them ‘that the main extremist areas of concern in Surrey were far-right and anti-fracking activities rather than religion’.

This is what we are up against. It is the reason why Netpol is calling for stronger legal protections for the right to protest to be able to challenge disproportionate or excessive policing. Netpol is also calling for a complete end to the police use of the ‘domestic extremism’ label, in line with Home Office and other government department statements that it should be abandoned.

It is abundantly clear too, that police counter-terrorism units have no business whatsoever involving themselves in protest policing.