Heroes not criminals: don’t waste police resources pursuing peaceful protesters

At the London Assembly Police and Crime Committee on 4 June I challenged the Met to justify the proposed prosecution of over 1,100 peaceful protesters.

Plans by police to pursue criminal proceedings against all 1,130 people arrested during the Extinction Rebellion protests of April this year is a very worrying development, which looks both politically motivated and disproportionate.

The Police confirmed on 24 May that the Met had appointed a dedicated team of 30 officers tasked with bringing the cases of ‘every single one’ of the 1,130 arrested protesters to the Crown Prosecution Service. Significantly, they also revealed that Scotland Yard had been in discussions with the Home Office to review current Public Order legislation and called for ‘stronger punishment’ to deal with similar demonstrations in the future.

This should ring alarm bells for anyone who values our tradition of lawful peaceful protest. In this country we are rightly proud of this tradition and are known and respected for it around the world.

Any tightening of the law around peaceful protests, such as those organised by Extinction Rebellion, would represent an erosion of the hard-won rights of British citizens to express dissent through public demonstrations.

And there are threats to the work the police do on crimes that have a more immediate impact on Londoners’ lives too.

At the PCC last week, Met Deputy Commissioner Sir Stephen House announced that 520 people had been sent letters asking them to attend further police interviews. I challenged this disproportionate course of action and asked the Met to provide details of the cost and workload of these continuing proceedings.

Because it is clear that, as well as the threat to our right to protest, the latest police action is also an enormous waste of overstretched police resources.

Thanks to years of austerity, the capacity of the police in London to tackle a range of crimes has been seriously compromised. These include road crimes (the unit for which has been decimated in order to staff the Met’s Violent Crime Taskforce in recent months) and even some types of assault and burglary. These knock-on effects make the determination to pursue peaceful demonstrators seem even more vindictive.

The recent climate protests were unprecedented, not only for their scale, but also for the fact that – despite the involvement of many thousands of people – not one single act of violence or aggression was recorded. So, last week I also asked the Deputy Commissioner what sort of message he thought might be sent by making peaceful protesters potentially suffer the same consequences as those who take part in less peaceful protests.

Watch my questions to the Police here:

The truth is, of course, that all the protesters putting themselves on the line in order to demand the action necessary to avert ecological and climate breakdown are not criminals but heroes.

In my speech to the Green Party conference on 8 June I called for a climate amnesty and demanded that the police end proceedings against all those arrested for joining the Extinction Rebellion protests.

Governments often find themselves on the wrong side of history when faced with mass protest movements, whether for women’s suffrage, for civil rights in the USA, for LGBT rights, or any of the other activist movements who have found their way onto the national curriculum as officially recognised heroes, to be held up as examples to our children.

Maybe on this occasion the Government should stop trying so desperately to silence the messenger and actually listen to what the protesters, and so many others, are urgently telling us about the ecological and environmental crisis that poses an existential threat to us all.