This opinion piece first appeared on The Canary website on 9 September
Whether you agree with their politics or not, it’s really no surprise that with one very effective protest, campaigners from Extinction Rebellion (XR) are suddenly no longer simply mocked by conservative media commentators as ‘middle-class crusties’ but denounced, at the highest levels, as alleged ‘extremists’.
From the moment XR challenged a genuine centre of power – the billionaire-owned media empire that props up the governing Conservatives and vigorously defends corporate interests – there has been a concerted effort not only to question its core message but undermine the movement completely.
Alienating public support for protests
XR activists have been labelled ‘green fanatics terrorising a generation of children’ by the Telegraph, “zealots” by the Daily Mail and “essentially totalitarian” by the BBC’s Justin Webb on Radio 4’s Today programme. Welsh Conservatives have labelled it both “extremist and neo-fascist” and one of its Senedd members was surprisingly upfront about what all this confected outrage is seeking to achieve, saying “the Extinction Rebellion movement needs to be de-legitimised and regarded as dangerous and criminal”.
This is what categorising and labelling campaigners as ‘extremists’ has always set out to accomplish: to alienate public support for protests, to make protesters fearful of exercising their rights to freedom of assembly, and to justify more aggressive policing and more surveillance. Designating a campaign as ‘extremist’ means that all those associated with it are labelled in this way – even if they’ve never done anything unlawful.
This is the reason why last week Netpol welcomed confirmation from the National Police Coordination Centre, a national policing unit, that at last “police have moved away from using the term Domestic Extremism and are at present consulting on appropriate terminology to use in respect of all levels of protest”. We have been campaigning on this issue for over a decade.
‘Extremism’ is, after all, a very scary term, one that is often used interchangeably with violence or even terrorism. It has no legal definition and the government has continually struggled and failed to find one robust enough to stand up in court, leaving the police with complete discretion in deciding what it covers.
It has been described broadly and ambiguously as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and belief”. However, this is a label that the police have regularly attached to all kinds of political protest and campaigning, even though individuals choosing to take to the streets in opposition to government policy is a cornerstone of our democratic process and is protected by national and international law.
“Serious criminal activity”
The police have instead focused more narrowly on the “serious criminal activity motivated by a political or ideological viewpoint” of movements that use direct action tactics. There is, however, a world of difference between more serious forms of criminality, such as hate crime or a plot to murder an MP, and the kind of civil disobedience more commonly associated with protests, such as trespass or obstructing the highway outside, say, a News International print works. All protests involve some degree of disruption and remain protected by the Human Rights Act, even if arrests are made.
This ambiguity about what is considered “serious criminal activity” has been deliberate: it has allowed the police to categorise a broad range of campaigns and protest movements whose actions have, at any time, been unlawful as a potential ‘extremist’ risk.
Over the years, campaigners who have undertaken unlawful acts ‘motivated by a political or ideological viewpoint’ have included the suffragette movement (who frequently damaged property); the trade union movement (historically, the use of strikes and industrial action was often unlawful); and numerous equality campaigns. Members of the movement for lesbian and gay rights, for example, once invaded the BBC and abseiled into the House of Lords.
Justifying unnecessary and disproportionate policing
Far from being ‘extremists’, these are people who fought for – and achieved – the rights we often now take for granted.
Twelve months ago, Netpol revealed the decision of the Home Office and other government departments to finally stop using the “domestic extremists” label. Now that the police have confirmed they too will no longer use it, there are early indications that they may start to use “aggravated activism” as its replacement (“aggravated”, in its legal sense, presumably refers to activism that intentionally chooses to risk the possibility of arrest).
Whatever new form of words is selected, it cannot include anything like the highly emotive and alarmist language about ‘extremists’ bandied about over the last few days.
Primarily, this has been intended to justify unnecessary and disproportionate policing in situations where otherwise the public might see police actions as wholly unreasonable. Everyone tediously repeating these meaningless attacks should consider carefully which “fundamental British values” they are claiming to defend.